STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford looked like the No. 1 team in the nation in the first half against Arizona State. It looked like the No. 5 team in the nation, which it presently is, during the third quarter. And it looked like Kentucky in the fourth quarter.
The good news for the Cardinal is the first three quarters provided enough padding that they prevailed 42-28 over the 23rd-ranked Sun Devils. And, really, how can a two-touchdown win over a ranked team ever feel like a bad thing?
"I'm not going to apologize for winning a football game," Stanford coach David Shaw harrumphed at reporters.
The problem was the appetizer and main course were so good, observers didn't expect to be served a plate of worms for dessert.
Stanford led 29-0 at halftime, outgaining Arizona State 258 yards to 103. The Cardinal were utterly dominant at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. It was 39-7 after three quarters, and they could be forgiven for coasting.
But Shaw pulled starting quarterback Kevin Hogan and a handful of starters to open the fourth quarter, and things went a bit haywire. The Sun Devils scored 21 unanswered points, putting enough worry into Shaw that he reinserted Hogan in order to calm things down.
Coaches often talk about learning hard lessons about not becoming complacent over the course of a season, particularly against supposedly overmatched opponents. Stanford seemed to learn a lesson about not becoming complacent in a single game. While Shaw went out of his way to give credit to Arizona State for fighting back despite a seemingly lost cause, he also admitted his team let up because it thought the game was in the bag.
"Absolutely. It's human nature," Shaw said. "That's the coaches' responsibility to fight human nature. Human nature says, 'We're winning by a lot, let's back off.' I'll take some heat. Fine. I'll take some heat for switching the quarterback. Quarterback wasn't the issue."
That's at least partly true. Hogan couldn't be blamed for the Sun Devils gaining 314 yards in the second half. But his absence was followed by Stanford gaining just 13 yards on the two possessions without him. When he reentered the game with 6:18 left, the Cardinal drove 40 yards in nine plays for a chip-shot field goal that burned the clock down to 31 seconds.
The Sun Devils' comeback clearly soured the victory for the Stanford coaches and players. While a few went the proverbial "a win is a win" route, something that is undeniably true, there also was plenty of grumpiness. Linebacker Shayne Skov paced the sidelines during Stanford's final drive mouthing things that didn't seem to resemble love poems. More than a few heads were shaking in frustration. Assistant coaches looked like they were sucking on lemons.
When asked about dominating the first half, some of the players couldn't analyze it without bringing up the fourth quarter.
"We made a good statement in the first half," linebacker Blake Lueders said. "We made a terrible statement in the second half."
Said defensive end Ben Gardner, "We've got to take a little more pride in playing our style of football no matter the situation." Meaning even with a seemingly insurmountable lead.
On the glass half-full side, the first half was a thing of beauty. The Cardinal clearly held back plenty of creative schematic wrinkles while unimpressively handling San Jose State and Army in the first two games. On offense, the Cardinal's power running attack was nicely balanced by Hogan attacking downfield with pinpoint throws. Hogan passed for 128 of his 151 yards before the break, including touchdown strikes of 17 and 30 yards. He also had a 34-yard connection with Devon Cajuste.
The Cardinal outrushed Arizona State 130 yards to 7 in the first half. The defense sacked Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly once, harassed him many times and intercepted him once.
Perhaps the Cardinal didn't count on Arizona State showing so much fight. The Sun Devils were horribly sloppy in all areas through three quarters, including surrendering a pair of blocks, one that yielded a safety and another that came on an attempted quick kick. But they didn't back down in the fourth quarter. Kelly threw all three of his touchdowns and 271 of his 367 yards passing after the break.
Arizona State coach Todd Graham took the blame for the poor start and the messiness, which included six penalties for 65 yards.
"I am proud of our guys," he said. "I'm proud of how they battled. I'm embarrassed the mistakes we made as a coaching staff."
In fact, you could include Arizona State in the classroom for what Shaw described as "teachable moments." The Cardinal learned you can't let up. The Sun Devils learned you can't start flat. Both teams have high aspirations this year. With the Pac-12 as deep as it has been in years, taking off a quarter or a half of football could redirect the course of the season in a negative way.
"There are no games in this league where you can take your foot off the pedal," Hogan said.
Stanford will play a vastly improved Washington State team next weekend, while the Sun Devils will play host to USC in a key South Division clash. Things don't get any easier thereafter for either team.
If Arizona State plays like it did in the fourth quarter the rest of the season, it will be a player in the South Division race. If Stanford plays like it did in the first half for the rest of the season, it could end up playing for a national title.
And if either duplicates -- or amplifies -- its dithering portions of Saturday's game, then all positive bets are off.