State of Stanford: Improvement Week

No. 9 Stanford team has hit the ground running following its dominant defensive win over USC with another intense week of practice. David Shaw emphasized that now is not the time to revel in success, and while he's fine with a few smiles following the electric victory, he doesn't "want it to be like a national holiday."

Not even a glass of celebratory wine before turning to the bye - er, improvement - week before the season's first road trip to Washington?

"I've never had a drink of alcohol in my life," is the coach's calm, level-headed response. The workmanlike attitude is for real, indeed.

And with that, it's Stanford's time to fix some nagging issues as it moves on to new challenges, including what should be a raucous Thursday night crowd at CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Seahawks' venue. Husky Stadium is closed this year as it undergoes major renovation. It'll be the 2012 Cardinal's first time on artificial Field Turf and first time away from their home Stanford Stadium confines, so Saturday's lack of first-half offensive efficiency must be addressed.

Passing efficiency

"We have to be a 60 percent completion football team," Shaw said. Josh Nunes finished 15 of 32 (only 47 percent) against USC, a figure that would likely lead to a slip-up down the line, against even inferior competition. Take Shaw's concern as a hint that the Cardinal may continue pressing for a shorter, higher-percentage passing game. After starting 5 of 16 with many aggressive attempts to his tight ends in the seam, Nunes incorporated a shorter screen passing game that helped him double his completion percentage at a 10-of-16 clip down the stretch. One of those screen passes, Stepfan Taylor's 23-yard equalizing touchdown, might have been the game's biggest play.

Zach Ertz said that Nunes' demeanor and confidence in the huddle solidified the moment that he started successfully running for first downs. The quarterback finished with three "shocking" (per his coach) carries for 33 yards, but don't expect scrambling to be built into game plans from now on. "I'll continue to say no," Shaw said. "But I think that sometimes the best quarterback runs are the ones you don't call."

Return of Braveheart
Stanford classifies Ryan Hewitt's return from injury as immeasurable, pointing especially to his early physical third-and-one conversion that kept a drive alive to set up Stepfan Taylor's 59-yard touchdown run. Hewitt caught one pass on the "Spider 3Y Banana" flat pass made famous by Jon Gruden's television film analysis. [Ed: I yelled out "Spider 3 Y Banana in real time and the whole bar looked at me like I was nuts.] It would be a good bet to anticipate more involvement in the passing game for the Braveheart warrior moving forward, especially against a Washington team that will probably sell out against the run after after being trampled for 446 ground yards last year. The Huskies are giving up 4.5 yards per carry this season.

Offensive line clicking
Speaking of running the ball, the Cardinal offensive line finally gelled against USC, and it came in a game that saw Andrus Peat pound away in an expanded role at left tackle. A striking stat that is a testament to the offensive line's consistent victory up front: Stanford running backs did not suffer a single negative play all game, compared to the nine lost yards accumulated by Trojan backs.

"We always talk about body punches," said Ertz, who also blocked plentifully. "Eventually those will add up into a knockout."

Taylor's 153-yard day saw him become just the third Stanford running back to surpass the 3,000-yard mark. He's now 414 yards away from Toby Gerhart and 925 yards away from all-time Cardinal leader Darrin Nelson on the all-time list. With a potential 10 games remaining, the senior has an excellent shot at breaking the school's all-time rushing record.

Moving forward, David Yankey will probably continue to start at left tackle as Shaw credited Khalil Wilkes with solid play at left guard.

"We've got a good thing going now," he said.

Wilkes and Kevin Danser made key early blocks on Taylor's screen touchdown. Kyle Murphy, who was even targeted with an unsuccessful end zone pass, also continued to impress.

"Every time [Murphy and Peat] step on to the field, the get better and better," Shaw praised.

Inner workings of the defensive line
Josh Mauro shed some light on the success of the Stanford defensive line after practice, and it goes far beyond the fact that he and his counterpart end Henry Anderson both tower over the line at six feet, six inches.

"Part of what makes this line so good is how versatile everyone is," he explained. "You'll even see plays where David Parry [the second-string, 300-pound nose guard] is playing defensive end."

This ability to shift clearly flustered USC, as the Cardinal frequently moved ends Mauro and Ben Gardner to line up opposite USC backup center Cyrus Hobbi to blow up the middle of the Trojan offensive line. "They might have been getting a little frustrated," Mauro acknowledged in what might have been have been the understatement of the week. "But it was more about what we did as a defensive line."

So, what exactly did Stanford do to terrorize Matt Barkley (four sacks, one forced fumble) and stop the USC running game cold? According to linebacker Jarek Lancaster, who had a close-up view of the interior action, his teammates simply overpowered the Trojans.

"The way Ben Gardner manhandled some of those USC linemen was something I've never seen before," he said.

The Pac-12 defensive player of the week now has recorded five tackles for loss through three games after netting 10 during all of last season. Those offseason slow-release pull-ups seem to be doing the trick.

Mauro, by the way, says he is now "healthy as an ox" after dealing with a preseason hamstring issue. Lancaster says he is fine, too. He was helped off the field but returned to action after getting his "bell rung a little bit."

State of the secondary
"Much has been made of our apparent lack of athleticism in the secondary," Shaw said. "But we've been very good at tackling in space."

Thus opened a round of lavish praise for a hard-hitting secondary that kept Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, Nelson Agholor, and some large USC tight ends largely at bay.

He noted that cornerback Terrence Brown didn't give up a single reception (though he did draw two pass interference calls). His pick, along with another one for Jordan Richards, upped Stanford's 2012 interception total to six - only one shy of last season's tally. The graduation of Delano Howell and Michael Thomas initially caused much worry, and maybe rightfully so, since Richards had a rough go of it last year and Ed Reynolds hadn't seen live game action. But after three weeks of play, it looks like the secondary has been significantly upgraded this year. Reynolds looks like the real deal, and Richards isn't a true freshman anymore.

"I couldn't see them because I was rushing the quarterback," Mauro said. "But you could feel some of those hits from Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds."

Williamson's struggles
Kicker Jordan Williamson looked supremely confident through his first five perfect field goal tries of the season. Suddenly, though, life soured. He's now missed four straight kicks, dating back to an unsuccessful attempt in garbage time against Duke.

On two of Williamson's three misses against USC, Stanford's snap was imperfect (once it was low, once very high). Shaw speculated that the errant snaps might have affected Williamson's kicks, even though holder Daniel Zychlinksi rectified the situations in time to place the ball for the kick.

"[Jordan] just has to realize that he has the best in the business holding for him," Shaw said. "He has to trust the hold. The good thing is that this is not a physical thing. It's a technique and consistency thing."

Other notes
- Anthony Wilkerson will "probably be out" for the Washington game with a "lower leg issue." Remound Wright and Ricky Seale are next in line for carries. Also a candidate for increased carries is Kelsey Young. He is possibly the fastest man on Stanford's team and racked up 11 yards on a third-down outside pitch in the second half.

- It's likely that Matt Barkley will never win a game against Stanford (he's 0-4 in his career), but still possible that the Cardinal and the Trojans square off in the Pac-12 Championship game. However, even if the Trojan senior doesn't get another shot at Stanford, USC has a similar-looking guy with identical initials coming in. Top recruit Max Browne is expected to get a fair shake at the starting position next season.

- Stanford true freshmen have rushed off the practice field immediately at the conclusion of practice this week. New Student Orientation is underway, meaning that they've had to hustle to their freshman activities. There's nothing quite like the beginning of the Stanford academic experience.

- Just for kicks: since only Stanford and USC have played a Pac-12 conference game at this point, the Cardinal are in sole possession of first place in the North - ahead of Oregon. USC is in dead last in the South - behind even Colorado.


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. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.


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