By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Andrew Luck found his rhythm early and used it often. Doug Baldwin stepped in for injured wide receiver Chris Owusu and did a pretty good impersonation of the prime-time playmaker.
A committee of eight backs produced Toby Gerhart-like rushing numbers and even Owen Marecic got into the act -- on both sides of the ball.
All in all, the Stanford football team had a barrel of fun at the expense of visiting Sacramento State on Saturday. The Cardinal opened its season with a 52-17 victory over the Hornets and set in motion another run toward a bowl game.
Should the Cardinal indeed make a second consecutive bowl appearance, it would be the first time that would happen since the 1995-96 seasons.
Jim Harbaugh became the first Stanford coach to win three consecutive season openers since John Ralston did it four straight between 1968 and 1971.
Ralston's run kicked off an era in which Stanford recorded 11 consecutive winning seasons and 17 straight non-losing years overall.
It's a little premature for giddiness about a repeat of those times. Still, these are days that feel good to the Stanford fan.
The Cardinal football program has sent numerous quarterbacks to the NFL, and was known as 'Quarterback U' for its ability to produce stars like Frankie Albert, John Brodie, Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Trent Edwards.
Luck is in that mold: possessor of great talent, intelligence, arm strength and determination. He threw for a career-high four touchdown passes and 316 yards, the second best performance of his young career to the 423 yards he netted against Arizona last year.
Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson each scored a touchdown for the Cardinal. They were among several running backs used by Stanford, which gained 213 yards, 82 in the first half, on the ground.
Luck completed 17 of 23 passes, including an 81-yard scoring toss to Baldwin and a 59-yard touchdown to Stepfan Taylor. Luck also threw TD passes of 15 yards to Baldwin and 5 yards to Zach Ertz.
"We were running the 'fresh legs program,'" Luck said. "Doug had the fresh legs, and ran a great post route, ran underneath the ball and finished."
Baldwin caught four passes for 111 yards.
"It's always exciting to make big plays," Baldwin said. "Chris is an amazing asset and we miss him. I just wanted to step in and hopefully the offense doesn't miss a beat. We have Andrew Luck, Owen Marecic. Those guys make me happy even without all the wide receivers."
Owusu missed the game with an apparent right foot injury. Linebacker Shayne Skov also missed the game with an undisclosed injury.
"I think we came out strong," Luck said. "We made some mistakes but we were on the screws for the most part."
Freshman tight end Levine Toilolo, who had apparently won the starting job, caught his first career reception in the first quarter and then left the game with an apparent severe right knee injury that Harbaugh called "not very good news right now and it makes me sad."
Stewart also left the game prematurely, though Harbaugh said he anticipated both Skov and Stewart returning to action next Saturday night against host UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
The Cardinal scored on their first two possessions to open a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Stanford needed seven plays to march 75 yards after taking the opening kickoff. Stewart went the final yard.
The Cardinal took over on its own 15-yard line on its next possession. After Luck ran for 4 yards, he connected with Baldwin on an 81-yard scoring toss, the longest Stanford TD pass in 10 years and the eighth-longest in school history.
"We've been working on that play all week so it felt like another routine play," Baldwin said. "As long as I beat him off the ball, I knew Andrew was throwing to me. I tried my best to get open and he did the rest."
Alex Loukas, who replaced Luck at quarterback late in the third quarter, finished as Stanford's top rusher (57 yards) thanks to a 48-yard gain on a broken play.
"I saw the hole and it was wide open," said Loukas, who missed last year with a torn ACL. "I got excited and thought I was going to fall over. It was kind of a blur. But we have a group of running backs who can get the job done."
Marecic chugged six yards on his only carry, matching his career best. He was more effective in blocking for the running backs and playing solid on defense. He even recovered a fumble.
"We've had 44 practices leading up to this," Harbaugh said. "Today was their day."