(AP) – The same Stanford team that couldn’t score to start the season now can’t be stopped.
Led by the efficient play from senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, the game-breaking ability from running back Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal’s usual strong offensive line play, No. 10 Stanford has bounced back from a rough start to the season to move into contention for the College Football Playoff heading into Saturday night’s home game with Washington.
For a change, a team that dominated with defense in recent years is doing it with a high-powered offense instead. The Cardinal (5-1, 4-0 Pac-12) are averaging 45 points and 492.8 yards per game during their current five-game winning streak for the most productive offensive stretch since Andrew Luck’s final season back in 2011.
Few saw that kind of stretch coming when the Cardinal were kept out of the end zone in a 16-6 loss at Northwestern to open the season.
”A lot of teams fold after a loss like that first game and a lot of people were against us and we remember that,” McCaffrey said. ”That’s something that we hold dear to our hearts. So it continued to push us and it will continue to push us because you can’t forget where you come from. So, it’s definitely a big part of our team.”
It all changed with a flea-flicker from Hogan to Michael Rector in the second quarter of a 31-7 victory over Central Florida in the second game of the season. After scoring no touchdowns on their first 15 full drives of the season, the Cardinal reached the end zone on 30 of their next 49 full drives starting with that play.
McCaffrey has rushed for 720 yards and five touchdowns the past four games and leads the nation with 253 all-purpose yards per game. Hogan has 12 TD passes and is averaging 11.3 yards per attempt the past five games with only two interceptions.
”Just execution,” Hogan said for the reason for the turnaround. ”We’re converting third downs, moving the chains and just big play opportunities. You see Christian have big kickoff returns to set up short drives and then just taking advantage of what’s there. We feel like we have a lot of explosive players, so just getting them the ball and letting them do their thing.”
This stretch has included four straight conference wins that have put Stanford at the top of the race in the North and in contention for a playoff berth if the Cardinal keep winning.
Stanford does not have a road game remaining against a team with a winning record, with the toughest tests likely coming in the final two weeks at home against No. 20 California and No. 11 Notre Dame. Then comes the conference championship game with a possible meeting with No. 3 Utah.
Coach David Shaw credits the turnaround to the Cardinal just staying the course and not panicking following the slow start. In an era of spread offenses and fast-paced, no-huddle attacks, Stanford keeps doing things in a more traditional way with power running, multiple tight ends and taking deep shots off of play action.
”We have won a lot of football games here playing the right way, playing smart football, playing good football, and it’s hard for the outside world to understand it,” Shaw said. ”Sometimes you don’t play well.”
That’s likely how Washington (3-3, 1-2) felt about the way its first three quarters against Oregon went last Saturday. The Huskies trailed 23-6 late in the third before Myles Gaskin’s 72-yard touchdown run, but couldn’t come all the way back in a 26-20 loss.
Washington heads into Palo Alto with a question mark under center. Quarterback Jake Browning suffered a shoulder injury late against the Ducks, leaving his status up in the air against the Cardinal.
Regardless of who is taking snaps Saturday – K.J. Carta-Samuels would likely start if Browning can’t – coach Chris Petersen is adamant Washington needs to get more from its passing game. The Huskies’ longest pass play in the past three games is 31 yards. That won’t be easy against Stanford’s defense, which has allowed less than 200 yards passing in half its games.
”It’s not any one thing. It’s just we’re seeing some teams that play a little bit better defense,” Petersen said. ”And so we would like to be more explosive there without question.”
Stanford has won six of the last seven meetings, though the last three – including Washington’s 17-13 win in 2012 – have all been decided by a touchdown or less.