PULLMAN – A 63-yard touchdown pass on a quick out. An 85-yard kickoff return. A 39-yard fourth-down scoring run.
When they needed a big play Saturday, the Stanford Cardinal made them.
That was the difference in their 39-13 Pac-10 and 2009 season-opening win over Washington State before a sparse Labor Day-weekend crowd of 22,386 at Martin Stadium.
“We didn’t make enough big plays,” WSU’s second-year coach Paul Wulff lamented. “They made more than we did. Ultimately, I think that was really the deciding factor.”
The Cardinal have professed a desire to become a physical, grind-it-out team. Give the ball to 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior running back Toby Gerhart and pound the opposition into the turf.
Gerhart got his yards – 121 on 23 carries – but for the most part they came in manageable chunks – until the 39-yard, fourth-and-2 burst with 5 minutes left that closed out the scoring and the Cougars.
But it was sophomore wideout Chris Owusu who supplied the big blows.
With Stanford leading just 8-3 early in the second quarter after Gerhart’s first score, a 1-yard run, Owusu caught a short pass from Andrew Luck, making his college debut, and turned it into a 63-yard touchdown.
Owusu made just enough of a move to cause cornerback Brandon Jones to slip. That allowed the 6-2 speedster to get to the sideline. Safety LeAndre Daniels, like Luck a redshirt freshman, took a bad angle and Owusu was gone.
“Just got juked,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said of the play. “We’ve got to make that play. That was the whole deal this game. We just gave up too many big plays.”
The biggest, however, didn’t come against the defense.
The Cougars had taken the second-half kickoff and marched 80 yards, 39 of them on a Kevin Lopina toss to Jared Karstetter on a go route reminiscent of their late Apple Cup hookup last year.
“They’ve been sitting on the outs, not really respecting anything deep,” said Karstetter, who got past receiver-turned-corner Richard Sherman for the catch. “So we took a shot downfield.”
Two plays later Lopina, who was 10 of 16 for 122 yards while splitting time with Marshall Lobbestael, found Karstetter again matched up with Sherman.
“If I see (Karstetter) out there,” Lopina said, “I’ll just put the ball on him and I know he’ll go up and get it.”
The former high school basketball star did, out-wrestling Sherman for the ball and giving Lopina his first collegiate touchdown pass. The catch cut Stanford’s lead to 22-10.
Then Owusu touched the ball again. He took the ensuing kickoff near the left sideline at the 15, cut back to the middle, burst through a gap and was gone. The 85-yard return is the third longest in Stanford history.
“It’s devastating when something like that happens,” said running back James Montgomery, who had 39 yards rushing and 26 more receiving in his Cougar debut.
The defense wasn’t crushed, however, stopping Stanford on its next possession, with safety Eric Block leveling Owusu on a third-and-24, knocking the ball loose and Owusu from the game.
WSU got on the board on its next drive with a Nico Grasu 35-yard field goal – his second of the night – pulling it within 29-13 with 3:49 left in the third.
But the offense stalled after that.
It moved in fits and starts most of the game, though on the first drive it looked dominating. The Cougars pounded Stanford on the ground, with Dwight Tardy (a team-high 58 yards on 13 carries) and Montgomery gashing the Cardinal eight times, ultimately getting to the 1-yard line.
But the drive died when the Cougars misfired on three tries inside the 5 and Grasu missed a 21-yard field goal.
“We should have scored on that first drive,” Lopina said.
Lobbestael was 8 of 13 for 78 yards in his time but the longest pass of the night came from former high school quarterback Jeffrey Solomon, who took a wide receiver reverse and connected with Karstetter for 47 yards.