Stanford ground game steals the show

Much of Stanford Stadium had emptied, along with the Cardinal bench, by the time Anthony Wilkerson broke through a hole on the right side of the offensive line. Well before Wilkerson finished rumbling 38 yards for a touchdown, with 1:25 left in the game, Andrew Luck had jumped in the air along the sideline.

When he landed, a joyous Luck shouted, embraced and patted the shoulder pads of the five players he was celebrating with: tackle Jonathan Martin, guard David Yankey, center Sam Schwartzstein, guard David DeCastro and tackle Cameron Fleming.

On a night in which Oklahoma and Wisconsin — a pair of national championship hopefuls — went down, Stanford, eighth in the BCS standings, surely opened as many eyes in its first prime time broadcast of the season as it did holes in the Washington defense with a 65-21 thrashing of the Huskies, ranked No. 25 in the BCS.

If there is a team with an offensive line that might hold up to the mauling defenses of LSU or Alabama, the Cardinal looked the part Saturday night, rushing for 446 yards, breaking a 30-year-old school record on Wilkerson’s run.

For viewers tuning in or NFL scouts turning out to see Luck — Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli was among those in attendance — they did not see the Heisman Trophy frontrunner and consensus No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. They saw an ornament.

Luck completed 16 of 21 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns, but his most valuable and frequent contribution involved getting the Cardinal in the right play and handing the ball off.

He did both of those exquisitely.

"I have to give myself a little credit sometimes," Luck said with a laugh.

The Cardinal (7-0) have transformed themselves from laughingstock to national title contenders in five years — with David Shaw, a former Cardinal receiver and assistant, replacing Jim Harbaugh, who left for the San Francisco 49ers after last season, as coach. At its core, the makeover has centered on physically punishing opponents. This team has a pair of first-round picks on the line in Martin, the left tackle, and DeCastro, the right guard — as well as perhaps three future NFL tight ends: Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.

Every day in practice, the Cardinal linemen and tight ends work on combination blocking, where there is an initial double-team and then one of the blockers peels off to seal a linebacker or safety.

"It was a solid unit when I got here," said Martin, a fourth-year junior. "We were getting more physical and power was becoming our identity, but it wasn’t like it is now. This is where our offense starts."

The Cardinal have won 15 consecutive games dating back to last season, the longest streak in the country, with the last 10 by at least 25 points.

It was not quite expected to be like that against the Huskies. But midway through the first quarter, Shaw noticed that the Huskies were playing both their safeties back, wary of being picked apart by Luck.

"We were getting good movement up front, so we said if they don’t change, we’re going to keep running the same four or five plays," Shaw said. "We talk about point of attack with our tight ends. We’re going to have a double-team someplace, so wherever that is we want to move them, and tonight we were getting really good movement."

It wasn’t just at the point of attack. Often enough, the Huskies had four, five and six defenders who were blocked in textbook fashion. Schwartzstein, the center, had several occasions in which he manhandled Huskies defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu, a potential first-round pick, without any help. Ta’amu did not have a solo tackle or an assist, and the Huskies starting front four managed only three solo tackles.

When Stepfan Taylor raced 70 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, one play after the Huskies closed within 17-14, he wasn’t touched.

"They wear you out and wear you down," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "We defend the play, we defend the play, and the one time we get out of a gap — bang! And it wasn’t a gain of 12, it was 50. They executed like a good team that knows their stuff."

Sarkisian, asked the last time he’d seen a line that dominant, did not hesitate.

"2005, USC," said Sarkisian, an assistant on that Trojans team that lost to Texas in the national championship game. "I watched it every game."

Perhaps the Trojans will stand up a little better to Stanford next week. If not, the Cardinal’s sternest test figures to be Nov. 12, when Stanford plays host to Oregon.

If Stanford stumbles anywhere, it will surely be because of its defense, which for a half looked suspect. The Cardinal clearly miss linebacker Shayne Skov, out of the year with a knee injury. And on Saturday it took a while to adjust to the absence of safety Delano Howell — a sure tackler — against the run. Twice, Washington tailback Chris Polk ripped off long touchdown runs, 46 and 61 yards. Had it not been for one bad kick — a 46-yard field-goal attempt that bounced off the upright — and one bad pass by quarterback Keith Price, which Michael Thomas returned 62 yards for a touchdown just before halftime, the Huskies might have proved more threatening.

As it was, the Cardinal defense rectified matters after halftime. It stopped the Huskies on three consecutive possessions — all without a first down — and by then Stanford was ahead by 34 points and without any worries.

Just hand the ball off, and watch the running backs go.

"It was a fun thing to be a part of," Luck said. "Every game we want to run the ball. Ever since I’ve been at Stanford, that’s what we try to hang our hat on and try to accomplish. It was working early, so don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, right?"

You don’t have to be a Stanford student to know that one.