PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Stanford seemingly removed any doubts as to its top-five worthiness shortly into the second quarter of Saturday's game against No. 23 Arizona State. Then the Cardinal really started piling on.
Already up 27-0 late in the first half, Stanford coach David Shaw used all three of his timeouts to ensure the Sun Devils would have to punt the ball back to the Cardinal with 20 seconds left before the break. As punter Matt Haack received the snap standing just in front of his own end zone, Stanford tight end Luke Kaumatule and linebacker Blake Lueders barreled into Arizona State's shield protectors, knocking one of them straight back into the path of Haack's punt.
Block. Safety. 29-0.
Fast forward about two and a half hours, however, when Shaw walked into his postgame press conference, and the first thing out of his mouth was: "I'm not going to apologize for winning a football game."
Shaw wasn't on the defensive for running up the score. On the contrary, he was preemptively fending off criticism for calling off the dogs too soon after Arizona State scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns and cut a onetime 32-point deficit to just 11 before the Cardinal finally prevailed 42-28.
"Our mantra is to play 60 minutes of Stanford football," said Shaw. "Today we played about 40."
After opening with two largely unnoticed wins against San Jose State and Army, Saturday's nationally televised prime-time tilt provided most viewers with their first glimpse of the 2013 Cardinal. Those who turned it off at halftime likely came away convinced of Stanford's national title candidacy. Those who stayed until the bitter end might be less convinced.
"We might have made a good statement in the first half," said Lueders, "but a terrible one in the second half."
The first half was a Stanford clinic. Fans knew its veteran defense would be strong, and it flat-out overwhelmed the Sun Devils' offense out of the gate. It limited Kelly to fewer than 100 passing yards on 23 first-half attempts and held Arizona State to seven total rushing yards. Linebackers Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Lueders and James Vaughters flew to the ball, defensive ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro got consistent pressure up front and cornerback Wayne Lyons glued himself to Arizona State's receivers.
"The first half it seemed like everything was clicking," said Gardner.
And yet the real revelation was Stanford's offense.
A year ago, the Cardinal opened Pac-12 play with a 21-14 upset of second-ranked USC. That win propelled the Cardinal up the rankings, but temporarily masked their very limited post-Andrew Luck offense. A subsequent 17-13 loss to Washington further revealed Stanford's deficiencies, which never fully went away, even after then-redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan took over in November and led the Cardinal to five straight wins and a Pac-12 title.
Now, Hogan is more developed as a passer with a more explosive set of receivers. In turn, Stanford boasts a more complete attack.
"The biggest thing for us is we want to be diverse," said Shaw, who is known for his myriad pro-style formations. "... I would love to see if anyone in the country plays as many guys as we are. Talking about playing five receivers and three tight ends, and seven or eight offensive linemen and three backs and three fullbacks. That's our goal, to be as deep as we can be and as diverse as we can be."
Playing off Stanford's customary power-running game (tailbacks Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson combined for 163 yards on 37 carries), Hogan (11-of-17 for 151 yards and two touchdowns) made several impressive downfield throws. Speedy junior Ty Montgomery, limited for much of last season with a knee injury, had a 17-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the first quarter and a 30-yard touchdown in the second. He also had a 50-yard kickoff return. Another favorite Hogan target is redshirt freshman Devon Cajuste, who caught a 34-yard pass on Stanford's second touchdown drive.
With ample protection, Hogan repeatedly stood tall and found his wideouts.
"He was on point," Shaw said of Hogan. "He moved safeties with his eyes. He played more like a veteran quarterback, which is great to see."
The second half did not start as smoothly, with Hogan throwing an interception shortly after the Sun Devils' first touchdown in the opening minutes of the third quarter. But at least Stanford's starting quarterback was on the field.
The Cardinal pushed their lead to 39-7 thanks in part to a second blocked punt, but after an Arizona State touchdown with 14:17 remaining, Shaw decided the game was over and sent out backup Evan Crower to hand off over and over in an attempt to run out the clock.
While he would insist afterward it was a coincidence -- that basically everyone but the quarterback was responsible for what happened next -- the Sun Devils sprang to life. After forcing a Stanford three-and-out, Kelly threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Jaelen Strong to make it 39-21. After another three-and-out, Kelly led another touchdown drive. He would finish the night 30-of-55 for 367 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Making matters worse, Stanford's All-America safety Ed Reynolds got ejected for targeting when he ducked his head and plowed into Kelly. He'll miss the first half of next week's game against Washington State. It was, in every area, a disastrous final period for the Cardinal.
"I'll take some heat for switching the quarterback," said Shaw. "The quarterback wasn't the issue, okay. We got the ball in the fourth quarter. The same looks that we had before that we blocked, we didn't block, bottom line."
As Hogan mercifully came back on the field with 6:15 left, a vocal Cardinal fan in the lower bowl of an otherwise deathly silent Stanford Stadium voiced his displeasure at watching nearly two quarters of inside handoffs. "Run a sweep! Run a pass! Run a reverse! Anything!" He'd soon get his wish. On second-and-17 at the Arizona State 40-yard line, Hogan took off on a naked bootleg and burst for 27 yards. While the outcome was never really in doubt, that big play stopped the bleeding. Jordan Willamson tacked on a field goal shortly thereafter, and Stanford picked off Kelly's Hail Mary in the end zone at the final gun.
Still, star linebacker Skov walked off the field moments later with a glum stare. Players could be heard celebrating from the locker room, but their postgame comments to reporters sounded bittersweet.
"Everyone's happy with the win," said Mauro, "but no one's satisfied with the way the game ended."
"The fourth quarter," said linebacker A.J. Tarpley, "was unacceptable."
Perhaps it was all part of Shaw's master plan. With several more games looming against currently ranked Pac-12 foes (Oct. 5 against Washington, Oct. 19 against UCLA, Nov. 7 against Oregon), the Cardinal certainly aren't lacking for confidence -- but now they have no reason to be complacent, either.
Stanford still dominated a Top 25 foe for three quarters. Here's guessing fans will see much more of that Cardinal than the fourth-quarter version going forward.