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Stanford football 2015: Cardinal looks sharp in home opener over UCF

The Cardinal bounced back after a "bad day at the office" in a sloppy yet dominant victory over UCF.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Believe it or not, with the loss to Northwestern in the opener and a trip to USC on the horizon, this very well could be a must win game for Stanford. Losing to UCF would have Stanford in the unenviable position of facing a 0-3 start.

Shaw has been facing intense criticism all week for his vanilla and poorly executed offense. To his credit he switched things up opening the game with a reverse and throwing the ball more frequently (NOT just on third and long). Unfortunately dropped passes, penalties and missed opportunities plagued Stanford in the early going (the kind of stuff they will absolutely NOT get away with next week in Los Angeles). Dropped interceptions and dropped passes were readily apparent. So much so that David Shaw's borderline refusal to throw the ball last week might now make marginally more sense. Most notably Hogan went deep, with a gorgeous pass to an open receiver that was dropped leaving a certain touchdown on the field. This was in addition to Shittu leaving the game early for going for the head.

Finally, in the second quarter of the second game Stanford found the endzone with a touchdown pass to Michael Rector off of a very un-Shaw-like flea flicker. Ukropina nailed a 52-yard field goal to extend the lead 10-0 at the half.

The Cardinal started the second half building on what worked like moving the pocket with Hogan and finding more ways to get McCaffrey the ball. Stanford seemed content to give McCaffrey the ball up the middle, or on a stretch play to minimal success last week against the Wildcats. The home crowd was vocal in their displeasure whenever Shaw reverted back to the same failed play calls.

After a few more exchanged punts Hogan found McCaffrey for a play-action touchdown pass extending Stanford's lead to 17-0. Train horns roared. Love may have been the clutch player that made this drive happen, however.

The Stanford defense responded with an interception deep in UCF territory by Blake Martinez. The offense took over at the UCF 11 ran the wildcat with McCaffrey to gain a few yards as time expired in the third quarter. The Cardinal stalled inside the ten (sound familiar) to start the 4th quarter. Stanford went for it on 4th and 3, however, and failed to convert on a Hogan run to the short-side of the field. The Cardinal walked away with no points from the Martinez interception and the Knights took over at their own two. The call to go for it on 4th down made a lot of strategic sense. Running it with Hogan to the short side? Maybe not so much.

Still, the Cardinal has established that their offense is no longer just: First down - McCaffrey up the middle for 1 yard, 2nd down McCaffrey on a stretch play for 1 yard, 3rd down Hogan disastrous attempt in an obvious passing situation followed by a punt and repeat. If the receivers can cut down on the drops, and whole team can cut down on the penalties this team could once again be a serious force, but "ifs" and "buts" really aren't worth a whole lot. Still concerning was the offense's apparent struggles to get powerful inside and run the ball up the middle.

With about 9 minutes left, however, on 3rd and 20 deep inside their own territory Kevin Hogan threw a screen to Bryce Love who took it 93 yards for the touchdown. Love is a kid who has big play potential and he has displayed that here tonight (2 receptions for 135 yards and one touchdown at this point in the game). Love could be a breakout star this season. The 93 yard touchdown also put Hogan over his career high for total yards in a game. Stanford extends the lead 24-0 with 9:06 left to play and the Cardinal appears to actually be utilizing their offensive weapons.

With 6:02 left in the game, Keller Chryst made an appearance against a beaten and tired UCF defense. Chryst made a few nice throws but Barry Sanders capped the drive off with a nice touchdown run with 2:13 left in the game extending the lead to 31-0.

The UCF Knights, however were able to break the shutout with 91 seconds left in the game courtesy of a blown tackling assignment on a 36-yard touchdown pass. The Knights failed to recover the onside kick and the rest was academic.

Stanford wins 31-7 David Shaw is now 11-1 in games after a loss, and Kevin Hogan picked up a career-high 341 yards passing and Stanford, at least for now, appears to be headed in the right direction.

Moving forward:
There was significant improvement on both sides of the ball for the Cardinal, but far, far too many mistakes in a sloppy game. Too many drops, and over 130 yards in penalties prevented a good performance from being elite. Not to take anything away from Stanford but before reading too much into the final score it is important to note that UCF was playing without their starting quarterback. The opened playbook and stout defense impressed, but this team will need to continue to improve and tighten up the play if they are going to beat USC and make a run at the Pac-12 Championship.