Stanford defensive preview

Stanford's offense may get a lot of attention, but the defense is strong as well. Read on to see what Arizona will be facing Saturday night.

While most of the headlines regarding Stanford's 12-win season in 2010 surrounded Andrew Luck and the high-powered offense, it was the Cardinal defense that really made life difficult for its opponents.

Stanford's defense limited its opponents to a Pac-10 best 17.4 points per game, and in its final six games of the season allowed its opponents just 9.3 points per contest, including a pair of shut outs.

So far in 2011, Stanford's defense looks to have picked things up right where it left off, as it has allowed just one touchdown in its first two games this season. Stanford returns six starters from last year's team and will likely be one of the toughest defenses in the Pac-12 throughout conference play.

One of the major questions for Stanford's defense this offseason was how the team would deal with losing Second Team All Pac-10 performer Sione Fua. Fua had the role of being the team's nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme, who made running the football very difficult for opponents because of his size and ability to occupy blockers.

So far 6-foot-2, 295-pound junior Terrence Stephens has proved up to the challenge, as Stanford has limited opponents to just 28.5 yards per game on the ground in two games this year. He has just four tackles on the year, but Stephens plays a vital role in the Cardinal defense and will be counted on to anchor the entire unit at nose tackle.

Senior Matt Masifilo is a returning starter at defensive end, and at 6-foot-3, 280 pounds fits the mold perfectly as a 3-4 defensive end. He has the size and strength to hold his own in the run game, and while he has yet to record a sack in 2011, has the quickness to get to the quarterback.

Redshirt-sophomore Ben Gardner is one of just three underclassmen on the Stanford defense, but so far he's making his presence felt from his defensive end position. The 6-foot-4, 251 pound pass rusher has already put up 1.5 sacks on the year to go along with three tackles for loss. Gardner, along with Masifilo, will be a tough challenge for Arizona's young offensive tackles due to the size and ability to rush the passer.

The linebackers are the strength of the Stanford defense, and the Cardinal has two of the Pac-12's best in Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas.

Skov was the team's leading tackler in 2010 as a sophomore and is tough as nails at his middle linebacker position. A devastating blitzer who shared the team lead with 7.5 sacks last year, the 6-foot-3, 243-pound junior has already collected 18 tackles and 1.5 sacks in the team's two games to pace the Cardinal defense.

It was with Thomas whom Skov shared the sack lead with in 2010, as the 6-foot-4, 239-pound senior posted 7.5 of his own and 14.5 in the past two seasons. He looks poised for an even higher sack count in 2011, as he has already brought down the opposing quarterback 3.5 times this year. He's tied for fourth on the team with nine tackles, and also leads Stanford with two forced fumbles.

The combination of Skov and Thomas is one that will have opposing offensive coordinators in fits all season long. Skov is a sideline-to-sideline tackler from his middle linebacker position, and Thomas holds down the strong side of the defense at outside linebacker. It will be tough for Arizona to get it going on the ground against two linebackers of Skov and Thomas' quality.

Opposite of Thomas is Phoenix native Trent Murphy, who will be receiving the first significant playing time of his career in 2011 after redshirting in 2009 and sitting out 2010 with an injury.

At 6-foot-6, 246 pounds, Murphy is another player that with his size and quickness fits well into Stanford's 3-4 scheme. He's tied with five other players on the team for fourth with nine tackles and has recorded a sack of his own. He'll be tough for Arizona to miss, but he may be tested throughout the contest if UA decides to try to avoid Thomas on the other side.

The fourth of Stanford's starting linebackers is Max Bergen, who is finally getting his chance as a fifth year senior. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior ranks only behind Skov with 11 tackles, and with Arizona likely to try to double-team Skov whenever possible, Bergen will likely be right in the thick of things.

In the secondary, Stanford returns three starters and Barry Browning, who did not start the whole season but did start the team's final three games. The 6-foot-1, 168-pound sophomore has eight tackles on the season, and uses his speed and agility to keep up with opposing receivers down field.

At the other corner position is 6-foot-1, 197-pound senior Johnson Bademosi, another good coverage corner who has the size and speed to hang with opposing receivers. He only has one interception in three seasons with the team, but while he may not create turnovers, he also isn't a player that hurts Stanford defensively.

The safeties for Stanford are two of the better players at the position in the conference. Delano Howell was a Second Team All-Pac-10 selection as a junior, and as a senior, the 5-foot-11, 198-pound safety has recorded nine tackles.

Michael Thomas is another solid player in the secondary for Stanford, who with 61 tackles in 2010 ranked as the third leading tackler for the Cardinal. An Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 selection as a junior, the 5-foot-11, 182-pound senior has recorded nine tackles of his own, and combines with Howell for a very versatile secondary.

Keys to the game:

1. Protect: Stanford is sure to bring pressure all game long to try to get the ball out of Nick Foles' hand as soon as possible. With all of the pass rushing weapons at Stanford's disposal, it will be crucial for the Arizona offensive line to keep its quarterback upright and give him time to complete passes down field.

2. Run: Even if the ground game has no success, Arizona cannot let Skov, Thomas, and the rest of the Stanford pass rushers simply key on the pass and pin their ears back and go after Foles. UA should run the ball 25-30 times if it can, just for the sake of keeping the Cardinal honest defensively.

3. Dink and dunk: With all of the blitzing Stanford is likely to do, Foles success may come by throwing in the open space where the blitz came from. He likely won't have much time to throw, but if Foles can methodically pick apart the aggressive Stanford defense, it gives Arizona a much better chance to win.

4. No missed opportunities: Simply put, when Arizona gets in the red zone, it has to put points on the board. While a touchdown is obviously ideal, UA will need to keep pace with the high scoring Stanford offense and will need to convert each of its chances into points in order to be victorious.

5. Score on the opening drive: It would go a long ways for the confidence of the offense and the team to march down the field against a tough defense and put points on the board. By any means necessary, Foles needs to get his offense in the endzone and on the score board in the first quarter of Saturday's game.

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