Stanford's tight ends fuel big second half

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Causality is a topic philosophers have tackled for centuries. From Aristotle to Kant to the over-simplified A+B=C, the concept of cause-and-effect has tugged on some of the brightest minds since the brain first fired off neurons.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck summed it up in 4 plays, 85 yards and 1 minute, 52 seconds.

  • Cause: Throw to the tight ends. Effect: Touchdown.

  • Cause: Throw to the tight ends more. Effect: More touchdowns.

  • Cause: Don’t throw to the tight ends. Effect: Zero touchdowns.

Take the first half of Stanford’s 44-14 win Saturday night over Washington State. Luck targeted his tight ends three times in the first 30 minutes. The result was two catches from Zach Ertz for 12 yards. Unimpressive numbers from a trio of tight ends that coach David Shaw touts as “NFL” tight ends.

Fast forward to the first drive of the second half for Stanford.

4 plays, 85 yards, 1 minute, 52 seconds. Cause and effect.

After no catches in the first half, Fleener finished with four catches for 128 yards and a touchdown.

“I can’t say enough about Coby Fleener,” said Shaw. “The guy shows up every game, makes a big play and runs past guys that are smaller than him. And at 250 pounds, to run the way he runs and make the plays and catches he makes, I don’t know if there is another guy like him in the country.”

Well, there are at least two more. And they play on the same team. Ertz finished with five catches for 52 yards -- including three third-down conversions in the second half. Fleener converted twice on third down, once for 29 yards and again on a 28-yard touchdown reception. In the second half, Luck targeted the tight ends 11 times and the trio accounted for nine catches, 204 yards and three touchdowns.

“We love to see each other succeed,” Toilolo said. “It’s always nice to have all three of us catching passes and contributing.”

The second-half success put a little polish on what was a dismal first half of football from the Cardinal (6-0, 4-0). Luck, who finished 23-of-36 for 336 yards, threw his third interception of the season on his first pass attempt of the game. Taylor, who hadn’t lost a fumble in his last 219 attempts, coughed it up on his 220th -- his first lost fumble since he lost two last season at USC. There was no rhythm -- and very little of the tight ends.

“It was just the plays that we chose,” Shaw said. “The safeties were playing tight, we took some shots back outside (in the first half) and it didn’t pan out. We came back in the second half and decided to use some different formations and use our tight ends.”

Toilolo, the tallest of the tight ends at 6-foot-8, showed his length on his second touchdown of the night -- a 26-yard pass from Luck.

“He’s always been a force,” Luck said. “We always knew how good he was. He does a good job stretching out when he gets tackled on the 5-yard line and still gets in the end zone. A lot of guys would have been down at the 2. He’s a heck of a football player, as are all the tight ends.”

Said Toilolo: “I saw the pylon there and I know my body and I felt like I was in reach. I basically fell over and landed in the end zone.”

A scary moment on Stanford’s second offensive drive of the game came when wide receiver Chris Owusu took a vicious hit. There appeared to be contact to his head from safety Casey Locker and Owusu remained on the ground for several minutes. He was able to walk off the field, but remained on the sidelines without his helmet for the remainder of the game.

Without Luck’s favorite target, he turned to receiver Griff Whalen, who turned in a second-straight week of steady football. Whalen caught seven balls for 76 yards and was fantastic blocking downfield.

From a defensive standpoint, the Cardinal were stellar. Despite the last-minute misdirection from Washington State (3-3, 1-2), which started quarterback Jeff Tuel despite announcing earlier in the week Marshall Lobbestael would get the start, the Cardinal limited the Cougars to 209 yards of total offense and 48 yards rushing. Stanford players said they had prepared for both quarterbacks.

“There is not much room for error with a ball club like that,” Tuel said. “They did a great job bringing the heat and having answers for what we were doing. They’re a good ball club.”

Taylor rebounded from the fumble to finish with 100 yards on 17 carries (5.9 yards per carry) and Jeremy Stewart tallied the lone rushing touchdown, a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal.

After giving up a touchdown with 14 seconds remaining in the game -- a 1-yard run from Lobbestael -- Ty Montgomery put an exclamation point on the victory, returning the ensuing kickoff 96 yards. It was Stanford's first kick return for a touchdown since Owusu did it against Washington in 2009.

The Stanford coaching staff has been very good this season at making halftime adjustments, and Saturday night was no exception. They recognized the game plan wasn’t clicking in the first half so they went back to their bread-and-butter: the tight ends.

“I wasn’t concerned [at halftime]. I was mad. I was upset,” Shaw said. “It’s real simple. I told them if we come back and play our style of football, we’ll win by three touchdowns. That’s it.”

Well, four and change. But who's counting?