Stanford, CA – Stanford just barely escaped against what was supposed to be an inferior squad last week and will now look to prove that it belongs in the national rankings, and the Pac-12 title race, when the 25th- ranked Cardinal host the Duke Blue Devils at Stanford Stadium on Saturday.
It wasn't exactly an encouraging start to the post-Andrew Luck era at Stanford as the Cardinal barely edged out San Jose State, 20-17 in front of the Cardinal faithful.
"There are going to be some bumps and bruises," head coach David Shaw said. "In four or five games, we should be the team we need to be. There are some guys who need to grow up quick."
Still a win is a win and Stanford has now won five straight season openers and both in Shaw's time at the helm. Stanford has been especially tough to beat at home since 2007, with a 24-3 mark at Stanford Stadium during that time.
Obviously after such a tight contest, Stanford will want to pull away in game number two. That is especially true seeing as close games have not been the Cardinal's forte. The squad has a mediocre 10-9 record in its last 19 games decided by a touchdown or less.
Duke also comes into this game with a 1-0 record. The Blue Devils had an easier time in their opener, downing FIU, 46-26, behind a big second quarter eruption. After the first 15 minutes the two squads were tied 7-7, but Duke posted 30 points in the second period and then coasted to the win. It was the highest-scoring season-opener for the Blue Devils since they scored 49 points against Maryland to begin the 1994 season.
With such a long travel distance between these schools it isn't that shocking that they have only matched up on the gridiron three times previously. Stanford has the edge in the series 2-1, including a 44-14 romp last season while ranked No. 6 in the country. Duke won the first contest 9-3 at Stanford Stadium in 1971.
Duke recorded 420 total yards in its win over FIU and with the 46 points scored, posted a 40-point effort for only the second time in the last two seasons. In his four years as head coach, David Cutcliffe has led the Blue Devils in 17 games where they have scored at least 30 points.
The passing game was the main catalyst for the team's offensive production. Quarterback Sean Renfree threw for 290 yards and a pair of scores, while completing 21-of-30 attempts but the real story was on the outside. Senior wideout Conner Vernon caught 10 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown and Jamison Crowder also had a 100-yard game (106) with a score of his own. The 282 combined yards for the two marked the 16th time in program history two receivers have each posted 100-yard games in the same contest.
Duke's defense got lit up for 513 total yards. That was even worse than the Blue Devils' average last season (425.4 ypg,) when the team ranked 92nd in the nation. Part of the defensive woes can be accredited to eight different players, including three true freshmen seeing game action for the first time.
Walt Canty and Austin Gamble tied for the team lead with 11 tackles and Kenny Anunike made his return after missing the last eight games of last season. Anunike is a dangerous defensive end, something Stanford is well aware of considering he had two sacks against the Cardinal last season.
All eyes were on Josh Nunes when Stanford was on offense in the season-opener. The junior struggled as he took over under center for Luck, the two-time Heisman runner up. Nunes threw for just 125 yards and a touchdown, while completing 16-of-26 passes.
With Nunes still adjusting to the starting role, the Cardinal got a big contribution from star running back Stepfan Taylor, who will step into the spotlight after spending last season in Luck's shadow. Taylor ran the ball 26 times for 122 yards and also scored a touchdown and was clearly the offense's best asset in the game. He has now rushed for 100 yards in 14 games during his career and is third on Stanford's career rushing touchdowns list.
Even with Taylor's big game the Cardinal were still outgained 288-280 by the Spartans and went just 2-for-13 on third down attempts. With such a weak performance, Taylor was dismissive of his individual game and was more focused on improving as a unit.
"We didn't hit them in the mouth," Taylor said. "San Jose came out with a plan, and they executed it. We'll watch the film. We can play better."
Playing better may be difficult for the Cardinal defense, which held SJSU below 300 total yards and to just 17 points in the contest. Stanford was especially strong against the run, allowing only 72 total yards and 2.7 yards- per-carry. The Cardinal also forced a pair of turnovers and sacked SJSU quarterback David Fales three times.
Usua Amanam was an enforcer in the backfield for the Cardinal, collecting four TFLs and a pair of sacks, while also recovering a fumble. Talented linebacker Chase Thomas, who had 8.5 sacks last season, managed an assist on a quarterback takedown and finished with five total tackles, including two TFLs.