Stanford exceeded expectations in 2008 after compiling a 5-7 record. One win away from the Cardinal's first bowl since 2001, however, had to leave a sour taste in the mouth of head coach Jim Harbaugh - a competitor that won't settle for mediocrity year in and year out. Harbaugh's charisma is attracting top prospects from around the country, proven by Stanford's recruiting class of 2010, and as long as he remains committed to the Card and doesn't bolt for an NFL vacancy, Stanford will continue its emergence from the pits of the Pac-10.
It appears redshirt freshman Andrew Luck will get the chance to start at quarterback. The 6-4, 225-pound Luck is the prototypical NFL gunslinger that Harbaugh was, and is looking for to lead his team. Tavita Pritchard served his fellow members on The Farm well, including an unforgettable victory over USC at the Coliseum, but now is the time to make room for future success. Running back Toby Gerhart is the horse that keeps the wheels rolling on this squad. After rushing for 1,176 yards and 15 TDs last season, Gerhart is a candidate to be the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. Three-year wide receiver Richard Sherman is moving to cornerback, leaving a lot of inexperienced players in the Cardinal receiving corps. Not inexperienced class-wise, but unproven due to the lack of catching passes in games. Stanford ranked No. 91 last year in pass efficiency as the team's top five receivers combined for only 109 receptions and a paltry seven TDs.
Stanford finished last season ranked No. 11 in the nation in sacks after averaging 2.75 takedowns per game. The Cardinal defensive line is solid against the run as well. Brian Bulcke and Sione Fua crowd the interior while Erik Lorig and Tom Keiser hold down the ends of the line. These four linemen combined for 16.0 sacks last season. The Stanford secondary is the big question mark on this defensive unit, evidenced by the coaching staff asking the senior Sherman to switch to cornerback. The Card's pass defense was second to last in the Pac-10; only nabbing seven interceptions all of last year.
San Jose State O-Line vs. Stanford D-Line. The Cardinal's side of this matchup should be just as potent as last season, so the question looms, will the Spartan's side remain just as vulnerable? If so, the outlook isn't good for State. In last year's 23-10 loss, State went into the locker room with a 10-7 lead at halftime. The Spartans offensive line went to sleep in the second half, however, and the offense wasn't even able to post positive yardage in the fourth quarter. The second half shutout wasn't so much a halftime adjustment by the Card, but most likely the bigger Pac-10 athletes wearing down the WAC players. Stanford sacked quarterback Kyle Reed an astounding nine times in that contest and no team can win behind that statistic.
If this game is at Spartan Stadium, we might see a different outcome. Not that the Cardinal will have a decisive home-field advantage by filling a third of the seats in Palo Alto. The Spartan staff knows what Stanford's gameplan will be – pound the rock with Gerhart like they did last year (148 yards on 22 carries). This is certainly a good tactic with a high-caliber back, but a predictable one, so there should be no surprises. If there was an area to take advantage it is in the Card's meager secondary. If the Spartan staff can devise a plan to expose this weakness, and then have an unproven offense execute it, they will have a shot at winning this game. While this will be a closer game than the first two contests of the 2009 season, the Spartans will find themselves in a hole to start the year with an 0-3 record.
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Scott Cooley is a Contributing Analyst to Inside Sparta. You may contact Scott with any questions, comments, or tips at email@example.com
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