There will be plenty to work on the next two weeks for the Stanford football team.
The Cardinal won their opener Friday, 26-13 over Kansas State, but not before withstanding a big-time second-half scare.
Even with Heisman Trophy hopeful Christian McCaffrey being held in relative check by intense defensive attention, Stanford dominated all statistical categories. Quarterbacks Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst were a combined 10 of 10.
But the second half was an entirely different story. This time it was Kansas State dominating the line of scrimmage and time of possession.
Stanford ran only six plays in the third quarter.
Fortunately for the Cardinal, K-State managed only three points off all that domination. It was 17-6 when Jordan Watkins broke through to sack QB Jesse Ertz in the end zone for a safety with 4:11 left to make the score 19-6.
The Cardinal breathed a sigh of relief. And the Wildcats took advantage by recovering an onside free kick following the safety and drove for their first touchdown of the game.
That made it 19-13 with 2:20 left. Another onside kick recovery and the visitors would have been in position to pull off a miracle comeback.
But the kick didn’t go 10 yards. Stanford took over and McCaffrey, held in check throughout the second half, broke a 41-yard touchdown run on the first play.
McCaffrey finished with 126 yards rushing on 22 carries and 76 of his yards coming on his two touchdown runs. He also caught seven passes for 40 yards.
"We had a lot of mental errors, a lot of things to clean up," McCaffrey said. "We’re going to be all right. We’re still jelling. A win’s a win and we’re happy to have it. We’ll get back to work and fix the mistakes."
After a bye next week Stanford jumps right into the meat of the Pac-12 schedule against three consecutive ranked opponents. A home game with USC will be followed by road contests at UCLA and Washington.
Burns completed 14 of 18 passes for 156 yards. Chryst, the former Palo Alto High star, only played one series and completed the only pass he attempted.
But Kansas State ended up outgaining Stanford 335-272. Remarkable after a first quarter in which the Cardinal ran 17 plays to six for the Wildcats, outgained them 85-20 and had the ball for 11:49 compared to 3:11.
Other than the game-clinching touchdown run by McCaffrey, Stanford did virtually nothing on offense the entire second half.
"We got bailed out by our defense," McCaffrey said.
Sanford came out and went to McCaffrey on the first four plays of the game on three runs and one pass. He took hits from all directions.
Kansas State had him clearly in its sights. But at the end of that season-opening possession Stanford had a 3-0 lead on a 50-yard field goal by Conrad Ukropina.
It took a while for McCaffrey to get loose. Like the next time touched the ball.
Stanford’s defense forced a punt on K-State’s opening possession and McCaffrey fielded it inside the Stanford 5. And then he was hit immediately. But he didn’t go down, spinning off the hit like he did countless times a year ago when he shattered the NCAA record for all-purpose yards.
He ran the punt back for an apparent 96-yard touchdown, but a flag was thrown on Curtis Robinson for an illegal block, and the Cardinal was forced to take over on its own 2.
Not a problem, as it turned out. McCaffrey, again taking hits from all angles, gained 6 yards on four carries, but Stanford went 98 yards on 10 plays with Burns hitting Michael Rector with a 40-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter.
And therein is the flip side of McCaffrey’s value to the team. Kansas State sold out to put the reins on him. In so doing Burns, making his first start, went 4 of 4 on the drive for 89 yards.
As the K-State defense was forced to acknowledge other actors in Stanford’s offense and McCaffrey broke loose for a 35-yard touchdown run with 7:47 left in the second quarter to give the Cardinal a 17-0 lead.
But then Kansas State figured out how to attack Stanford’s young offensive line and the game’s momentum did a big flip-flop.
A number of players made big plays for the Stanford defense. In addition to the safety Watkins, a 6-foot-5, 274-pound senior, had a big stop earlier in the game.
Solomon Thomas, a 6-3, 273 junior, had another big play in the second quarter, stopping Ertz for no gain on fourth and two.
Peter Kalambayi threw Ertz for a 3-yard loss on another fourth down play.
Defensive backs Alameen Murphy and Quenton Meeks made nice plays to break up passes.
So there was plenty of credit to go around.