There was a time not long ago that anybody associated with Stanford would be satisfied with a victory no matter how it came or who it came against.
Those days suddenly seem like a long time ago.
The fifth-ranked Cardinal (3-0, 1-0) should've been all smiles after beating then-No. 23 Arizona State 42-28 on Saturday night in their Pac-12 opener. Instead, most players seemed angry about giving up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make the game seem closer than it really was.
That left Stanford coach David Shaw, who never seems satisfied with any victory, to fend off questions he knew would come his way with an opening statement of his own.
"I'm not going to apologize for winning a football game," Shaw said, unprompted when speaking with reporters afterward. "I could care less about style points. I could care less about what it looks like. We played one great half and a solid third quarter and a bad fourth quarter. That's the bottom line."
Stanford sure looked every bit like it's still the team to beat in the Pac-12 this season while going ahead 29-0 at halftime and 39-7 through three quarters against Arizona State.
That nobody at Stanford seemed thrilled about easily winning the only matchup between ranked opponents on Saturday might be the best example of the lofty expectations this season. It also showed Stanford is still learning to play from a position it rarely has during its recent renaissance: with a big lead.
Arizona State's late surge put a charge into Shaw on the field and in the locker room. He put quarterback Kevin Hogan back in the game after watching a 32-poing lead dwindle to two touchdowns, and he spent the rest of the night defending his initial decision to anybody who would listen.
"That's human nature. That is the coach's responsibility to fight human nature," Shaw said. "Human nature says we're winning by a lot, let's back off. I'll take some heat, and I'm fine. I'll take some heat for switching the quarterback. The quarterback wasn't the issue, OK. We got the ball in the fourth quarter. The same looks that we had before that we blocked, we didn't block."
The Cardinal are accustomed to grinding out games behind a relentless rushing attack and dominant defense. By the time the first-half horn sounded, the Rose Bowl champions had sent a message across the Pac-12 and the nation that they're ready to live up to the highest preseason ranking in the program's history.
Stanford played with more diversity on both sides of the ball than it had in solid, but not overwhelming, victories against San Jose State and Army. The Cardinal's funky formations and disguised defenses had the Sun Devils (2-1, 0-1) dazed and dizzy, again displaying the disparity between the past four league champions — Oregon and Stanford — and everybody else.
At least for 45 minutes.
"There was definitely a feeling of a little bit of disappointment," defensive end Ben Gardner said. "We celebrate all wins, and we're glad we got this one. But we've got to take a little more pride in playing our style of football no matter what the situation."
The real carryover for the Cardinal from the late letdown came when officials ejected safety Ed Reynolds for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Taylor Kelly in the fourth quarter, a call Shaw said he agreed with from his view on the sideline. Under the new targeting rule, Reynolds could miss the first half against Washington State in Seattle next week unless the conference overturns the call.
The final statistics still looked mighty impressive: Stanford scored twice in the air and three times on the ground, had two interceptions, blocked two punts, tallied 10 tackles for loss and recorded three sacks.
In the end, Shaw said he will use the game as a "teachable moment" — something Stanford coaches used to talk about in losses so often in the past but now have the luxury of doing so after big wins.
"We took it to them in the first half, they took it back to us in the second half and that's what we're going to have in our conference," Shaw said. "If you have a team down, you better keep going because the team's going to come back."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP