Coaches often say the biggest improvement teams make is from Game 1 to Game 2.
Stanford coach David Shaw is counting on that when the Cardinal plays host to Central Florida on Saturday night in its home opener.
Saturday's 16-6 loss to Northwestern caught many Cardinal fans off guard and knocked the team out of the AP Top 25 poll.
There were bright spots. The rebuilt defense, which featured eight new starters, held up well for the most part aside from a missed assignment resulting in a 42-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorsman, who was making his first collegiate start.
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson piled up 134 yards, allowing Thorson to relax -- he wasn't sacked -- while the Wildcats ran 17 more plays than the Cardinal.
Stanford linebackers Blake Martinez and Peter Kalambayi had big games. Martinez matched his career-high with 14 tackles, while Kalambayi made a career-best 12 stops.
In addition, defensive lineman Aziz Shittu was active and contributed a career-high eight tackles, while newcomer Brennan Scarlett made five tackles.
All in all, a respectable performance by the mostly untested group. However, the defense did not force a turnover, a point of emphasis starting the season.
"There is always room for improvement," Martinez said. "We just need to look at the film and see exactly what we need to fix."
Offensively, Stanford never found its rhythm after the opening drive. The running game failed to get untracked, finishing with just 85 yards, and for the first time in eight years, the Cardinal failed to score a touchdown, crossing into the red zone three times. Stanford converted only three 15 tries on third down.
"We didn't convert third downs, killed ourselves with penalties, self-inflicted wounds," said quarterback Kevin Hogan. "Can't do it."
Senior offensive guard Joshua Garnett urged patience.
"We still have so much football ahead of us," said Garnett. "We have 11 promised games. So we have to come together and keep our heads up so we can really start moving forward."
The kicking game was strong. Conrad Ukropina made both field goal attempts from 29 and 37 yards, while punter Alex Robinson averaged 46.0 on seven attempts in his first college game. Jake Bailey kicked off three times in his debut, with two going for touchbacks.
Seven freshmen received their first collegiate playing time: Bailey, inside linebacker Mustafa Branch, wide receiver Trenton Irwin, running back Bryce Love, cornerback Quenton Meeks, safety Ben Edwards and safety Justin Reid.
Central Florida, which dropped its opener to FIU, 15-14. The Knights are coached by George O'Leary and have won 31 games in the last three years and two straight American Athletic Conference titles.
Running back Christian McCaffrey contributed 171 all-purpose yards … Former Cardinal running back Charles Young served as the honorary captain.