Big-play Jeremy Stewart keys Stanford win

MIAMI -- You expected lots of Andrew Luck. You expected a bruising Stanford running game.

But Jeremy Stewart? Coby Fleener?

Meet two of the unsung heroes of the Stanford offense in its 40-12 win over Virginia Tech on Monday night in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Stepfan Taylor has been the workhorse back for the Cardinal this season, but the momentum changing plays belonged to Stewart -- who has battled through ankle injuries the past several years while watching Toby Gerhart and Taylor shine in front of him.

Stewart busted through a gaping hole on the left side of the offensive line and scored on a career-long 60 yard run to give the Cardinal an early 7-0 lead. That run was much needed, as the Stanford offense looked off kilter early on.

Luck was out of rhythm, and the Virginia Tech defense was doing a good job of taking away his deep passes. Taylor also was stuffed on his first few carries, so Stanford turned to a player who had 13 carries and 38 yards going into the game. That ranked ninth on the team in rushing.

“They told me before the game I was going to get that play,” Stewart said. “So I was expecting at least one carry today.”

And was he expecting to score on that carry?

“I definitely wanted to,” he said with a smile. “I expected it a little but when you go out there and do it, it’s still nice.”

Stewart had another big run in the second quarter, going 26 yards on a drive that led to another touchdown and a 13-12 lead going into halftime. Stanford never trailed again.

He reached his career high for rushing in the first half, with 90 yards.

“It was absolutely fitting for him to make some of those huge plays,” said fullback Owen Marecic. “He has that talent. He’s just had bad luck with those bang ups here and there. I’m so happy the country got to see what he could do.”

Stewart played in four games the previous season but ended up injuring his ankle and sitting out the remainder of the year. Then in the season opener this year, his other ankle got rolled on during a kickoff return. Stewart only played in seven games and just started feeling healthy during bowl season.

He received a medical redshirt, so he will get to return for one more season. But the ups and downs have been tough for him, as they would be for any player.

He had more ups than anything on Monday night, though. His first half ended up carrying Stanford. Stewart finished with 99 yards on five carries. Not a bad night when you can average 19.8 yards per carry.

“He really got us juiced up,” Marecic said. “He just made huge plays for us and is probably the reason we’re on top here.”

It’s safe to say he jump-started the Cardinal offense. But another surprise player took care of the rest in the second half.

Much of the focus was on taking leading receiver Doug Baldwin away from Luck. Virginia Tech did that, as Baldwin had just two catches for 33 yards.

That left Fleener wide open for much of the night. The result? A career night for the tight end as well.

Fleener had career highs with six receptions for 173 yards and three touchdowns, torching the Virginia Tech secondary for touchdown catches of 41, 58 and 38 yards. The yardage total was also an Orange bowl record, breaking the mark of 170 set by Florida’s Taylor Jacobs in 2002.

He even had a nifty high hurdle of a defender during one of his other receptions.

“We practiced all week and you see certain plays that have the potential to be explosive plays,” Fleener said. “It just so happened Andrew hit me with a few long balls and it added up in the end. But Andrew makes my job very easy. I get open and he can put the ball anywhere.”

As for the hurdle: “Coach asked me, ‘The next time somebody’s going to tackle you, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Hurdle.’ When it came to it, I hurdled him. It worked.”

Plenty worked for the Stanford offense in the second half. Luck only threw one incomplete pass, and the Cardinal shut out the Hokies 27-0. Taylor ended up finding his groove, too, finishing with 114 yards and a big 56-yard run of his own.

Stanford closes the season having scored 30 or more points in every game this season but one. The 40 points were also the most scored in an Orange Bowl game since USC scored 55 in a win over Oklahoma in 2005. It also was a school bowl record, and Stanford’s first bowl win since 1996.

The big night may not have been possible without the big plays Stewart had to start.

“I joked with a lot of the guys coming up to this game that I knew I was going to get some carries, and I was going to make the best out of it,” Stewart said. “I just let my play speak for itself.”