"If we force stops and create turnovers," he told his team at midfield, "we're going to win games."
It was sure odd hearing those words, considering how offensive efficiency has become synonymous with winning on the Farm during the Andrew Luck era. But the Cardinal plan to lean more on the other side of the football since the now-professional No. 12 only watches his school from the sidelines in street clothes.
In an offense versus defense scrimmage that awarded points to the defense for stops and turnovers, Stanford's big, physical unit supplied plenty of both in its 37-29 victory over the offense. That's 37 points of defense churned out primarily by the Cardinal's nasty front seven– impressive considering that a forced turnover counted for seven points, while a stop netted only four.
In an intrasquad scrimmage, though, every positive comes with its inverse negative. On Saturday, it meant that the Luck-less Stanford offense, directed primarily by quarterbacks Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham, paled in comparison to the team's hardened defense.
The quarterback question
"I don't care what the numbers say," Shaw told the AP's Antonio Gonzalez of his quarterbacks. "Today, that position was not played well enough for us to win a football game."
The numbers, actually, were not all too impressive for Nunes and Nottingham, the leading candidates duking it out to be Luck's successor. Nunes completed only 11 of 29 passes for 167 yards. A good chunk of that production came on an underthrown touchdown pass to Ty Montgomery, who fought back to the ball through both Harold Bernard and Ed Reynolds to save his quarterback's inaccurate throw. More on the impressive Montgomery later.
Nottingham was a bit sharper, finishing 12-of-19 for 118 yards despite playing mostly with the second-team offense. He also zipped the most impressive pass of the day, finding Keanu Nelson near the pylon on a perfectly-placed back shoulder laser beam that set up the offense's first touchdown.
"Nottingham made some good throws," Shaw acknowledged. "But there are some things you can't see from the stands. He missed some things as well."
Nunes was disappointed in his performance, which came in the teeth of a pass rush that tallied eight sacks and forced two turnovers.
I feel like I left a lot of plays on the field today," Nunes said. "We've got some of the best defensive linebackers in the country, so they definitely gave us a run for our money."
Both Nunes and Nottingham, though, looked proficient rolling to left. Nottingham has the big arm, while Nunes may have a slightly better running instinct. But Luck's replacement will not be determined until late summer.
"That competition is still even," Shaw said.
A dominant front seven
Stanford's defense was the true story of the day. As fixated as the media will be with the storyline of the post-Luck era, the Cardinal's front seven is the team's most experienced unit – and clearly its best.
Between Chase Thomas, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, and Henry Anderson, brawn and athleticism populates the defensive box, and it truly was a sight to behold at Kezar. Josh Mauro and Terrence Stephens also made plays from the line to contribute the eight-sack effort.
Murphy, in particular has made huge strides. At six-foot-six, 255 pounds, he is a massive specimen that responds like a brick wall to any contact. Murphy's quickness on the edge, though, is what set him apart Saturday. He blew past Cole Underwood untouched for a pure speed sack early in the second half. Chase Thomas is another NFL-caliber talent manning the opposite edge and one of the top defensive players in the nation.
Overall, the Cardinal unit has a notably large, intimidating, and imposing look to it up front. These guys have gotten even bigger and stronger since last year.
"We're rolling two deep on our front seven," Shaw said. "And that is extremely encouraging."
Imagine if Shayne Skov returns to full health from his knee injury. That's a tantalizing prospect to consider, as are potential contributions from sophomore James Vaughters and, possibly, incoming star Noor Davis. Stanford's front seven will be the backbone of the 2012 team, and it has the potential to develop into a concrete wall.
Not all negative for the offense
Still, the Stanford offense had a number of positives to hang its hat on – other than the fact that it won't have to face the team's front seven during games that actually count. The team's attack wasn't completely stone-walled, as evidenced by the 29 offensive points and a handful of eye-opening plays downfield.
Shaw has expressed interest in turning to a more receiver-oriented offense so that his passing attack can better keep teams honest in the secondary, and spring game returns on that front were promising.
Ty Montgomery, the wide receiving corps' true stalwart, finished with six catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns, including the aforementioned 45-yard scoring grab. That was a true "beast mode" catch for a player who looked as if he had packed on even more muscle during the first four months of the offseason. Director of Football Operations Matt Doyle told me that Ty's always done a great job of preparing himself physically.
While Montgomery seems poised for a true breakout year, the effectiveness of the other wideouts will be the determining factor as to whether Stanford will actually turn to more receiver usage, or if the Cardinal will stick with their three tight end attack.
Jamal-Rashad Patterson has always had the physical tools to make big plays, but his talents have never turned into consistent productivity on the field. He made a leaping, physical, 41-yard catch over the secondary on a go pattern down the right sideline. Nunes slightly underthrew that ball, but Patterson adjusted as he soared into the air and voraciously went after it. However, Patterson also bobbled a Nottingham throw, leading to an interception. The Spring Game showed some of his promise, but the senior still has work to do to become an every-play type of presence. It should be noted that sophomore defensive back Wayne Lyons did an excellent job in coverage on Patterson's side for a good chunk of the game.
On top of his aforementioned catch on a perfect Nottingham throw, Keanu Nelson racked up three catches for 51 yards. Drew Terrell's speed always makes him a threat. And at six-foot-three, 208 pounds, walk-on Jordan Pratt has the size to open eyes, but he dropped a pass downfield on the pattern during which he gained the most separation from the defense.
It's likely that Stanford won't completely abandon 2011‘s three tight end attack, despite the departure of Coby Fleener to the NFL. One of Davis Dudchock's three grabs for 38 yards was on a beautiful diving, horizontal play in the middle of the field. The native Alabaman, who turned down Auburn to come to the Farm, brings more imposing size and promise to the position for the Cardinal.
Like the quarterback situation, though, the complexion of the passing attack won't be sorted out until August, and will likely evolve throughout the 2012 season. The Cardinal's potential use of receivers out of the backfield remains a possibility, as Kelsey Young was used in that capacity downfield in addition to his six carries for 48 yards. Young is one of the fastest players on the Stanford team, but his hands can use some improvement. He dropped one surefire big play downfield early on.
Another important note regarding the offensive skill positions: none of the Cardinal's "big three" running backs played Saturday. Stepfan Taylor sat out, Anthony Wilkerson has been injured throughout spring ball, and Tyler Gaffney was playing baseball back at Sunken Diamond.
Most encouraging sighting
When walking from the press box down to the field, I passed by a behemoth of a man. He was so big and strong that I was sure he had to be a Stanford football alumnus in his late twenties playing professionally now. For some reason, though, I couldn't recognize him.
Suddenly, it all clicked. The six-foot-seven, 300-pound giant wasn't an NFL player, but rather a high school senior. He was none other than the nation's No. 1 offensive line recruit Andrus Peat, part of the Cardinal's heralded 2012 class. And, oh boy, was the incoming tackle strong. His calves looked like pillars of granite.
Suddenly, I was much more at ease with having Stanford start a true freshman at the left tackle position vacated by Jonathan Martin. Peat may well be competing for that spot with fellow recruits Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett. Remember, the left tackle will protect the blind side of a new right-handed quarterback.
Zach Ertz was limping slightly back and forth along the offense's sideline during the second half. He might have been dazed after a big hit over the middle early on. Fullback Geoff Meinken, though, appeared to be hurt more seriously. Meinken was carried off the field in the first half and later was seated next to Luck on the bench in street clothes with a large brace on his left knee.
Players begin their individual meetings with the coaching staff next week to make sure the team is on the right track both academically and athletically. Summer camp begins in August, but plenty of improvement awaits before then.
In the postgame huddle, Shaw emphasized the importance of constant improvement over the next few months. "We need to be a much better football team then," he said.
About the Author: David Lombardi is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years and is currently contributing to the Cardinal Channel. You can check several of his Stanford calls out at www.davidmatthewlombardi.com, where you can also read his West Coast-oriented blog via this direct link. For Stanford baseball insights, follow David on Twitter at davidmlombardi.
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