Bumped. GO BRUINS. - N
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
This may very well be a longer post than any of you wish to read, but please bear with me while I suck up a little before telling you a little bit about the team you're going up against this week.
As has been mentioned, Stanford doesn't have a solid blogosphere dedicated to the football team. The few faithful we have tend to be older than the average Pac-10 team or, I suppose, busy commenting on TechCrunch. Thus, I peruse the opposition boards on a weekly basis and can honestly say we just don't come across any PAC-10 fans as civil, knowledgeable, or humble as the Bruin faithful. Not even close. Perhaps this is due to the mutual chagrin we share at the plummeting qualification standards in the East Bay or the distaste for the arrogance constantly emanating from South Central. Perhaps we have a mutual longing to see the football team live up to the high standards set in our Basketball and Olympic sports programs and the past few years have not worn well. Whatever the reason, I'm proud to be in the same conference as UCLA and hope you feel the same way about us. It is only because I anticipate thoughtful and insightful responses that I am making the first blog comment of my entire life.
I've read this is UCLA's most important road game in some time and I can honestly say that I feel the same way about the game for Stanford. I can't recall a Pac-10 game with this much on the line since Ty Willingham was on the sidelines. My thoughts on the Cardinal after the jump.
That having been said, I want to share a few things about the '09 Cardinal that might help put the game in perspective and give you a few things to watch for. The OP about how to beat Stanford was somewhat chilling to be honest; certainly success on all three points would tilt the edge heavily towards whichever opponent was to do so. In order to explain the Stanford defense, I'm going to go back to where it all began, with Walt Harris.
The Harris era was a disaster on a few fronts, but one of the primary problems that came out of it was just how empty he left the defensive cupboard. The saving grace, however, may have come in his first six months, when he was able to land several of Buddy's targets and pick up one very key late commitment in Erik Lorig. Walt landed defensive commits from Clinton Snyder, Ekom Udofia, and Will Powers in addition to grabbing offensive players Lorig and Bo McNally. Four of those players form the core of our defense, but the rest of Walt's defensive commits, who should be seniors and juniors right now, left a lot to be desired. This was a significant problem for the team in '07 and '08, as Jim Harbaugh started swapping players all over the field trying to plug in Football Players wherever he could. Six defensive starters, including the entire secondary, were offensive recruits. My guess is that this serves to explain the ways to beat the Stanford defense. In our defensive backfield we now have five players that are ballhawks and average in coverage, but except for McNally, now in his fifth year on defense, they really lack the pursuit and tackling ability that would make them a solid unit. Thus Snyder, now without the safety net of decent cover corners like Nick Sanchez and an excellent safety in Brandon Harrison is forced to play MLB like a safety at times while Delano Howell tries to fight his instincts to play centerfield.
If UCLA can stop the defensive line, by far the best unit on the defense, then plays will be able to develop to get the linebackers out of position. The biggest fear for last week was what Jake Locker would have done (see Tuiasosopo, Marques for what we were afraid of) had this happened last week. Washington couldn't fight the pressure, and the team escaped unscathed. Wake did adjust in the second half and the Card paid dearly for it. If speedy backs get in the flats with five yards to breathe, it will be a long day for an inexperienced defensive backfield.
On offense, everyone is correct in recognizing that Toby Gerhart is a force of nature. He has deceptive speed and breaks tackles better than any Stanford back has since I've been around (although I'm too young to remember Touchdown Tommy or Darrin Nelson so who knows). However, my opinion is that Toby is far less critical to the success of the run game than everyone seems to think. He got hurt both in Seattle and Eugene last year, and in both games converted WR Anthony Kimble went for over 100 yards. Kimble, who was not a power back like Toby, stepped behind the same line and the same fullback and rushed for over 700 yards averaging 6 ypc last year. Jeremy Stewart (if he's back), Tyler Gaffney, and Stepfan Taylor are all over 5 ypc this year and can hit the holes almost as well as Toby. Of course, nobody's quite like Toby once the hole has been hit; these backs are most useful on passing downs and to spell the big man.
The key to the offense is the line. All Pac-10 linemen Ben Muth and Alex Fletcher are gone, but their line also let up 21 sacks last year (partly because Tavita Pritchard would sooner try to outrun Lawrence Taylor than throw it away, but partly because they were excellent run blockers but not as balanced). With Matt Kopa and Allen Smith out, Chris Marinelli is the only Sunday-ready player left on the line, which makes me worried about facing one of the toughest defensive fronts we'll see all season without our two best tackles. That having been said, the line, even with two RS Fr., is very disciplined and very good. The line is the backbone of the team; bust through and even Toby won't be able to save the home team. Just know that it hasn't happened yet. At least one Stanford back has gone for 100 yards in nine consecutive Pac-10 games and in the last 7 games at Stanford Stadium, the team has rushed for 210, 204, 286, 344, 202, 211, and 321 yards respectively. They can run. As for passing, it remains to be seen. Luck performed very well on the road against Wake Forest, but as long as the ground game is rolling, he most likely won't get enough dropbacks to get in a rhythm. If the backs are stopped, though, the weapons are there in the pass game and I wouldn't at all be surprised if we were talking about Stanford's spread offense this time next year.
On special teams, the team has yet to win a game without an Owusu runback and I can't imagine he'll touch the ball on a kickoff this Saturday; but what you really need to watch is Stanford's kick coverage. Not because I expect a game-changing turnover or anything but solid execution, but because I want to clue you in on something to check out. When the Card line up, find #11 Shayne Skov and don't take your eyes off him. The frosh linebacker is not ready to play every series with the first team yet, but he's a special player, he's a freakish athlete, and he will hopefully show us the "wow" play or two (and more) the Bruin faithful expect from Xavier Su'a-Filo that make us all think that next year will be better than the last.
While this isn't saying much, this is the deepest, best Stanford team since 2001. Then, as now, everything came back to a fantastic offensive line that set the tone for a dynamic running game that opened up the pass. Luck doesn't have the weapons Randy Fasani & Chris Lewis did, and if he did I'm not sure he'd be able to use them quite yet, but Stanford is a team on the upswing.
This game, I honestly believe, will go a long way to showing which of the two class act programs in the conference will be next up to challenge the thugs. Good luck on Saturday; I assure you that the Bruins are by far the most welcome opposing tailgaters in Palo Alto.