One problem: in college football, every game counts. (Unless you play
in the SEC. It will be interesting to see exactly how Arkansas gets
its reprieve after losing to Louisiana-Monroe.) Thus, the Cardinal's
season-opening San Jose State squeak-by stirred up far greater
nauseating unease than any exhibition possibly could. Saturday's
50-13 pasting of Duke certainly restored order and supplied a sigh
of relief. We now are reassured that Stanford still has the ability
to maul a physically overmatched opponent.
Now, we'll find out if David Shaw's club is still able to pick on
someone its own size. USC looms, and the Cardinal may well be
wishing that they had at least one extra "build-up" game to iron out
some lingering, alarming deficiencies that were on display against
the Blue Devils.
But the "preseason" is over. Stanford Stadium will be full next
week, likely pulsating with the help of over 20,000 Trojan faithful
before students even fully return to the Farm. A national audience
will be treated to a heavyweight match-up: Matt Barkley and his
Marqise Lee-led stockpile of weapons on one side of the ball; Shayne Skov and his fearsome front seven on the other [Ed: and Gus Johnson in the booth!].
Skov spearheads front seven
Skov's return hightlighted Stanford's week two win. He's trimmed
down from his "chubby" 251-pound pre-injury self, checking in at a
more muscle-laden 242 pounds. The quickness and energy were there
for No. 11, and both rubbed off on his teammates. A week
prior, the Cardinal struggled getting pressure against a relatively
inexperienced San Jose State offensive line. This time around, they
brought the heat against a veteran Duke front, sacking Sean Renfree
twice and dirtying his jersey countless other times.
Chase Thomas finally drew a long-overdue holding flag, country strong Trent Murphy notched his first sack, and Alex Debniak
continued to provide superb immediate depth with his pressure from
the outside. Jarek Lancaster, who led the way with 10 tackles, stole
some of James Vaughters' (only one stop) thunder, but Renfree won't
soon forget being pile-driven into the ground by the sophomore
"freight train" on a third-quarter blitz package.
Most notably, the Cardinal scared the Blue Devils out of running the
football. Duke coach David Cutcliffe got the curious idea that his
team would be fast enough to hurt the Cardinal laterally with bubble
screens to the edges. I suppose this was the gameplan's initial
substitute to rushing the football, but neither worked. Cutcliffe
was right about his team not being to run; they finished with
1.2 yards per carry against a stout defensive front that showcased a
deeper rotation than a week prior. (David Parry and Josh Mauro both
notched their first significant action of 2012.)
Cutcliffe, though, was wrong on his bubble screen strategy. Thomas
and Murphy were superb in their coverage of the edges, often
arriving to tackle Blue Devils receivers Jamison Crowder and Desmond Scott on the sidelines before a Stanford cornerback arrived.
Perhaps Duke was inspired by film of last season's Oregon
Slip-N-Slide debacle to think the Cardinal secondary would miss
tackles in space if they could divert linebackers away from the
screen passes. That idea didn't work, either: Terrence Brown and
Barry Browning were both phenomenal making one-on-one stops in the
open field. I counted only a couple of missed tackles on the edge
all game long as Brown notched nine stops.
The absence of any semblance of a short yardage game, whether it be
via hand-offs or quick screens, meant that Duke was unable to set up
a chance to get their offensive star Conner Vernon involved
downfield. The senior, who entered the game only 25 catches away
from the ACC record, was held to six grabs for 49 yards - or only 30
percent of his production in the Blue Devils' season opener. Renfree
just didn't have the time to wait for Vernon to find soft spots in
the secondary downfield, and that equated to disaster in the form of
Ed Reynolds when he tried.
Reynolds jumped in front of two Duke passes and fellow safety Jordan Richards picked off another, giving Stanford four interceptions
through two games. That's impressive, considering that the
Cardinal recorded only seven all of last year. Three of
those picks graduated with leader Michael Thomas, but Reynolds has
already matched that number in 2012.
All told, the Stanford secondary played
on its toes, and not on its heels. It's finally displaying the
ball-hawking mentality that will be necessary to succeed post-Andrew Luck. The formula to beat USC almost certainly includes turnover
help, and Reynolds has shown that he can victimize Barkley - if the
Stanford front seven can pressure the Trojans' main man.
Speaking of quarterback play, Stanford's was far from consistent
against Duke. Josh Nunes (16-30-275-3 TD-1 INT) made some beautiful
decisions and passes, but those came alongside a number of lousy
ones. Many of Nunes' fantastic plays downfield came against man
coverage in which Levine Toilolo and Ty Montgomery were simply too
physically imposing (we're talking 8-9 inch height advantages) to be
covered by smaller Blue Devils. There was also the ugly, telegraphed
Ross Cockrell interception, thrown behind Zach Ertz into double
coverage. The Trojans' top flight defensive backs, particularly
cornerback Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald, will erase much,
if not all, of Stanford's physical advantage downfield. Nunes will
have to be much better next Saturday.
It's also too bad that Brett Nottingham didn't see more significant
time so that he could stay sharp in actual game conditions. Even
though this one was a blowout early, the Cardinal back-up only threw
three times in the fourth quarter.
Still, the aggressiveness Stanford displayed was refreshing after
the uninventive offensive exhibition against San Jose State. Despite the game's 37-point gap, the Cardinal passed seven more
times than they ran (33-26). It can be argued that much of this was
necessitated by Duke's defensive approach, since the Blue Devils
consistently stacked nine men in the box. But the newfound push in
the passing game was apparent nonetheless.
In fact, the second play
from scrimmage featured an over-the-top lob to Montgomery. It took
the Cardinal about 58 minutes to get to a similar play a week
earlier. Stanford also worked hard to get its tight ends
involved downfield this time around and even lined them up in the
backfield at times to mask the absence of fullback Ryan Hewitt, who
will be back next week.
Return of the fullback
Hewitt's versatility should also give Stanford's rushing attack some
more breathing room following another sub-standard performance that
didn't top 100 yards for the first time since early 2008. With
or without Hewitt, though, Stepfan Taylor shouldn't be forced to
face nine-man boxes again against USC. It's up to Nunes to prove sufficiently consistent
to dissuade the Trojans from doing that. The quarterback's efficient
7-for-9 second half performance against Duke, which featured three
touchdown passes, was a positive step in that regard.
Another offensive observation of note is the development of the
Cardinal's left tackle position. The spot wasn't filled exclusively
by David Yankey anymore, as freshman Andrus Peat rotated in and
played serious snaps. The most meaningful of all came on Taylor's
13-yard scoring run in the second quarter. Peat held down left
tackle on the play, allowing Yankey to shift to left guard and blast
open Taylor's hole up the middle. Two severe injuries have made USC
thinnest on the defensive line, so Yankey's presence at guard has
the potential to really punish a Trojan soft spot.
Special teams scores, too
Not many seem to realize that Drew Terrell actually led the Pac-12
in punt returning (12.0 yards/per) last year, probably because he
had never taken one back to the house. Not anymore. Terrell's
76-yard runback spearheaded another solid special teams effort that
included more stellar punting from Daniel Zychlinski (45.3 average)
and confident kicking from Jordan Williamson. It'll certainly take
defensive and special teams help for Stanford to pull the upset
So, child's play is over. Bring on the meat of the schedule and
bring on the Trojans - even if the early date means that
it may not feel like a Stanford home game. After all, the Cardinal
have played USC much better on the road the last half decade.
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.
Are you fully subscribed to The
Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on
all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our
award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in
Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com