After all, they shared many important features with the pro
guys up 101: a potentially dominant defensive front seven, a good
running game, and a quarterback tasked with limiting mistakes to
manage games (Josh Nunes, meet Alex Smith).
But the first post-Andrew Luck, grind-and-sweat-it-out, ugly victory
was supposed to come later, not in the season opener against San Jose State. Not against a physically overmatched team that averaged
a light 267 pounds on the defensive front. No way.
Thanks to Friday's 20-17 Cardinal squeak-by, it's now painfully
obvious that Luck's importance epically transcended the stat sheet.
The scoreboard showed a 51-point difference from last year's 57-3
season-opening whipping led by number 12. Interestingly, Luck's
stats in that game (17-26, 171 yards, 2 TD) were close to Nunes'
in this one (16-26, 125 yards, 1 TD). They would have been eerily
virtually identical had Ty Montgomery not dropped a sure-touchdown bomb late.
Despite the statistical similarities, though, a repeat of the 2011
laugher suddenly stopped materializing after Friday's first
quarter. Somewhere along the post-Luck route, Stanford
football had lost grip of the physical cruelty that had suffocated
inferior competition in the past. Was Luck really so influential
beyond the story told by the simple numbers? Was he the one that had
been fueling the merciless blowout machine? Does this lackluster
performance suggest that the Cardinal have lost the rigid backbone
that made them so great the past two years?
The absences of fiery leaders Ryan Hewitt (ankle) and Shayne Skov
(suspension) contributed to Friday's wishy-washy play. Maybe the
return of these two physical warriors will restore the lethal
instinct that was sorely missing. The versatile Hewitt, for one,
would have been a weapon on third down, where the Cardinal finished
a dismal 2-for-13. Skov's missile-like speed could have snuffed out
some effective Spartan reverse action and helped in coverage over
big tight end Ryan Otten. His passionate style could have been
contagious amongst what was a mostly complacent defensive front until crunch time.
Still, Stanford's season-opening struggles were obviously the
product of more than just two missing players. This was San Jose
State - a small team with three new offensive linemen, two new
linebackers, and an offensive convert safety wearing jersey number
81 - wearing down a program coming off back-to-back BCS appearances.
The Cardinal won one quarter 14-0; the Spartans won the remaining
three 17-6. That's disturbing.
Something went missing after Stanford jumped ahead behind two
punishing, in-your-face touchdown drives. One minute, San Jose State
was (predictably) physically overwhelmed. The next, they were
controlling the football game with a stranglehold that would last
until the fourth quarter, when Ed Reynolds forced a fumble that
finally stopped the Cardinal bleeding.
Lack of Line Continuity
Offensively, Stanford did not adapt to the adjustments that San Jose
State's defense made. Stepfan Taylor rushed for only 37 of his 122
yards in the second half - so much for wearing down a smaller WAC
opponent. It's likely that the Cardinal's attempted
counter-adjustments caused miscommunication issues for an offensive
line with an unfamiliar build. Taylor hinted as much in the postgame
press conference. David Yankey's last-minute move from guard to left
tackle gave Khalil Wilkes his first career start. Kevin Danser also
saw his first starting action on the other side of the interior
line. Stanford's interior line tripped up once the Spartans began
offering varying defensive looks. The Cardinal unit, after all, was
not configured the same way that it was for most of training camp.
It almost seems that Stanford was too cute with its shuffling up
front, probably because Shaw was hesitant to have a true freshman
protecting Nunes' blindside against San Jose State's best player,
defensive end Travis Johnson (9.5 sacks in 2011).
The sooner Yankey can move back to his natural guard position, the
better. It's imperative that either Kyle Murphy or Andrus Peat (who,
surprisingly, only saw action with the kick blocking unit) lock down
left tackle. Stanford's big boys were dominant through the games
first two possessions. That was before complex reaction to San Jose
State's adjustments was necessary, when the Cardinal's physical
prowess was enough to control the action. The ensuing mess (only 3.8
yards/carry for the game) creates a sense of urgency for David Shaw
and Mike Bloomgren to settle offensive line roles. A lack of
chemistry won't cut it against Pac-12-sized competition.
Lack of Offensive Diversity
Shaw said Nunes played well. That's true, but the new guy also
wasn't exactly allowed to do much. The Cardinal rushed 41 times and
passed on 26 snaps. The playcalling only integrated one
blow-the-top-off shot, a streak dropped by Montgomery late in the
game (who, by the way, needs to be targeted far more often).
Stanford had the opportunity to go for the jugular much sooner, but
they passed on the opportunity.
Leading 14-3 in the second second quarter, a Stepfan Taylor 14-yard
run and Jamal-Rashad Patterson 12-yard reverse kick-started a
Cardinal drive that would reach the San Jose State 33 yard line. On
second and third and long, Nunes threw underneath to Kelsey Young and Stepfan Taylor for two passes that lost a total of one
yard. The drive stalled, Daniel Zychlinski punted from the heart of
Spartan territory, and Stanford lost control of the football game.
There was never a better time to spread out the big receiving bodies
and let Nunes loose than that. He was armed with an 11-point lead
deep in his opponent's territory relatively early in the game. Even
an interception would have been tantamount to a punt, which Stanford
turned to anyway. It was a no-pressure situation in which Nunes
could have bought some downfield confidence, and it was a golden
opportunity to take a 21-3 lead that would have likely paralyzed San
Jose State. The Cardinal could have avoided Friday's close mess
altogether by just being slightly more aggressive at junctures like
these. Easing a new quarterback into the mix is understandable, but
fortune favors the bold - especially in zero-risk situations.
At one point in the first quarter, it looked as if Stanford
would own 45 minutes of possession by game's end. The Cardinal had
ground their way to two consecutive touchdown drives that sandwiched
a lone Spartan three-and-out. But as soon as the Farm Boys took
their foot off the gas pedal, their defense began to see more time
on the field. It turned into a vicious cycle in the third quarter,
when San Jose State ripped off consecutive 78 and 82-yard touchdown
drives. Time of possession in the game ended up virtually equal, even
after the Cardinal had gotten off to that dominant start.
The best defense is a good offense. The Stanford front seven has the
potential to be dominant, but they'll struggle to establish the
necessary push up front while pushed back on their heels. When push
came to shove in a close contest during the fourth quarter, the
Cardinal defense used Reynolds' forced fumble (and Usua Amanam's
recovery) as a much-needed second wind. The unit clenched its fists
and forced three punts and an interception the rest of the way.
The heroes, of course, were Amanam and Reynolds. They were fittingly
both part of the tide-turning fumble and recovery late in the third
quarter. Reynolds' ball-hawking aggressiveness is also a welcome
change to a Cardinal secondary that struggled to create
interceptions outside of the graduated Michael Thomas last season.
In addition to sealing the game with a pick, the free safety narrowly
missed another one in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Amanam's first
two career sacks will give opposing coaches another blitzing threat
to worry about, as if Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy on the edge
weren't already enough.
Strong safety Jordan Richards has clearly made significant progress
from his true freshman season, but he still made a glaring
mistake. He was late on assistance to Devon Carrington on Noel Grigsby's 21-yard double-move touchdown catch
late in the third quarter. Cornerback Terrence Brown was also burned in the game, most
notably when Jabari Carr dropped a sure touchdown pass down the far sideline in the second
Aggressiveness Moving Forward
Despite its third quarter struggles, though, the Stanford defense
bailed out offensive ineptitude with its shutdown fourth quarter.
The game's first two offensive possessions should re-assure Cardinal
fans; they proved that the team still has the physical talent to
manhandle weaker competition. Continuity and consistency on the
offensive line, energy and aggressiveness with the return of Skov
and Hewitt, and a confidently aggressive approach can make this team
look a whole lot better against Duke.
The time to make moves is now, because Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee
sent a clear message Saturday: bar-fight style football won't be
enough to beat USC September 15. Stanford will have to display some
of its own flair and aggression - "character and cruelty" - by then.
About the Author: David Lombardi, a TV and
radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12
Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for
several years. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and
other writing at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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