But the first post-Andrew Luck, grind-and-sweat-it-out, ugly victory was supposed to come later, not in the season opener against San Jose State. Not against a physically overmatched team that averaged a light 267 pounds on the defensive front. No way.
Thanks to Friday's 20-17 Cardinal squeak-by, it's now painfully obvious that Luck's importance epically transcended the stat sheet. The scoreboard showed a 51-point difference from last year's 57-3 season-opening whipping led by number 12. Interestingly, Luck's stats in that game (17-26, 171 yards, 2 TD) were close to Nunes' in this one (16-26, 125 yards, 1 TD). They would have been eerily virtually identical had Ty Montgomery not dropped a sure-touchdown bomb late.
Despite the statistical similarities, though, a repeat of the 2011 laugher suddenly stopped materializing after Friday's first quarter. Somewhere along the post-Luck route, Stanford football had lost grip of the physical cruelty that had suffocated inferior competition in the past. Was Luck really so influential beyond the story told by the simple numbers? Was he the one that had been fueling the merciless blowout machine? Does this lackluster performance suggest that the Cardinal have lost the rigid backbone that made them so great the past two years?
The absences of fiery leaders Ryan Hewitt (ankle) and Shayne Skov (suspension) contributed to Friday's wishy-washy play. Maybe the return of these two physical warriors will restore the lethal instinct that was sorely missing. The versatile Hewitt, for one, would have been a weapon on third down, where the Cardinal finished a dismal 2-for-13. Skov's missile-like speed could have snuffed out some effective Spartan reverse action and helped in coverage over big tight end Ryan Otten. His passionate style could have been contagious amongst what was a mostly complacent defensive front until crunch time.
Still, Stanford's season-opening struggles were obviously the product of more than just two missing players. This was San Jose State - a small team with three new offensive linemen, two new linebackers, and an offensive convert safety wearing jersey number 81 - wearing down a program coming off back-to-back BCS appearances. The Cardinal won one quarter 14-0; the Spartans won the remaining three 17-6. That's disturbing.
Something went missing after Stanford jumped ahead behind two punishing, in-your-face touchdown drives. One minute, San Jose State was (predictably) physically overwhelmed. The next, they were controlling the football game with a stranglehold that would last until the fourth quarter, when Ed Reynolds forced a fumble that finally stopped the Cardinal bleeding.
Lack of Line Continuity
Offensively, Stanford did not adapt to the adjustments that San Jose State's defense made. Stepfan Taylor rushed for only 37 of his 122 yards in the second half - so much for wearing down a smaller WAC opponent. It's likely that the Cardinal's attempted counter-adjustments caused miscommunication issues for an offensive line with an unfamiliar build. Taylor hinted as much in the postgame press conference. David Yankey's last-minute move from guard to left tackle gave Khalil Wilkes his first career start. Kevin Danser also saw his first starting action on the other side of the interior line. Stanford's interior line tripped up once the Spartans began offering varying defensive looks. The Cardinal unit, after all, was not configured the same way that it was for most of training camp.
It almost seems that Stanford was too cute with its shuffling up front, probably because Shaw was hesitant to have a true freshman protecting Nunes' blindside against San Jose State's best player, defensive end Travis Johnson (9.5 sacks in 2011).
The sooner Yankey can move back to his natural guard position, the better. It's imperative that either Kyle Murphy or Andrus Peat (who, surprisingly, only saw action with the kick blocking unit) lock down left tackle. Stanford's big boys were dominant through the games first two possessions. That was before complex reaction to San Jose State's adjustments was necessary, when the Cardinal's physical prowess was enough to control the action. The ensuing mess (only 3.8 yards/carry for the game) creates a sense of urgency for David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren to settle offensive line roles. A lack of chemistry won't cut it against Pac-12-sized competition.
Lack of Offensive Diversity
Shaw said Nunes played well. That's true, but the new guy also wasn't exactly allowed to do much. The Cardinal rushed 41 times and passed on 26 snaps. The playcalling only integrated one blow-the-top-off shot, a streak dropped by Montgomery late in the game (who, by the way, needs to be targeted far more often). Stanford had the opportunity to go for the jugular much sooner, but they passed on the opportunity.
Leading 14-3 in the second second quarter, a Stepfan Taylor 14-yard run and Jamal-Rashad Patterson 12-yard reverse kick-started a Cardinal drive that would reach the San Jose State 33 yard line. On second and third and long, Nunes threw underneath to Kelsey Young and Stepfan Taylor for two passes that lost a total of one yard. The drive stalled, Daniel Zychlinski punted from the heart of Spartan territory, and Stanford lost control of the football game.
There was never a better time to spread out the big receiving bodies and let Nunes loose than that. He was armed with an 11-point lead deep in his opponent's territory relatively early in the game. Even an interception would have been tantamount to a punt, which Stanford turned to anyway. It was a no-pressure situation in which Nunes could have bought some downfield confidence, and it was a golden opportunity to take a 21-3 lead that would have likely paralyzed San Jose State. The Cardinal could have avoided Friday's close mess altogether by just being slightly more aggressive at junctures like these. Easing a new quarterback into the mix is understandable, but fortune favors the bold - especially in zero-risk situations.
At one point in the first quarter, it looked as if Stanford would own 45 minutes of possession by game's end. The Cardinal had ground their way to two consecutive touchdown drives that sandwiched a lone Spartan three-and-out. But as soon as the Farm Boys took their foot off the gas pedal, their defense began to see more time on the field. It turned into a vicious cycle in the third quarter, when San Jose State ripped off consecutive 78 and 82-yard touchdown drives. Time of possession in the game ended up virtually equal, even after the Cardinal had gotten off to that dominant start.
The best defense is a good offense. The Stanford front seven has the potential to be dominant, but they'll struggle to establish the necessary push up front while pushed back on their heels. When push came to shove in a close contest during the fourth quarter, the Cardinal defense used Reynolds' forced fumble (and Usua Amanam's recovery) as a much-needed second wind. The unit clenched its fists and forced three punts and an interception the rest of the way.
The heroes, of course, were Amanam and Reynolds. They were fittingly both part of the tide-turning fumble and recovery late in the third quarter. Reynolds' ball-hawking aggressiveness is also a welcome change to a Cardinal secondary that struggled to create interceptions outside of the graduated Michael Thomas last season. In addition to sealing the game with a pick, the free safety narrowly missed another one in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Amanam's first two career sacks will give opposing coaches another blitzing threat to worry about, as if Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy on the edge weren't already enough.
Strong safety Jordan Richards has clearly made significant progress from his true freshman season, but he still made a glaring mistake. He was late on assistance to Devon Carrington on Noel Grigsby's 21-yard double-move touchdown catch late in the third quarter. Cornerback Terrence Brown was also burned in the game, most notably when Jabari Carr dropped a sure touchdown pass down the far sideline in the second quarter.
Aggressiveness Moving Forward
Despite its third quarter struggles, though, the Stanford defense bailed out offensive ineptitude with its shutdown fourth quarter. The game's first two offensive possessions should re-assure Cardinal fans; they proved that the team still has the physical talent to manhandle weaker competition. Continuity and consistency on the offensive line, energy and aggressiveness with the return of Skov and Hewitt, and a confidently aggressive approach can make this team look a whole lot better against Duke.
The time to make moves is now, because Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee sent a clear message Saturday: bar-fight style football won't be enough to beat USC September 15. Stanford will have to display some of its own flair and aggression - "character and cruelty" - by then.
About the Author: David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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