Inconsistent Cardinal offense keeps rolling

DURHAM, N.C. -- For the second straight week, Stanford’s offense tiptoed that ever-so-fine-line between sputtering and spectacular.

At times, they looked unstoppable. Others, leaky.

“Not good enough,” said quarterback Andrew Luck. “Definitely not in the first half. Not good enough … I made a mistake here. Another guy makes a mistake there. It’s hard to get into a rhythm when every other guy is making a mistake. But they had a good defense. They dialed up some stuff and had our number for a while.”

And yet the No. 6 team in the nation endured with a victory over Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium -- if you can call a 44-14 victory and 504 total yards of offense enduring.

But heading into the locker room at halftime with a flimsy 17-7 lead, coach David Shaw recognized that there were some issues.

“We didn’t make a lot of changes,” Shaw said. “We just charged our guys to play physical and make plays down the field.”

The second half was better -- and the Cardinal looked the part of a top-10 team. A closer examination of the stats shows that the Cardinal (2-0) actually had more yards in the first half, 253 to 251 in the second half. But numbers can lie.

The big difference came in the rushing attack. After 68 yards in the first half (including a paltry three yards in the second quarter), Stanford burst open for 137 rushing yards in the second half.

“The first half was a little disappointing,” said center Sam Schwartzstein. “But that’s the way football is. I’m happy with the way we answered some adversity.”

The root of the problem was Duke running delayed blitzes. It tripped up the pass protection and led to Luck taking more hits than his offensive line was comfortable allowing -- including two sacks (one by contact, the second out of bounds).

“Way too many,” said offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. “Our communication wasn’t all the way down. Guys were coming free who shouldn’t have come free. But we’re getting there.”

Luck finished the game 20-of-28 for 290 yards and four touchdowns. For the second-straight week, he was pulled in the second half.

“Pass protection-wise, it was the stunts [that bothered us],” Shaw said. “But as the game went on, our offensive line got better and better and better.”

It looked like Duke (0-2) might grab some momentum before halftime, when Lee Butler intercepted a tipped ball and returned it 76 yards for a touchdown -- cutting Stanford’s lead to 10-7 with 2:14 remaining.

Then Jekyll went to sleep and Hyde woke up. Stanford went from lethargic to lethal, needing only 43 seconds and four plays to move 59 yards for a 10-yard Luck-to-Chris Owusu touchdown. Stanford took a 17-7 lead at the break and never looked back. Owusu finished with seven catches for 106 yards.

“It’s one of the most difficult things in sports, to regain momentum and we couldn’t do that,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe. “We didn’t make those plays to get that done.”

One area that appears to have no consistency issues is the run defense -- which was outstanding for the second week in a row. The Blue Devils were limited to just 30 rushing yards, and if not for a late touchdown with 57 seconds left in the game, the defense would have pitched a touchdown-free performance again.

“It was going to happen eventually,” joked linebacker Shayne Skov, who led the Cardinal with 11 tackles.

The front seven were relentless, notching six sacks and 14 tackles for a loss. Linebacker Chase Thomas looked like he was buying real estate in the Duke backfield, tallying 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss. After the Butler interception/touchdown, Duke shocked the Cardinal with an onside kick and recovered -- threatening to take the lead at the half. But the defense sacked Duke quarterback Sean Renfree twice in three plays, giving the ball back to the offense, which went on to score on the Owusu touchdown.

The secondary, however, continued to show holes. The Blue Devils threw for 305 yards and, had it not been for three missed field goals, the game might have been even tighter at the break.

In the second half, when the running game was cranking, the passing game opened up. For example, it allowed Stanford to run one of their three-tight-end sets. One goes to the post, one to the corner and the other up the middle. Coby Fleener was the guy who went up the middle, and the end result was a bullet from Luck, a mismatch for a shorter defender, and a 60-yard touchdown. The Cardinal went on to score touchdowns on their next four possessions.

“The shortest one (of the tight ends) is 6-5, so it’s pick your poison,” Shaw said. “When they are one-on-one, we feel like they are all open.”

Fleener had a stellar game, catching two balls -- both touchdowns -- for 63 yards. But he too saw the inconsistency on offense.

“I think everybody saw us stall a lot in the first half,” he said. “We can’t be like that if we expect to win games down the road. We need to play 60 minutes, start fast, and finish similar to the way we did tonight.”

Last week, Shaw received the game ball from his players for his first victory as Stanford’s head coach. Saturday night, in a game of two halves, it wasn’t so clear.

So who gets it this week?

“We’ll watch film before we decide,” Shaw said.

Probably a good call. Numbers lie.