It had been a ground game tour de force. But when it was over—after No. 7 Stanford had shredded No. 22 Washington for a school-record 446 rushing yards in a 65--21 win—no Cardinal player was grinning more than Andrew Luck, the junior quarterback, whose 32 handoffs, along with 16-for-21 passing for 169 yards and two touchdowns, had done little to polish his Heisman résumé. "I love it," said Luck of handing off to his backs, four of whom scored last Saturday. "Our run game is a mental challenge for our quarterbacks too."
The run game is just one weapon Stanford (7--0) has used to reach its current rarefied plane. The win over the Huskies, its first ranked opponent this year, was the Cardinal's 15th straight—the longest winning streak in the nation—and its 10th consecutive by 25 or more points. The defense, the stingiest in the Pac-12, limited prolific sophomore quarterback Keith Price, who had 21 touchdown passes coming into the game, to just one.
"They wear you out, and they wear you down," said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, who compared Stanford's offensive line, which has three new starters, with the superb 2005 line at USC, where Sarkisian was an assistant. "We couldn't keep pace with them."
With the Cardinal's biggest tests still to come—Saturday at No. 20 USC and Nov. 12 against defending conference champ Oregon—it has largely remained out of the BCS title discussion. But last Saturday's losses by Oklahoma and Wisconsin put Stanford squarely in the championship picture. The Cardinal ranks sixth in the BCS standings and, with a little outside help (losses by Oklahoma State and Clemson would help), would be in line to make the title game on Jan. 9.
That is, assuming of course, that Stanford wins out. First-year coach David Shaw, who was offensive coordinator on last year's 12--1 team, thinks he has this squad pegged: It isn't yet as good as the 2010 team was at the end of the year, but it's getting close. "We're playing well, but we're not playing at our peak," he says. Last Saturday missed tackles drew much of his ire.
The Cardinal is already extraordinary in some respects, thanks in part to innovative use of personnel. A trio of towering tight ends—6'6" Coby Fleener, 6'6" Zach Ertz and 6'8" Levine Toilolo, former high school basketball players who call themselves Trees' Company—often enter the game together and have 13 of the team's 21 TD catches. "It's a very nasty, detail-oriented offense," says Stanford defensive tackle Terrence Stephens. "They'll put you in one position, and then they'll completely change their formations and attack you where your soft spot is."
The critical piece of that attack is Luck, the Heisman favorite. His passing numbers (269.7 yards a game, 71.8% completion rate) are on par with last year's. But in less measurable ways "he's better," says Shaw, who asks Luck to call a "significant" number of plays at the line. "The learning curve every week is so much shorter. Now he's got it all down by Tuesday. And he's directing it all. There's a difference between being a great actor in a play and directing the play as well." Against Washington, says Shaw, Luck chose the right option "every single play."
If Luck's teammates can execute more of those plays, Stanford's peak might be in reach.