Hyperbole: Andrew Luck is Stanford's greatest quarterback ever, and the top quarterback currently in the NCAA.
Fact: In his last two real games, Andrew Luck has been a below-average BCS quarterback when it comes to throwing the ball.
Hyperbole: This is the Pac-10's top offensive line.
Fact: Last year, this was the Pac-10's top offensive line. A lot of that, maybe more than we cared to admit at the time, had to do with No. 7. Maybe a lot of it had to do with a new power scheme, the likes of which the Pac-10 hadn't seen since the days of student body right, and an offseason's worth of preparation has mitigated some of the Card's schematic advantage. Maybe Andrew Phillips has a lot on his mind right now, and breaking in a new right tackle is also complicating matters.
We can speculate as to the reasons, and I'm sure the coaches are working on them, but the fact is that through two games in 2010, given the competition, this has been a good, not great, offensive line and run game.
Similarly, the offense as a whole has been good, but not great. We expected a 10 on the ten-scale, and we've gotten an eight thus far. However, the side of the football that gets 10% of the attention but is twice as important more than makes up it…
Hyperbole: Our defense is pathetic. Our pass defense is always pathetic, and for as long as we've been Stanford fans, it's been our Achilles heel.
Fact: For the last few decades, that may well have been the case, but, this year, why couldn't this be the best defense in the Pac-10? Seriously.
Stanford's 2009 offense (and then Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and, more recently, Hawaii) have exposed the defenses of USC and Oregon, the most talented teams in the league. USC was five years ago, but right now, neither of those teams are elite defensively. They're within striking distance of Stanford and the rest of the league.
Meanwhile, through two games, the Card have allowed just one defensive touchdown, and it came in garbage time. Personnel-wise, I think fans like our starting front four, and appropriately so. At linebacker, Shayne Skov hopefully will come back soon enough, and he, Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser are All-Conference level guys. In the secondary, Howell is a stud, Richard Sherman's been there for three years and gone from liability to surprisingly solid, and I think with the new coaching and the new recruiting mixed in, all of a sudden you have a unit that has a lot of good athletes, and is being coached up pretty well, both of which we were sorely lacking in recent years. With good coaching, good athletes and good experience, and for the first time in decades, I believe we have all of that in the secondary, there's no reason this can't be a pretty darn good unit.
There is a long way to go, but the fact is, set aside our expectations for a second, and this year, we haven't seen a reason why this couldn't be the Pac-10's best defense. Okay, okay, how about a darn good Pac-10 defense? Say, No. 2 or No. 3 in the league. I think that might be enough this year…
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We like hyperbole in sports, and though Stanford fans are less guilty of it than most, maybe we got carried away over the offseason too: The defense is AWFUL, the offense is AMAZING, Andrew Luck is the BEST QUARTERBACK EVER, the offensive line is NFL-CALIBER, Notre Dame is going to throw for 400 YARDS (which, admittedly, still might happen) and so on. And, in our defense as fans, last year, and throughout much of Stanford's history, that was the case – our offense was THAT good, and our defense was THAT bad.
Here's the catch though: if you have an offense that's a 10 at passing and a 10 at running, but then a defensive back seven that's a two on the ten-scale, kind of what we were expecting for this year, that's going to be a great fantasy football team, but you're not going to win the Pac-10. 8-4 is about the norm, and sure enough, Stanford was 8-4 last year, and has maxed out about there with its best squads in recent memory.
This year, what if it's less fantasy football and more Ohio State? For the last ten years, Ohio State has rarely been GREAT at anything, save for special teams, but they were solid all around. Offense, a 7-9, defense a 9, and you know what, that's been good enough to win their conference however many years running and make however many national title games.
Okay, Ohio State has been a top-five team for a solid decade now, so a team maybe a shade worse but in the same mold – good everywhere, superlative nowhere -- what if that's Stanford this year? The offense dials it down from last year's 9 or this year's expected 10 to a 7 or 8. It isn't automatic in short-yardage situations, or in the red zone, as we saw in Pasadena, and the passing game will struggle at times, as we saw yesterday too. It might not lead the league in scoring like we expected, but it can run nine-minute drives to choke off games, it can capitalize on momentum swings and it can score a decent amount – each of which we saw Saturday.
The defense, meanwhile, dials it up from last year's 3 or 4 to a 7 or 8. Top-tier offenses like Notre Dame (with a healthy Dayne Christ), USC and, especially, Oregon will get their points, but this defense doesn't give up anything easy. It creates turnovers and sacks and avoids big plays – long gainers and dumb penalties.
It's not just opportunistic though, a la Scott Shafer's 2007 unit, for that would be selling the 2010 D's potential short. This year's D is physical and stuffs the run with regularity. Everyone tackles well and hits hard, so while good offenses will be able to move the ball, bad offenses really won't. Every offense, no matter how good, will struggle at times against this D, which will come up with key stops at key moments throughout the season.
So it's not as sexy, but what if we're less the Madden 2010 model and the Stanford 1969-2009 model –skill position players that are the best in the country, a D that is a sieve, and 45-42 shootouts – and more the Big Ten/Ohio State model this year? We win a lot of boring, ugly games – comfortably enough that the outcome is really never in question, but without the fireworks and flash of other teams in the league (cough, cough, 72-0, Oregon). Just boring games the way a football coach would like them – kind of like Saturday.
What if that's Jim Harbaugh's ultimately legacy to this team – installing a physical, Big Ten-style grind-it-out mentality that takes the league by storm not only on offense (in 2009), but on defense too (say, this year)?
No one team is a perfect 10 at everything, but a team is an eight everywhere, athletic, well-coached, strong and physical, could beat a whole lot of teams. With the possible exception of Oregon, in fact, there's no squad on Stanford's schedule that such a team couldn't beat, and looking not at expectation, but at what we've actually seen in 2010, that's kind of how this squad is shaping up.
I have never been more optimistic about the state of Stanford football.
That's our take, here are links from around the country: links.
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