TUCSON, Ariz. -- Weird game. Weird team.
With an armory on offense and blockade-inducing defense, the Stanford Cardinal once again waited for the final 30 minutes to play their best football.
It’s becoming an unsettling trend for coach David Shaw and his cast of players. For three straight weeks, the theme has been this:
“I like what we did in the second half,” said Shaw.
That’s all well and good because it was a win -- on the road -- against a much tougher opponent than the previous two weeks. The Cardinal blanked Arizona 21-0 in the second half en route to a 37-10 win in the Pac-12 opener for both schools.
But what about those first 30 minutes, when the offense looked disheveled, the defense seemed splotchy and any sense of rhythm was non-existent?
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said quarterback Andrew Luck. “I don’t think we want to do that. It’s definitely something we’re going to try to improve on. I can’t explain it.”
Luck’s stats were fairly typical, 20-of-31 for 325 yards and two touchdowns. But his overall performance was very atypical. He made bad throws -- and that’s something we don’t say often about Luck. Twice he was almost intercepted in the red zone, where he’s usually at his most cautious and surgical. Another time he threw a flat ball on a fade out of the end zone -- a pass we’ve seen him make dozens of times.
“We have a lot of things to improve on, obviously,” Luck said.
Just like last week, the stats don’t tell the whole story. The No. 6 Cardinal (3-0, 1-0) totaled a season-high 567 yards of offense, grabbing 8.1 yards per play. And just like last week, they had more yards in the first half than in the second. But they were yards that resulted in three field goals, one touchdown and a punt. In the second half, the result was three touchdowns to one punt.
“We just need to establish a rhythm,” Shaw said. “We’re better once we establish a run rhythm. It started to happen kinda early. We had a couple of nice drives in the first half. But in the second half we came out in rhythm. We need to start the first half like we start the second half.”
Two Cardinal who didn’t look out of rhythm were running back Stepfan Taylor and tight end Levine Toilolo, who both put up career numbers. Taylor carried the ball 22 times for 153 yards -- including a long run of 49 yards and an average of 7 yards per carry.
“He’s special,” Shaw said of Taylor. “... He was outstanding, patient, quick and he’s got a low center of gravity. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’ll drag some tacklers.”
Toilolo led all players with 102 yards on four catches and his first career touchdown.
“We knew that the defense was going to over-run some things and then we’d go for the big plays,” Taylor said. “I sensed that in the second half. Everything started clicking in the second half.”
Which brings us back to the original question. What’s going on in the first half?
“I wish I knew the answer,” he said. “I wish we could start faster. We’ll watch film and see what we need to fix.”
For Toilolo, who worked his way back from a knee injury last year, it was a coming out party. With tight end Coby Fleener sitting most of the game after exhibiting concussion symptoms, Toilolo and tight end Zach Ertz carried the flag for the tight ends.
“Me and Zach did whatever the coaches asked of us and we executed,” Toilolo said. “This is stuff we work on all week in practice and when the coaches called my number, I was happy to be able to contribute. I think the rest of the offense played well, which opened up some of those passes.”
Defensively, the Cardinal stiffened in the second half as well. After the starting 11 allowed its first touchdown of the season in the second quarter -- a 6-yard pass from Nick Foles to Juron Criner -- the defense settled in during the second half and blanked the Wildcats. Foles completed 24 of 33 passes for 239 yards and the lone score. But he was pestered by Stanford’s front seven and sacked five times.
“We left a lot of plays out there in the first half,” said safety Michael Thomas. “We always talk about starting fast and it’s something we haven’t done yet. We do pride ourselves on finding a way to finish and finish faster. That’s what we do in the second half. We keep making plays.”
Even though those plays have resulted in three wins this season, Shaw said his team has to find ways to play the first 30 minutes better.
“We challenged our guys at halftime to take the fight to them,” Shaw said. “To be physical. To see if we could wear them down. That’s the philosophy we believe in. Our second half has got to be better than our first and that’s what we did tonight.
“But we have to start faster.”
That’s starting to sound all-too familiar.