Stanford Defense: October Report Card

Tarpley guns for another confetti ending

Stanford's 2013 regular season is neatly divided into thirds. September featured the build-up into what was, as advertised, a brutally difficult October schedule. The Cardinal's defense picked up steam through this stretch. Here are the details as we now head into a critical November.



To see the Stanford offense's October report card, click here.

Defensive Line
September Grade: A-
October Grade: A-




Sports performance director Shannon Turley and his staff have done a remarkable job in their quest to bring greater overall health to Stanford football. They've overseen an 87 percent drop in games missed due to injury since 2007, and that overall mark may improve yet again this season. When taking the entire squad into consideration, the Cardinal's 2013 injury numbers are again on pace to be impressive. But Stanford has run into an unusual problem this time around: Instead of being spread out across the entire roster, their maladies have been focused on one position group, the defensive line.

This concentrated plague is seriously threatening to be the undoing of a defensive juggernaut. So far, though, the Farm Boys have successfully scrambled to stave off disaster in the front seven. It's taken much creativity to overcome Henry Anderson's knee injury, David Parry's lower abdominal issue, and Ikenna Nwafor's leg injury. Position shifts for Blake Lueders and Luke Kaumatule have been just part of the formula. Now, with Oregon looming, it'll take more resilience to mask Ben Gardner's season-ending pectoral tear.

Oregon State and UCLA both operated nonexistent rushing attacks against Stanford while their quarterbacks suffered inhumane levels of harassment, so it must be noted that the Cardinal's line has held up admirably while shorthanded. Like the rest of the defense, they overcame a shaky October start (see Washington and Utah) to post a pair of sensational performances against UCLA and Oregon State. Parry is playing much healthier now than he was two weeks ago, when pain appeared to limit to his effectiveness. Anderson, who's very close to returning, should provide a desperately-needed boost just as Gardner takes a seat for the rest of his college career.

Since the performance of reserves at this position has been disappointing so far, Josh Mauro has been the only healthy constant. But his play has been spectacular, and it's led a gritty effort that has glued the hobbled unit together. If this front seven continues its October pace, Stanford has a chance to reset its 2012 school sack and tackle for loss records. The moment of truth, though, comes first: Buckle up for November 7.

Year
Sacks
TFL
TFL Yards
DL Passes Defended
Opponents' YPC
Opponents' Yards Per Play
2009
21
58
271
4
4.23
5.96
2010
36
71
319
6
3.87
5.06
2011
39
89
422
8
3.16
5.45
2012
57
124
516
13
3.04
4.73
2013
47.5*
112*
509*
12.5*
3.31
4.69
All asterisks indicate 14-game pace


Linebackers
September Grade: A-
October Grade:
A

Back in September, Stanford assistant Lance Anderson told me that A.J. Tarpley was the key Cardinal contributor who had improved most over the offseason, and it's now apparent that he wasn't joking. Because of the injury problems on the defensive line, Stanford has schematically simplified some of its workings up front and put a bigger burden on its linebackers. Tarpley (on pace for 107 tackles) and Shayne Skov (one pace for 110) have responded with nothing short of fantastic campaigns. The table below illustrates that Skov is significantly more productive than his pre-injury self, while Tarpley is delivering a career year of his own. Jarek Lancaster and Blake Martinez have authored solid contributions in the middle, too.

The embarrassment of riches on the second level, of course, continues with outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who's making waves as one of the best defensive players in all of college football. No. 93 is on pace for 16.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss this season, tallies that may well lead the nation by the time all is said and done. Murphy's intelligence has matched his strength and aggressiveness; he's enjoyed another pick six and four pass break-ups already as a result.

Murphy's greatest strength, in fact, has been his versatility. NFL teams are scouting him as both an outside linebacker and a defensive end, and that's given Stanford an added weapon in its fight to survive with a decimated defensive line. Solid play from Murphy's outside linebacker counterparts James Vaughters and Kevin Anderson has further fortified the second level. It should be noted that the Cardinal did well to move Vaughters back to the outside over the summer. While Tarpley and Skov have locked down the middle, he and Anderson have steadily emerged into dangerous pass rushing threats over the course of the season. Stanford will need significant contributions from these promising players this November.

Year
Tackle Leader
Solo Tackles
Assisted Tackles
Total
Tackles Per Gm
% of Team Total
PPG
2007
McNally (FS)
72
42
114
9.5
12.8%
28.3
2008
McNally (FS)
53
23
76
6.33
9.2%
27.4
2009
McNally (FS)
55
28
83
6.38
9.3%
26.5
2010
Skov (LB)
50
33
83
6.92
10.7%
17.4
2011
Lancaster (LB)
44
26
70
5.38
8.8%
21.9
2012
Skov (LB)
42
38
80
6.15
8.6%
17.2
2013
Skov (LB)
56*
54.5*
110*
7.9
10.5%
19.4
(A.J. Tarpley on pace for 107 total tackles)


Secondary
September Grade: A-
October Grade:
A

The stats below tell a fascinating story. Opponents are averaging only 5.7 yards per pass attempt against Stanford's secondary. That is, by far, the best mark of the Harbaugh-Shaw era. It's particularly interesting because some of the unit's other numbers, particularly the number of passes defended, have taken a plunge.

The explanation: To combat the Cardinal's ferocious pass rush and to avoid the likes of Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, opponents are attacking Stanford in a different way through the air this year. They're throwing more quick passes to the outside, tosses that are generally tougher to break up (Murphy may beg to differ with me on that detail; he makes it look rather easy). As a result, some of the statistical production coming from the Farm Boys' secondary has dropped (though the team is still one pace for 16 interceptions), but the unit's overall effectiveness -- measured by yards per pass attempt -- has increased. Washington and Utah enjoyed success with their quick passing ways to the outside, but the Cardinal soon clamped down on the perimeter, stifling those plays and making opposing passing offenses less efficient than ever.

The debacle in Salt Lake City showed that the Stanford defense will live and die by how well its defense sets edges on the perimeter. That's the key to combating the quick swing pass, and it's one that this defense is taking care of regularly now. Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons have brought physicality that's been instrumental on the outside, as has gritty nickelback play from Usua Amanam and Joe Hemschoot. Derek Mason just started using Hemschoot, also a linebacker, in the secondary this year. His added muscle has helped Stanford maintain a block-busting presence on the outside. Richards and Reynolds, meanwhile, have dramatically improved their supporting tackling angles since the loss at Utah.

There's a temptation to give the secondary a lower grade because of their atrocious play in the second quarter at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but adjustments and improvements are valued here. These guys have fixed their problems to raise their performance to the next level. Now, it's time to find out if that quality of performance will be enough to take down Oregon.

Year
INT
Pass Break-Ups
Passes Defended
Opp. Passing Yards Per Attempt
% of Passes Defended
2007
11
38
49
7.6
11.8%
2008
7
29
36
7.1
9.4%
2009
8
44
52
7.6
11.4%
2010
18
50
68
6.2
16%
2011
7
48
55
7.1
12.2%
2012
15
69
84
6.1
15.3%
2013
16*
46*
61*
5.7
9.9%

Special Teams
September Grade: A
October Grade: A-

Ty Montgomery's fantastic kick returns have spared Stanford at least one loss this season, against Washington, and nearly saved the day at Utah. The Cardinal continues to put a firm emphasis on playing its best combination of stars and athletic youngsters on special teams, and that hunger to get an edge in the third phase of the game has paid off. Football Outsiders, whose Fremeau Efficiency Index ranks Stanford as the No. 2 team in the nation, also rates the Cardinal as second best in the country in terms of special teams efficiency (the defense is also ranked second, while the offense checks in at 31st).

Jordan Williamson's missed field goal might have cost Stanford dearly at Utah, so that hurts the overall grade. Williamson, who's missed the past two contests, is recovering from a leg muscle strain in hopes of returning against the Ducks, the team he beat with his overtime dagger last year. The Cardinal figure to need every bit of their special teams advantage then.







David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.

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