Commentary

Cardinal more than just Andrew Luck

Originally Published: October 22, 2011
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- This is no way to win a Heisman Trophy. Forty-four rushes against Washington? What sort of otherworldly quarterback plays for a team that does that? If Andrew Luck is so good, then why is he passing for just 169 yards in a 65-21 victory?

There are two responses to that. First, the rumor that Stanford is a one-player team has all the validity of the urban legend that mixing Pop Rocks and Coke will make your stomach explode. This team has plenty of arrows in its quiver.

Second, Stanford's setting a new school single-game rushing record with 446 yards actually is all about Luck. Or, at least, a lot about Luck. Unlike most college QBs who are tightly controlled, he makes play calls at the line of scrimmage. He's checking into the running play that goes for 70 yards here, or 34 yards there. He's opting not to pass, not to pad his statistics. He goes to the line with options -- sometimes just a couple; sometimes five or more -- and his job is to pick the right one. And he's perfectly willing to not call his own number if that's what the defense most fears.

One punt against the No. 25 Huskies suggests he did fairly well with that Saturday.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Bob Stanton/Icon SMIStanford QB Andrew Luck did a lot of handing off Saturday night -- and it paid off nicely.

"The whole game was in Andrew's hands as far as getting to the right run play versus the right look, to the right pass play versus the right look," coach David Shaw said. "And he was 100 percent tonight. He was phenomenal."

Shaw, being a Stanford man who's concerned with the use of clichés, acknowledged that calling Luck a "coach on the field" would be hackneyed. But let's just say it's hard to imagine too many players have as much responsibility as Luck at the line of scrimmage. Then it wouldn't be much of a stretch to claim he goes two ways: player and coach.

"We sleep well at night because this guy is playing quarterback for us," Shaw said.

With that in mind, it seemed natural to ask Luck about the most important thing in college football other than winning: the beauty contest. With Wisconsin and Oklahoma falling from the ranks of the unbeaten, Stanford's tour de force performance figures to resonate with pollsters. We knew Stanford would do well in the talent portion of the contest, but the Cardinal picked a pretty good time to look good in a swimsuit, too.

"I don't think we have any involvement in a beauty contest," Luck said.

Luck is well-known for his politeness and humility. Less well known is his ability to be a party pooper. Know, however, that his teammates, who were asking about the Wisconsin-Michigan State game as they walked off the field, and also were interested in an update from the Oklahoma-Texas Tech game, are well aware of what is going on.

The Cardinal, ranked eighth in last week's first publication of the BCS standings, is about to climb at least a couple of more clicks. With a visit to 6-1 USC next weekend, and a marquee home showdown against No. 10 Oregon on Nov. 12, Stanford's legitimacy as a national title contender has plenty of growth potential.

That's what happens when you have a 15-game winning streak, longest in the nation. And when you have dispatched 10 consecutive foes by at least 25 points. How many other teams have done that in the poll era in college football (since 1936)? That would be none.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian seemed particularly smitten with the Stanford offensive line. Sure, the Cardinal lost three starters from the dominating crew of 2010, but Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro, two potential first-round NFL draft picks this spring, anchor a crew that yielded no sacks while blowing open holes Betty White could have run through.

"We'd defend a play, defend a play and the one time we got out of a gap -- BANG! -- it wasn't 12 yards; it was 50," Sarkisian said. "The last time I saw a line play like this was at USC in 2005."

That was only perhaps the best offense in the history of college football.

The Huskies actually had plenty of offense in the early going. Touchdown runs of 46 and 61 yards from Chris Polk cut the Huskies second-quarter deficit to 17-14 and made the Cardinal run defense, which entered the game ranked No. 2 in the nation, look like pinball bumpers.

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireStepfan Taylor ran for 138 yards and a touchdown in Stanford's rout of Washington.

But the Huskies wouldn't score a third TD until the fourth quarter, when Stanford had already hung 48 points on the scoreboard. Washington rolled up 321 yards in the first half but just 109 after the break. Polk rushed for 143 yards in the first half. He finished with 144.

The Huskies, who fell to 5-2 and 3-1 in Pac-12 play, were looking to make a move in the conference and national pecking order. They found out they weren't ready to use Stanford as a stepping-stone.

Stanford improved to 7-0 (5-0 Pac-12), and you can see how things might play out in its favor as the screws tighten and the ranks of the unbeatens continue to thin. Unbeaten LSU and Alabama play on Nov. 5. Oklahoma plays its rivalry game with unbeaten Oklahoma on Dec. 3. Clemson has Georgia Tech and South Carolina ahead. As an unbeaten team, Stanford would eclipse in the BCS standings unbeaten Boise State based on strength of schedule.

Of course, this is the game of team-by-team Stratego that fans and the media play, "what ifs" that don't help players block and tackle and could distract from the business of winning when there's no margin for error.

"The biggest pitfall in this profession is to, A, worry about things that you shouldn't worry about or, B, worry about things you can't control," Shaw said.

That said, when Shaw was asked about what folks might have taken away from watching Stanford roll over Washington, he said, "That we're more than just Andrew Luck. We've got a good team. We've got a physical team. And if a team can take away the pass by playing deep safeties, then we can run the ball."

Stanford is more than Andrew Luck and Luck is more than his numbers. The sum total might include a Heisman Trophy, which wouldn't surprise anyone. And it might include a berth in the national title game, which seems less and less surprising to consider as the weekends of the season pass with another impressive Stanford victory.

Ted Miller covers Pac-10 football for ESPN.com.

Ted Miller | email

College Football

ALSO SEE