When Stanford puts a full 60 minutes together, watch out.
One week after a slow start in its 34-20 defeat of Army, the Cardinal came out like gangbusters against No. 23 Arizona State in a 42-28 win.
The final could have been much more lopsided. Really, it should have been.
Arizona State's opening drive set the tone for Stanford's first three quarters of defensive dominance. Sun Devil offensive coordinator Mike Norvell had to watch as the quick and aggressive Cardinal defense snuffed out one play after another.
Stanford brought consistent pressure up the middle, both from its line and from linebacker blitz packages, but the Cardinal defense also did a fine job of setting the edge and not letting the Sun Devils exploit the perimeter.
Then, the fourth quarter happened.
Head coach David Shaw pulled off the throttle a bit after his team built a 39-7 lead, benching quarterback Kevin Hogan. The opening was all the Sun Devils needed to push through and make the game tighter than was necessary.
Arizona State's 21 unanswered points forced Hogan back into the lineup and had the typically even-keeled Shaw visibly heated on the sidelines.
Hogan's return made the difference. His 27-yard rush on Stanford's final possession effectively sealed the win, as he converted a much-needed first down and slid inbounds to keep the clock running. Hogan's savvy play was indicative of how the Cardinal's built the huge early lead—and was in complete contrast to the 11 minutes preceding the run.
Last season, Stanford won its first conference title since 1999, doing so with an imposing defense that proved to be the perfect counterweight to the high-tempo offenses now populating the league.
And the first three quarters against the Sun Devils were representative of this punishing Stanford style. Arizona State was averaging 43.5 points on the young season but was held to seven points for much of the game by a Cardinal defense that successfully executed its game plan.
However, in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal gave up a number big plays.
The first of the Sun Devils' three touchdowns was a 45-yard strike from quarterback Taylor Kelly to tight end Chris Coyle. Kelly attacked the Stanford secondary with his favorite target, Jaelen Strong, who wound up repeatedly in single coverage. He caught one touchdown from 27 yards out and set up another score with a 34-yard reception.
During Arizona State's scoring outburst, Stanford failed to apply the same pressure to Kelly that it had in the initial 45 minutes, when the Cardinal's "Party in the Backfield" repeatedly knocked Kelly to the turf.
For much of the fourth quarter, Arizona State exploited Stanford's uncharacteristic mental errors. In addition to the poor coverage and faltering intensity, Stanford incurred a major penalty that will have a lingering impact on the Cardinal's contest next week against Washington State: All-American safety Ed Reynolds was flagged under the NCAA's new targeting rule and was thereby ejected. In addition to the disqualification, Reynolds will be forced to sit out the first half against the Cougars.
A win over a Top 25 opponent and a Pac-12 foe is ultimately what matters. However, the Cardinal's defense of their conference title still goes through UCLA and Oregon—two teams with high-octane styles that will exploit defensive lapses.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.