Stanford rarely wins pretty. In the last two years, though, the Cardinal just always seem to win.
Fifth-ranked Stanford survived for its 13th straight victory in similar fashion late Saturday night, withstanding Keith Price's prolific passing performance in a 31-28 win over then-No. 15 Washington. Stanford (5-0, 3-0) showed that the same kind of might and muscle that propelled the program to a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl victory last season might be good enough to contend for another conference championship and maybe even more.
"We are a tough, mentally tough team, which of all the things you can ask for as a coach, that's what you want," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You want guys that don't blink."
Shaw should know.
In the last two years, Stanford is 7-1 in games decided by six points or fewer. The only other loss during that stretch was a 20-13 overtime defeat in a controversial finish at Notre Dame early last season at Washington while the Cardinal were still transitioning to life without Andrew Luck.
The rematch was another game Stanford did just enough to win. Washington's offense outgained Stanford's 489 to 284 yards. The Huskies had 30 first downs, while the Cardinal finished with 14. And both quarterbacks threw one interception.
The difference? Special teams.
Ty Montgomery had a school-record 290 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. He caught three passes for 56 yards, ran 30 yards on two carries and racked up 204 yards returning kicks, including going 99 yards on the opening kickoff to put the Huskies (4-1, 1-1) behind for the first time all season and keep them there every time the game got close.
"We showed that we can stand in there and we can finish a game and win in a fight if we have to," said Montgomery, who was slowed — and sometimes sidelined — by a nagging knee injury as a sophomore last season.
The victory kept the Cardinal on a collision course with No. 2 Oregon (5-0, 2-0) in what could shape up as one of college football's biggest games this season on Nov. 7 at Stanford Stadium. But the Cardinal still have to play at Utah on Saturday and at Oregon State, with a home date against No. 11 UCLA squeezed in between.
At the very least, Stanford's style has put the program on firm footing in the Pac-12 North again.
The Cardinal have toppled two of the conference's rising challenges — Arizona State and Washington, which dropped one spot to No. 16 in the latest Associated Press poll released Sunday — and look every bit like the team that can win close games again.
"This is the way it's going to be from here on out," Shaw said. "There's going to be a one-score lead in the fourth quarter, maybe a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Either we're going to be up or we're going to be down, and that is just the way it's going to be. So mentality-wise for us, we don't change anything."
Unlike last year, Stanford has eased the burden on its defense.
Stanford has scored at least 30 points in all five games this season. The Cardinal scored 30 in only four games all of last season.
Kevin Hogan, who completed just 12 of 20 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown against Washington, is 10-0 as the starter — including 6-0 against ranked opponents.
Defense carried the Cardinal most of the way, though, and likely will throughout the season.
Stanford sacked Price five times, tallied 11 tackles for losses and forced the Huskies into some big-time blunders. Washington committed 10 penalties for 89 yards.
Stanford still sweated out one final series — and a video review — just as it did so many times last season. Price threw for 350 yards and two touchdowns on an injured thumb, but officials overturned his pass to Kevin Smith on fourth down in the final minutes as Stanford escaped again.
"You find out things about yourself when you have to push through adversity," said linebacker Shayne Skov, who had 14 tackles and 1½ sacks against the Huskies. "You have to rise up to the challenge. So if it's a learning moment for us — and it's part of college football — we have to be introspective and figure out what we have to do week to week. The more difficult the games are, the better we'll become."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP