Know your foe – Stanford Cardinal

Devils Digest invited its Sparky's Huddle members to pose questions to's editor Jim "Emeritus" Rutter concerning ASU's next opponent the Stanford Cardinal. Aside from Toby Gerhart how good is their offense? What does their team bring to the table on defense? How has Coach Harbuagh change the culture in Palo Alto? Rutter answers those questions and more in this article.

(from HodeASU) At the mid-point of the season how do you assess Stanford on both sides of the ball? Have they exceeded expectations or underachieved?

Offensively, I think things are "meeting" expectations. With regard to senior running back Toby Gerhart and redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, let's go with what our one-time Stanford head coach Denny Green would say, "They ARE who we THOUGHT they were!" Gerhart leads the Pac-10 and ranks fifth nationally in rushing average with a 124.1 per game and this week was selected to the Sporting News Mid-Season All-America team. Those who watched Toby last year expected no less. He is not "flashy", maybe not even "explosive", but man, he is just really, really good. We had very high expectations for Luck after a lights-out, dominating performance in the spring. He has had some growing pains, but has been very effective overall and shown true flashes of brilliance on many occasions. The offensive line, which starts two redshirt freshmen, has held up remarkably well even with the early loss of stud senior tackle Matt Kopa, who may well play in the NFL.

With the dreaded combination of youth and inexperience, we expected our back seven on defense to struggle somewhat, but a rash of injuries has taken a heavy toll our defensive line (currently down two starters and a key back-up). The biggest area of underachievement has to be in turnovers.

Special teams, especially the nation-leading kick-return unit, have been a pleasant surprise. The primary kick-return job wasn't even solidified heading into fall camp, but sophomore Chris Owusu (#81) has become a game-changing weapon, not only scoring points, but providing consistently excellent field position.

(from HodeASU) After losing two in a row, would it be fair to say that ASU is facing a desperate Stanford team? How much has their collective team psyche been affected the last couple of weeks?

Yes. I really don't think "desperate" is too strong, if one can be "desperate" in addition to "focused" and "determined". Despite the disappointing losses, this is still a confident team, one whose coach states flatly that "We Bow to No Program" (although from the combined score against the Sun Devils of 120-23 during the last three solar-scorching would suggest that we have been "bowing" to ASU big-time). When you have Luck and Gerhart, it is hard not to feel as though your team can compete on any given Saturday, even against a visiting team that has been beating you like a red-headed step-child in recent years. While it is certainly possible that this ASU game won't decide the Cardinal's 2009 season, it very well could. Stanford finishes the season with Oregon, USC, Cal, and Notre Dame, so this game is important if not technically essential for the Cardinal to knock down if it hopes to play in a post-season bowl. Those games are all possible wins (fortunately, all but USC are home games), but we nevertheless are likely to be significant underdogs in each of those final four games. Home turf pride is also on the line as Stanford has won 8 of its last 9 home games, with the only loss having been to USC. That after going 1-11 in the first dozen games in the new stadium. A welcoming venue no longer.

(from NorCalDevilSouza78) If ASU is able to slow down Toby Gerhart and the Stanford rushing attack (hold them to under 100 yards) how comfortable are Stanford fans that Andrew Luck can lead the Cardinal to victory?

No offense, but that (Toby being held under 100 yards) isn't likely to happen unless 1) Toby is limited by injury or 2) the Devils can fashion an early lead and force Stanford to the air more frequently than it would prefer. Unless Toby is slowed by the ankle he tweaked in Tucson, I wouldn't be surprised to see him threaten to surpass the 1,000-yard mark on Saturday night (he has 868 yards through seven games). Not saying he is a lock to get that yardage against a very stout ASU front seven, but it wouldn't surprise anyone at Stanford if he did. With regard to Andrew Luck - he makes a few of what he calls "immature" mistakes each time out, but without exaggeration, #12 clearly is capable of taking over a game. I doubt anyone of the team questions his leadership skills, desire or toughness. This kid is really special. Young, but very special. If, collectively, we would catch the football more consistently, Stanford would likely be at least 7-1 under his "immature" leadership. That should make fans pretty "comfortable".

(from RVDVL) What is your perspective of the matchup of Stanford's # 7 (Toby Gerhart) versus ASU's #7 (Vontaze Burfict)?

"7-on-7 Football" would be a great promotion – almost as effective as offering every fan a free "7 & 7". However, football is rarely about "one-on-one" match-ups. If Burfict, or any other Devil defender, is giving the Stanford offense trouble, keeping it from executing its game plan, I would anticipate that our HC/OC would run a lot of plays away from him or take advantage of his aggressiveness with play-action. We can reasonably expect at least one late-hit, spearing, or other unsportsmanlike conduct call from the passionate and talented, but sometimes "excessive" freshman. Don't get me wrong, we would love to have that fiery young man on our defense. We have some "anti-Burfict" ready - it is known as "Owen Marecic" (our superb blocking fullback). That potential "mano a mano" battle obviously will depend on blocking assignments, but that one majestic match-up alone might be worth the price of admission.

(from HodeASU) When Gerhart takes a breather, have the other running backs been adequate picking up the slack or does the team at that point look to pass first?

There is high confidence in true freshman Stepfan Taylor, a four-star recruit out of Texas, who will be a future feature back and eventually well-known in the conference. Tyler Gaffney, the 2008 California State Offensive Player of the Year, has shown outstanding potential as well, both running and catching. Neither is able (yet) to provide what Toby does in a full game, but as far as providing a "breather", no problem.

(from SoCalDevil666) Why does your defense never seem to be "great" on a consistent basis as the season wears on your defense gets worse, and your team loses more games, is it injuries, depth, or coaching? How is your defensive line, and are there any injuries there?

What are you talking about? Our defense HAS been great – don't you remember 1992? Just kidding, you are right that we have struggled mightily, especially in the past two games (against two very good offenses playing in front of their home crowds). You will always find frustrated fans who, right or wrong, will second-guess the coaching, but the quick answer is 1) lack of depth and 2) a dearth of difference-makers from a sheer football talent perspective. As the season has progressed (and the defense at least temporarily has regressed), the D-line has taken the most hits (losing DT Brian Bulcke, DT Matt Masifilo, DE Erik Lorig). The secondary has been struggling, but is a bit hard to judge because they have been asked to play within a scheme.

One thing is indisputable - we are not creating turnovers. We are tied for ninth in the Pac-10 and are (-4) on the year. Not good. The only bigger concern than our lack of turnover creation is that seemingly lost art of tackling. In the past two games, we have given up a lot of big plays, often sprung by poor tackling and poor tackling angles that lead to non-tackling-attempts (newly-termed "NTAs"). The Stanford coaches and players are no dummies. The team captains themselves will be the very first to admit that the Cardinal needs to tackle a whole lot better. We are already seeing some shake-ups on the defensive depth chart for the ASU game.

(from HodeASU) What makes Chris Owusu such a dangerous player both as a WR and a kick returner?

Solid team-blocking and Owusu's pure "demon speed" make for a dynamic return game. Chris is a 10.4-10.6 100-meter guy. Not a ton of "wiggle", not a Devin Hester-type, but he is capable of astounding straight-line acceleration. Won't be caught from behind. Fugettaboudit! As a receiver, Owusu has struggled with consistency catching the ball, but his speed allows him to create separation, an ability not often associated with Stanford receivers in recent years.

(from HodeASU) Who are some of the lesser known players for Stanford that ASU fans should look out for this weekend?

DE Tom Keiser (#94) was a freshman All-American last year and has been consistently outstanding with a team-leading 5.5 sacks. If Stanford has a "bad-ass" on defense, it would have to be either sophomore SS Delano Howell (#26), who returns after missing the Arizona game, or true freshman linebacker Shayne Skov (#11), who plays the game with admirable intensity and confidence. Of starting TE Jim Dray's last six receptions, four have gone for TDs! Back-up TE Konrad Reuland (#88), a transfer from Notre Dame, has started to play a bigger role in the offense and can really get downfield. He may not be a big secret, but ASU fans should take the opportunity to watch FB Owen Marecic (#48) pave the way for The Gerhart Express™. Whether you are an ASU fan or a Stanford fan, Marecic will make you feel nostalgic for the way guys used to block in the old days.

(from BurningBeer) Last year Harbaugh expressed his frustration with the Stanford fan base for not showing up to support their team. Despite the new facility, free parking, and a team that was starting to play better football, the attendance figures were lousy (roughly 30,000 per game). Have the Cardinal fans started to show up in 2009, or is the game against ASU going to effectively be a neutral field with no home-field advantage for Stanford? Looking farther down the road, is there concern Harbaugh will head for greener pastures if fans don't start supporting the team?

Still an issue. Saturday is Homecoming, so the crowd should be decent. The core Stanford fan base is a bit more "senior" than most other schools and night games are less than optimal for attendance. The crowds have been better than last year, but largely due to giving away free tickets, letting kids in for free, etc. Because of the team's exciting offense and special teams and the relatively strong play of the defensive at home, the Stanford Stadium crowd has been noticeably more supportive this year. Everyone rallies when Toby is rolling! I think it is wishful thinking to expect a "neutral" field environment.

It certainly isn't Autzen or Husky Stadium, but thanks to a recently rather raucous student body, aka the "Red Zone" the home team now has a distinct advantage. In the Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris years, we did not have a meaningful home field advantage. Harbaugh's "attitude-leadership", the team's consistent effort, and an average of 33 points per home game the Cardinal has generated have resulted in better, more vocal fan support.

Is there concern that Coach Harbaugh could leave? Sure, there is always concern about a coach leaving if he is both underpaid and his stadium is half-full, but there is a lot Jim loves about Stanford and he knows that the pastures are not always as green as they might seem. He has brought Stanford Football back from the near-dead. He is unlikely to leave until he accomplishes some major goals, goals well beyond simply getting the Cardinal bowl-eligible. He hasn't even had a chance to harvest fully his strong recruiting crops of the last several years. The "Arrow Up" on the Cardinal, his better fit with the college game, and his ties to the Palo Alto area are likely to help him resist temptation from the Raiders of the world. Would he leave for say, a "Michigan"? Hey, we had a successful young coach leave the Farm for pressure-packed greener pastures in the Midwest and it came back to bite him in the butt (or would have, if he actually possessed one!)

(from HodeASU) There has been so much talk about the new attitude that Coach Harbaugh has brought to the team. Can you put your finger on the top three or four team aspects that have change dramatically under his tenure?

First off, Harbaugh has removed the long-accepted modest expectations of the Stanford program, establishing an "expectation of success". He and his staff have tackled the daunting challenge of the university's highly selective admission policies with energy, determination, and efficiency, bringing about a wholesale change and improvement in the program's recruiting of national-class talent. He has also brought a hard-working, "blue-collar" mentality, as expressed by this year's "We Work!" marketing theme. There is far less "complacency" under Harbaugh. He wants "football players who are great students", not just "great students who dabble in football". Lastly, I think in most cases it has been established that the best players will be on the field, whether they are fifth-year seniors or true freshmen. Harbaugh loves to have competition at every position, all the time.

(from HodeASU) Would you agree that the Stanford offense is more explosive than it has been in a while? If so, what had contributed to this turnaround?

Yes, clearly more explosive. More points, more yards, more yards per attempt from the passing game. Having QB Andrew Luck's arm strength, accuracy, surprising mobility, and for the most part solid decision-making has revolutionized the Cardinal offense, which previously had been obliged to rely far too heavily on Gerhart's running . Aided by the outstanding protection he has received thus far, Luck is able to get the ball downfield and on-target on a consistent basis. Credit also goes to the emergence of #8 Ryan Whalen as an exceptional "possession receiver", a favorite Luck target who easily could end up with a 1,000-yard season, and to the presence of a healthy #81 Chris Owusu to stretch the defense (Owusu missed a significant portion of the 2008 season with a knee injury)

(from HodeASU) What in your opinion are the keys for a Stanford victory on Saturday?

Obviously the avoidance of turnovers is highly recommended, but creating some would be nice. The Cardinal "D" is long overdue! It would help to get out to an early lead and to have Gerhart stay healthy. Stanford's chances would be improved with the "return" (pun intended) of the Cardinal special teams, which have been a little less "special" the past couple of weeks. Home-cooking should help. At Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal special teams have been nothing short of spectacular, opening two of the three home games with kick-off returns for touchdown by Owusu, who seems one block away on almost every return. He has already tied the Pac-10 single-season record of three KO TDs and did it in the first four games of the ‘09 season! He is currently fourth in the nation with a return average of 35.6 and was just named to the Sporting News mid-season All-American team.

Jim "Emeritus" Rutter is the Co-Founder and Editor of The Bootleg and serves as the volunteer Stanford Athletics Archivist (Sports Historian). His brother-in-law Mark went to ASU.

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