Stanford flew under the radar the first half of last season. It wasn't until the Cardinal defeated powerhouses Oregon and USC that they started earning respect nationally. But 2010 has been a polar opposite.
Jim Harbaugh didn't need to tell people Andrew Luck was the best quarterback in the country this year. Stanford broke into the rankings after the first game and moved up six spots to No. 19 after a convincing road win over UCLA. The Cardinal will be showcased in back-to-back games on the ESPN family of networks and even the wiseguys out in Vegas are giving them some love.
Attention from the national media can build confidence for a team, but it can also have a negative impact. If heads float too high into the clouds, players can lose sight on the task in front of them.
"There's a confidence and humility you want your team to have," Harbaugh said. "We want to move forward with humble hearts."
A focused and modest Stanford squad will move forward with a matchup against ACC representative Wake Forest. This team has been itching for a rematch against the Demon Deacons since last September. After jumping out to a 17-3 halftime lead in their first-ever meeting with Wake, the Cardinal were outscored 21-0 in the final two frames and the home team walked away victorious albeit with the assistance of some questionable officiating.
"Definitely everybody on the team remembers that loss," Andrew Luck said. "It stinks to make a cross-country flight and then get shutout in the second half. We definitely take that as extra motivation."
Stanford actually threw for more yards in that contest than it gained on the ground, 276 to 115. Ryan Whalen had a monster game with nine catches for 123 yards and two scores. He admitted that payback has been on the minds of the players.
"Definitely, that was a really tough loss on the road," Whalen said. "This is one of those games we've had marked on our calendars, as many others, so I think it provides us with a tremendous opportunity."
After a lackluster showing in Southern Cal, some observers have pushed the mild panic button on the Cardinal offense, but that is premature. Let's not forget that UCLA has a pretty salty defense, particularly the secondary. Coach Harbaugh said that he had zero problems with the way the offense executed against the Bruins.
Stanford put up more offensive points last week (28) than they did last year against the Bruins (24), but no one seemed concerned then. Wake Forest lost four of its top six tacklers from last season and Stanford has a chance to erupt offensively Saturday.
The Deacons are coming off a game where they surrendered 48 points and 487 yards of total offense—358 through the air. The defense gave up 362 yards to an FCS opponent in Week 1.
"We've seen an athletic group that likes to mix it up and get to the ball," Whalen said of Wake's defensive unit. "Duke's offense looked pretty good, but we'll just worry about our gameplan and we feel that gives us a good opportunity to win."
While many were quick to criticize the Stanford offense this week, the defense all of the sudden was placed in the class of an SEC unit. But much just like the offense was playing against a better-than-average defense in Pasadena, the defense was playing against a less-than-average offense. In fact, the Bruins appear pretty pathetic on that side of the ball at this early point in the season.
We heard about the defense forming an "identity" after the first five games last year, and then the wheels fell off, finishing the season ranked 90th in the nation. Fans and players must keep expectations tempered even after Saturday's strong performance.
"We're not getting so hyped about it. Coach Harbaugh said yesterday that UCLA was a good team, but we can't get caught up in it just because of the fact that we don't know where they'll finish in the standings," Michael Thomas said. "We love the fact that we were able to pitch a shutout at the Rose Bowl, but we're not getting high about it."
And they can't afford to grow big heads with a high-octane offense like Wake Forest on deck. The Deacons operate a little differently from last year without Riley Skinner under center. They have moved back to a spread/zone-read/triple option attack—something the Cardinal have struggled with in years past.
"They look very explosive; they've put up over 100 points in the first two games," said Thomas. "Any time you face a team with a running quarterback, like an Oregon, it's very dangerous. The key for us will be getting great run-pass keys and tackling."
Jim Grobe's offensive unit is averaging 53.5 points per outing through two games and 322.0 yards per game on the ground. Granted, these numbers have been posted on Duke and Presbyterian, but this is an offense designed to produce points. Grobe and his staff have been running it for 10 years and understand what it takes to execute it.
Running that offense in 2010 is QB Tanner Price, a one-time high priority Stanford recruiting target. The true freshman earned the starting job for the Duke game and performed well enough to keep it. Grobe won't ask him to throw more than 20 times (12-19, 190 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT last week), but he is as dangerous of a runner as he is a passer. Price carried the ball 10 times for 56 yards and a touchdown last week.
It's difficult to predict what kind of defense Stanford will come out with Saturday. The Cardinal used a 5-2-4 scheme against Sacramento State but then opted for its new 3-4 defense last week versus UCLA. Rick Neuheisel admitted that the 3-4 threw his offense off because it had prepared predominately for the other.
The 3-4 hybrid Vic Fangio has installed is probably better suited to contain an offense like Wake's. Harbaugh said that Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser played well as outside linebackers last week and that he feels comfortable putting them anywhere on the field.
"I thought they both played very well," he said. "They've both established themselves as playmakers."
The playing status of WR Chris Owusu, LB Shayne Skov and RB Jeremy Stewart are uncertain heading into the game. Harbaugh said he expected Owusu and Skov to practice this week, but they remain day-to-day with undisclosed injuries.
Stanford easily covered the six-point spread in last week's 35-0 victory over the Bruins. The Cardinal opened as hefty, 17-point favorites against Wake Forest with a total of 60.
About the Author: Bootleg Senior Writer Scott Cooley has worked in the sports media industry throughout his professional career, including serving as a writer for an ESPN production house and a professional football franchise. His work has been published in multiple print and online platforms including ESPN.com. He currently writes for yours truly, TheBootleg, as well as Covers.com and Bookmaker.com. Cooley specializes in football, baseball and basketball with an emphasis on sports betting. Cooley and his wife reside in California, contact him at Contact him at email@example.com
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