Stanford’s last-second loss in Winston-Salem was a heartbreaker…plain and simple.
The first half started off magically. Everything was clicking. The offense moved the ball into Demon Deacon territory consistently and the defense held the Wake Forest offense to two field goal tries, getting lucky on one.
Going into halftime, the Cardinal appeared to be well on their way to their first back-to-back win start in years. The fans could practically hear the bowl whispers amongst the writers in the press box.
Then the Mad Hatter made an appearance, yelled out “Change Places!” and the Cardinal happily complied.
Wake Forest came out of the locker room and owned the game.
The love that Stanford was feeling in first half quickly dissipated. They were getting called for penalties, giving up huge rushing yards and, most-importantly, couldn’t find a way to unlock the chastity belt around the goal line.
Mistakes, misreads and missed opportunities filled the second half for the Cardinal, deflating any hopes of a 2-0 start.
Stanford’s slow and painful death rightfully culminated on an 11-play, 91-yard Wake drive that would send the Cardinal home thinking “what could have been” thoughts.
This week’s home opener against San Jose State should be the pick-me-up this team needs to get back on the winning track. But until then, here are my grades for the Stanford Cardinal:
Andrew Luck instills a certain confidence in the Stanford offense that hasn’t been felt in Palo Alto for quite some time. Luck opened up the game 6-for-7 passing with 106 yards, capping off the drive by hitting Ryan Whalen in the back of the end zone for six. His only incompletion came on a dropped pass to wide open tight end Jim Dray.
A two-minute drill to end the first half displayed just what Luck can do under the gun. He led the offense on an eight-play, 44-yard drive down the field that took 1:42. He found three different receivers for first downs and used his legs to get the ball into field goal position.
The one interception that Luck threw in the first half was caused by a bad snap. The kink in the mechanics would frazzle the quarterback, who immediately threw the ball behind an out route to a darting cornerback.
Luck told Scout.com, “I rushed it. It was a foolish, immature throw by me. We were in field goal range and I should have thrown it out of bounds or run for as many yards as I could get. It was a little immature of me.”
In the second half, Luck didn’t look too rattled. He went 8-for-12 amidst the Deacons' blitz attack, but the offense was not able to move the chains as steadily.
The Cardinal would collect only four first downs after halftime.
On a couple of third-down plays, Luck made throws to receivers just short of the first down marker instead of finding better options downfield, showing that there is still room for growth.
Luck’s improved composure and higher comfort level after Week One’s performance gives fans comfort that their offense, while still a work in progress, should be in good shape.
Running Backs: B+
After an opening touchdown drive during which Toby Gerhart was practically a ghost (three carries for seven yards), he would let Wake Forest know that he could not be stopped for a whole game.
In Stanford’s second drive of the game, Gerhart would take a hand off 27 yards into field goal territory before the errant throw by Luck. He continued to bounce off tackles for most of the game, despite receiving what at times was shoddy blocking.
Even with the offense calling pass plays at a much higher clip, Gerhart would still get his carries and make the most out of them. He ended the day with 82 rushing yards, but was held off the scoreboard.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B
Ryan Whalen easily took the receiver spotlight against Wake Forest, catching the ball nine times for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
A majority of Whalen's catches were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage on crossing patterns and curls. He was also quite successful on the wide receiver screen. His ability to get open in and around the end zone along with his exceptional hands has made him a favorite target for Luck.
Whalen currently leads all Pac-10 receivers with 98.5 receiving yards per game.
Tight end Dray had two key drops. On both occasions, it appeared he was running for open space before he actually cradled the ball.
A tight end that can catch and make plays is essential to a successful West Coast offense. Once Whalen and Chris Owusu start getting the respect they deserve from opposing defenses, Luck will need to be able to trust Dray to show off his talent underneath.
Offensive Line: C+
On passing plays, the offensive line created pockets like there were five All-American linemen on the field. They allowed only one sack and Luck only got knocked around twice while getting rid of the ball. Time was often provided and Luck would frequently take advantage.
But, on running plays, a completely different line seemed to trot onto the field.
When ever Gerhart got his number called, there seemed to be minimal push by the O-line, forcing him to shed the first tackle in the backfield rather than on the second tier. Gerhart had to fight his way to get four to five yards instead fighting for a first down.
Penalties by the offensive line also proved to be worrisome.
On several runs that would have allowed Stanford to face a short first-down pick up, the line would draw the yellow flag, resulting in a much longer conversion attempt.
A great example was a play in the fourth quarter. Gerhart cut to the outside and pushed his way up the sideline for more than 30 yards, theoretically putting his team in range for a go-ahead field goal. But it was called back for holding.
It was just one of the many downs where the offensive line shot the team in the foot.
Defensive Line: C-
The push by Tom Keiser and Erik Lorig created constant pressure on Riley Skinner for the greater part of the day, but Stanford’s line wouldn’t produce a single sack and really never put their hands on the quarterback. The only official quarterback hit would come from the secondary.
On running plays, the line was getting bullied around left and right. It was rare to see a downed linemen shed a block and attack the running back before he got to the line of scrimmage.
Wake Forest would finish the day with seven rushers gaining a minimum of 10 yards.
The linebackers seemed to be playing in lose-lose situations the entire day.
With the defensive line getting manhandled, the corps had to play in, often putting a fifth man right on the line. The Deacons would still be able to spread the field, containing the linebackers up front and on the second level, opening plays for big runs.
When Skinner would drop back, blitzing linebackers often left the middle of the field open, giving up short passes that turned into huge gains. Skinner would take advantage of the underneath pass the entire day with 14 of his 18 completions coming under 10 yards.
It is rarely a good sign for your defense as a whole when three of your top four tacklers come out of the secondary.
It either means your cornerbacks are giving up too many completions, forcing them to make tackles, or your defensive front is consistently breaking down, requiring the corners to come up and make game-stopping plays.
Stanford’s secondary did an excellent job of keeping the Deacon rushing game from taking a long one to the house, only allowing them to break off gains of 19 yards or less.
They still looked a little shaky in coverage, giving up 20 or more yards on several occasions, including a blown coverage over-the-top late in the fourth which set up Skinner for an inevitable touchdown.
Special Teams: C+
Kicker Nate Whitaker nailed a career long 54-yard field goal to give Stanford the lead and, at the time, the momentum going into the locker. But a missed field goal by Whitaker in the third quarter from 44 yards erased any momentum Stanford had left.
The field goal would have put the Cardinal up by 10, but instead it would be the last time their offense held the lead. Wake Forest turned the ball around, ran 14 plays for 73 yards, and punched home the game-tying touchdown.