With Stanford's season opener against Northwestern quickly approaching, it is likely many of the question marks surrounding the 21st-ranked Cardinal will be answered Saturday morning. As David Shaw recently explained, the lack of preseason games makes certain aspects of every team almost a complete unknown to even to their own coaching staffs until midway through the first contests. In recent years, opening games have revealed more good than bad for the Cardinal, as Stanford has compiled a 7-0 record with an average 27-point margin of victory. Granted, a large portion of those opening contests came in the comfortable confines of Stanford Stadium against lesser opponents, but in order to pass a little time before the opening kick in Evanston, let's take a quick trip down memory lane and look back at the Cardinal's five best opening game performances from the past few seasons.
#5. (2009) Stanford 39 Washington St. 13
The last opener on the road came at the start of the Andrew Luck era, as the redshirt freshman lived up to expectations in the Cardinal's double-digit victory. Although Luck's throwing numbers look pedestrian in the box score, (11-23, 193 passing yards, one TD) he had several "next-level" throws, including a beautiful back-shoulder strike to Ryan Whalen that had Stanford fans dreaming of a big season from their new starting quarterback.
There were several other offensive stars on the day for the Cardinal, including Toby Gerhart, who started his Heisman runner-up campaign with 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Gerhart also ran in a two-point conversion after Stanford's first touchdown of the season. As Pete Carroll could later attest that would not be the last time Jim Harbaugh tried for two in 2009.
Chris Owusu's breakaway speed also shined brightly in his first action as a sophomore. Early in the second quarter, Owusu took a quick throw from Luck in the flat, juked one defender and proceeded to run 63 yards down the sideline for an impressive score. After Washington St. scored on their first possession of the second half, Owusu responded by returning the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown, his first of a Pac-12 record three kickoff return TDs that season.
The dominating win in Pullman set the stage for Stanford's return to national prominence, and their first winning season since 2001.
#4. (2014) Stanford 45 UC Davis 0
Athough UC Davis might be the weakest opponent on this list, the Cardinal defense was a sight to behold to start the 2014 campaign. The Aggies managed a measly 115 yards of total offense, and did not manage to cross midfield until the final play of the game. The dominance on display in the first game was a harbinger of things to come in the 2014 season for an experienced defensive unit.
The Stanford offense looked just as solid in the first half, but struggled to move the ball in the third and fourth quarters. Unfortunately, the second half would prove to be more of a predictor for the 2014 Cardinal offensive execution, but there were still there were plenty of standout offensive performers against the Aggies. Freshman running back/return man Christian McCaffrey, wasted no time adjusting to college ball, compiling 122 total yards and one touchdown in his first action at his dad's alma mater. Ty Montgomery was also impressive in his final home opener, running back a punt for a score as part of his two touchdown day.
The victory was also a belated payback of sorts, as it marked the first time Stanford had faced off against UC Davis since the 2005 debacle. The 45-point margin of victory nine years later was a small cathartic victory for Stanford fans everywhere.
#3. (2011) Stanford 57 San Jose State 3
This game had a little of everything for Stanford fans. Defensive dominance. Special teams excellence. Andrew Luck back at quarterback after spurning the NFL. The David Shaw era began with a solid performance over a mediocre Spartans squad, as the Cardinal controlled all three facets of the game for their biggest margin of victory since 2008.
Stanford scored on each of their first four offensive possessions, and five minutes into the second quarter built a 20-point lead. However, both Luck and Shaw said after the game that despite the impressive start, the offense had a lot of room to improve. Although their statements might have seemed harsh after a 57-point performance, their assessment turned out to be correct, as the Cardinal would go on to average a school-record 43.2 points per game during the 2011 season.
Redshirt freshman Henry Anderson delighted the home crowd with the play of the game in the second quarter, as the burly defensive end motored 37-yards down field after a fumble recovery, before finally being tackled from behind at the one-yard line. Ben Gardner provided another defensive highlight to start the third quarter, sacking Spartan quarterback Matt Faulkner in the end zone for a safety.
Finally, redshirt freshman kicker Jordan Williamson started his Cardinal career in fine fashion, nailing seven extra-pointers and two field goals.
#2. (2010) Stanford 52 Sacramento State 17
If there were any questions whether Stanford's offense could survive the loss of Gerhart, a 38-point first half, and a then career-best performance from Luck squashed any doubts. Luck only played for the first two quarters, but made the most of his time on the field, completing 17 of 23 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns.
Luck's favorite target on the day was Doug Baldwin, who shined in the absence of the injured Owusu. Baldwin caught four passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yard strike from Luck in first quarter. With Baldwin's emergence, Stanford suddenly had three legitimate threats at the wide out position, along with Owusu and Ryan Whalen. Meanwhile, the Stanford defense faced a future NFL quarterback in McLeod Bethel-Thompson, and held their own, holding the former UCLA Bruin to 69 passing yards.
This win against Sacramento State might have received top-billing on the list if not for a season-ending injury to starting tight end Levine Toilolo on the second play of the game. Although the injury slightly dampened the excitement of the victory, Toilolo's fellow tight ends Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz would emerge as receiving stars in their own right as the season progressed.
#1. (2008) Stanford 36 Oregon St. 28
It's readily apparent from the first four games on this list that Stanford's typical opener the past few years has come against a greatly outmatched opponent. That wasn't the case in 2008, as Stanford started the season against a strong Pac-12 adversary in front of a national audience.
The Beavers were coming off a 9-4 season in 2007, and had an impressive collection of playmakers on offense, including freshman running back Jacquizz Rodgers. On the other hand, the Cardinal were in year two of the Jim Harbaugh era, and although The Greatest Upset Ever was still firmly entrenched in the minds of all Stanford fans, there were a lot of unknowns going into the 2008 season.
One of the big question marks facing the Stanford offense was the health and effectiveness of Gerhart going into his junior season. Gerhart had tantalized fans in the 2007 season opener against San Jose St., rushing for 140 yards on just 12 carries, but suffered a gruesome knee injury in the second half and was lost for the remainder of the season. Luckily, any concerns about his comeback were quickly erased, as the junior showed off his speed and tackle-breaking ability in a 152-yard, two touchdown performance.
Even with Gerhart's dominance, the game was still undecided down the stretch, as Oregon State drove the ball deep into Stanford territory down just eight points. With under a minute to go, an unlikely hero emerged from Stanford's defense, as safety Taylor Skaufel knocked the ball free from Oregon St. wide out Darrell Catchings at the goal line, forcing a touchback, and giving the Cardinal the victory.
Although the margin of victory was small compared to the other games on this list, the importance of the victory, the excitement of the finish, and the satisfaction of watching Toby Gerhart begin his ascent to college football stardom makes this late August triumph over the Beavers the best Stanford opener in recent memory.