- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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Still no sign of a defensive drop-off
Through three games, Stanford's defense is surrendering just 4.3 points per game. The second unit preserved the Cardinal's second shutout of the season with a fourth-down stop late in the game, and that put an exclamation point on the group's third straight rock-solid performance.
Remember that Army's triple-option attack gave Stanford fits last year, racking up 284 rushing yards. On Saturday, the Black Knights couldn't even scrape out three yards per play until garbage time. The Cardinal secondary held Army to nine passing yards.
After the game, Stanford coach David Shaw expressed great satisfaction with the cohesion defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has fostered following former defensive coordinator Derek Mason's departure to Vanderbilt.
"We're only three games in," Shaw said. "We're where we are on defense because we're playing together."
So far, there's no evidence that Stanford's defense has skipped a beat following the losses of Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds, Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro. Against Army, Blake Martinez -- Skov's replacement -- paved the way with 11 stops. Outside linebacker James Vaughters (two tackles for loss) was also excellent, and Aziz Shittu continued his successful emergence -- a development that's critical to the depth of Stanford's defensive line.
The Cardinal's performance against USC last Saturday was bizarre: They were extraordinarily good in the middle of the field and epically bad when they approached scoring range. Stanford scored only 10 points despite reaching the Trojans' 35-yard line on every one of their nine drives.
As a result, the Cardinal's red-zone scoring efficiency (ranked No. 125 of 127 teams nationally) came under intense scrutiny this past week. On paper, the team delivered Saturday, scoring touchdowns on all three of its opportunities inside the 20-yard line against Army. Two of those scores, though, came on jump-ball throws from Kevin Hogan to 6-foot-4, 228-pound receiver Cajuste, who's more than 25 pounds heavier than Army's cornerbacks. It remains to be seen if the Cardinal can translate this success in the red zone to games against more talented Pac-12 competition.
Intermediate passing game still succeeding
Hogan maintained success in the intermediate passing game, a critical component of a Stanford offense that doesn't feature the same power-rushing threat as in recent seasons. The quarterback spread out his 20 completions to seven receivers. Cajuste provided the fireworks with three touchdowns, but Hogan's strongest moments came when he effectively checked down to tight end Austin Hooper in the face of Army blitzes to fuel a healthy 60 percent third-down conversion rate.
Hooper, by the way, has already racked up 12 catches for 174 yards this season. That's more than Stanford's entire tight end position group hauled in all of last season: 10 catches, 69 yards.
Some sloppiness still present
Granted, this was a low-energy game. Stanford was playing a physically overmatched opponent in front of thousands of empty seats just a week after a gut-wrenching loss. Still, Shaw must be concerned with some continued Cardinal sloppiness. Montgomery lost the ball on a first-half punt return, and that marked Stanford's ninth fumble in three games this season. The Cardinal only coughed the ball up 20 times all of last season. Meanwhile, David Bright's holding penalty nullified a Kelsey Young touchdown. Stanford's offensive linemen have been flagged for holding five times, up from three holding calls throughout all of 2013.
Stanford will enter this bye week looking to patch up these recurring errors. A Sept. 27 game at Washington will mark this team's first foray on the road. That should serve as an important benchmark for the Cardinal. Six of Stanford's final nine games are on the road, so the true litmus test awaits.