One problem: in college football, every game counts. (Unless you play in the SEC. It will be interesting to see exactly how Arkansas gets its reprieve after losing to Louisiana-Monroe.) Thus, the Cardinal's season-opening San Jose State squeak-by stirred up far greater nauseating unease than any exhibition possibly could. Saturday's 50-13 pasting of Duke certainly restored order and supplied a sigh of relief. We now are reassured that Stanford still has the ability to maul a physically overmatched opponent.
Now, we'll find out if David Shaw's club is still able to pick on someone its own size. USC looms, and the Cardinal may well be wishing that they had at least one extra "build-up" game to iron out some lingering, alarming deficiencies that were on display against the Blue Devils.
But the "preseason" is over. Stanford Stadium will be full next week, likely pulsating with the help of over 20,000 Trojan faithful before students even fully return to the Farm. A national audience will be treated to a heavyweight match-up: Matt Barkley and his Marqise Lee-led stockpile of weapons on one side of the ball; Shayne Skov and his fearsome front seven on the other [Ed: and Gus Johnson in the booth!].
Skov spearheads front seven
Skov's return hightlighted Stanford's week two win. He's trimmed down from his "chubby" 251-pound pre-injury self, checking in at a more muscle-laden 242 pounds. The quickness and energy were there for No. 11, and both rubbed off on his teammates. A week prior, the Cardinal struggled getting pressure against a relatively inexperienced San Jose State offensive line. This time around, they brought the heat against a veteran Duke front, sacking Sean Renfree twice and dirtying his jersey countless other times.
Chase Thomas finally drew a long-overdue holding flag, country strong Trent Murphy notched his first sack, and Alex Debniak continued to provide superb immediate depth with his pressure from the outside. Jarek Lancaster, who led the way with 10 tackles, stole some of James Vaughters' (only one stop) thunder, but Renfree won't soon forget being pile-driven into the ground by the sophomore "freight train" on a third-quarter blitz package.
Most notably, the Cardinal scared the Blue Devils out of running the football. Duke coach David Cutcliffe got the curious idea that his team would be fast enough to hurt the Cardinal laterally with bubble screens to the edges. I suppose this was the gameplan's initial substitute to rushing the football, but neither worked. Cutcliffe was right about his team not being to run; they finished with 1.2 yards per carry against a stout defensive front that showcased a deeper rotation than a week prior. (David Parry and Josh Mauro both notched their first significant action of 2012.)
Cutcliffe, though, was wrong on his bubble screen strategy. Thomas and Murphy were superb in their coverage of the edges, often arriving to tackle Blue Devils receivers Jamison Crowder and Desmond Scott on the sidelines before a Stanford cornerback arrived. Perhaps Duke was inspired by film of last season's Oregon Slip-N-Slide debacle to think the Cardinal secondary would miss tackles in space if they could divert linebackers away from the screen passes. That idea didn't work, either: Terrence Brown and Barry Browning were both phenomenal making one-on-one stops in the open field. I counted only a couple of missed tackles on the edge all game long as Brown notched nine stops.
The absence of any semblance of a short yardage game, whether it be via hand-offs or quick screens, meant that Duke was unable to set up a chance to get their offensive star Conner Vernon involved downfield. The senior, who entered the game only 25 catches away from the ACC record, was held to six grabs for 49 yards - or only 30 percent of his production in the Blue Devils' season opener. Renfree just didn't have the time to wait for Vernon to find soft spots in the secondary downfield, and that equated to disaster in the form of Ed Reynolds when he tried.
Reynolds jumped in front of two Duke passes and fellow safety Jordan Richards picked off another, giving Stanford four interceptions through two games. That's impressive, considering that the Cardinal recorded only seven all of last year. Three of those picks graduated with leader Michael Thomas, but Reynolds has already matched that number in 2012.
All told, the Stanford secondary played on its toes, and not on its heels. It's finally displaying the ball-hawking mentality that will be necessary to succeed post-Andrew Luck. The formula to beat USC almost certainly includes turnover help, and Reynolds has shown that he can victimize Barkley - if the Stanford front seven can pressure the Trojans' main man.
Speaking of quarterback play, Stanford's was far from consistent against Duke. Josh Nunes (16-30-275-3 TD-1 INT) made some beautiful decisions and passes, but those came alongside a number of lousy ones. Many of Nunes' fantastic plays downfield came against man coverage in which Levine Toilolo and Ty Montgomery were simply too physically imposing (we're talking 8-9 inch height advantages) to be covered by smaller Blue Devils. There was also the ugly, telegraphed Ross Cockrell interception, thrown behind Zach Ertz into double coverage. The Trojans' top flight defensive backs, particularly cornerback Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald, will erase much, if not all, of Stanford's physical advantage downfield. Nunes will have to be much better next Saturday.
It's also too bad that Brett Nottingham didn't see more significant time so that he could stay sharp in actual game conditions. Even though this one was a blowout early, the Cardinal back-up only threw three times in the fourth quarter.
Still, the aggressiveness Stanford displayed was refreshing after the uninventive offensive exhibition against San Jose State. Despite the game's 37-point gap, the Cardinal passed seven more times than they ran (33-26). It can be argued that much of this was necessitated by Duke's defensive approach, since the Blue Devils consistently stacked nine men in the box. But the newfound push in the passing game was apparent nonetheless. In fact, the second play from scrimmage featured an over-the-top lob to Montgomery. It took the Cardinal about 58 minutes to get to a similar play a week earlier. Stanford also worked hard to get its tight ends involved downfield this time around and even lined them up in the backfield at times to mask the absence of fullback Ryan Hewitt, who will be back next week.
Return of the fullback
Hewitt's versatility should also give Stanford's rushing attack some more breathing room following another sub-standard performance that didn't top 100 yards for the first time since early 2008. With or without Hewitt, though, Stepfan Taylor shouldn't be forced to face nine-man boxes again against USC. It's up to Nunes to prove sufficiently consistent to dissuade the Trojans from doing that. The quarterback's efficient 7-for-9 second half performance against Duke, which featured three touchdown passes, was a positive step in that regard.
Another offensive observation of note is the development of the Cardinal's left tackle position. The spot wasn't filled exclusively by David Yankey anymore, as freshman Andrus Peat rotated in and played serious snaps. The most meaningful of all came on Taylor's 13-yard scoring run in the second quarter. Peat held down left tackle on the play, allowing Yankey to shift to left guard and blast open Taylor's hole up the middle. Two severe injuries have made USC thinnest on the defensive line, so Yankey's presence at guard has the potential to really punish a Trojan soft spot.
Special teams scores, too
Not many seem to realize that Drew Terrell actually led the Pac-12 in punt returning (12.0 yards/per) last year, probably because he had never taken one back to the house. Not anymore. Terrell's 76-yard runback spearheaded another solid special teams effort that included more stellar punting from Daniel Zychlinski (45.3 average) and confident kicking from Jordan Williamson. It'll certainly take defensive and special teams help for Stanford to pull the upset Saturday.
So, child's play is over. Bring on the meat of the schedule and bring on the Trojans - even if the early date means that it may not feel like a Stanford home game. After all, the Cardinal have played USC much better on the road the last half decade.
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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