Beat the Big Tackles
Utah is dangerous, but they're not as talented as Washington. The Utes' biggest vulnerability, particularly against a pass-rushing juggernaut like Stanford, appears to be on either edge of their offensive line. Tackles Jeremiah Poutasi (6-5, 345 pounds) and Siaosi Aiono (6-2, 305 pounds) are huge, but they may be a bit too slow to stave off elite Pac-12 speed rushers. UCLA's Anthony Barr took full advantage last week, racking two sacks and three tackles for loss after running circles around the big boys on the edges.
Stanford has similar pressure capabilities. Trent Murphy has developed an otherworldly burst over the offseason (did you see him close the gap on Keith Price on his first half sack?), while James Vaughters can bring serious speed from the other edge. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson threw six interceptions against the Bruins last week, and the Cardinal have the firepower to pressure him into forcing more mistakes Saturday.
Furthermore, Utah didn't run all too effectively against UCLA, with 99 yards on 33 carries, for a 3.0 average. If Stanford can similarly neutralize the Utes' rushing attack, the Cardinal will have the luxury of resorting to nickel packages that will feature either Usua Amanam or Joe Hemschoot, two players who both have the ability to run around slower tackles on a speed rush.
"Win on first and second down, stop the run, and earn the right to rush the passer on third," Hemschoot smiled.
Here's No. 40's interview with the The Bootleg Radio. Be sure to also watch his first hit on the embedded highlight reel. It's worth your time.
Administer Punishment On Third Down
Forcing Utah into the aforementioned third down situations will be vital for Stanford. The Utes have converted only 3 of 27 third downs over the course of their past two games (11 percent). Needless to say, that's a horrendous clip. It's also one Stanford can ride to relatively easy victory if they can succeed defensively on first and second downs in order to force the Utes into those troublesome conversion opportunities. Derek Mason's usual formula seems to hold extra significance this week: Stop the run on first and second down, and then tee off on third down.
Since Jake Murphy, the Utes' primary tight end, is out with a broken hand, Stanford should be able to devote more attention to explosive receiver Dres Anderson. The Utes have run eight plays for 50 yards or more (third most in the nation), so disciplined defense will be required to limit this explosiveness on the early downs.
Bring Back Passing Efficiency
Kevin Hogan's numbers were fantastic throughout September, but October's first contest served a rude awakening. No. 8 finished 12-for-20 for only 105 yards against Washington. He looked uncomfortable in the pocket as he missed on numerous bullets into tight windows. The passing attack's only memorable play came on Ty Montgomery's 39-yard touchdown catch.
Hogan will almost certainly be better Saturday at Salt Lake City, though, and here's why: Utah's secondary is not nearly as good as the Huskies' unit. Whereas Washington's pass defense is ranked atop the Pac-12, the Utes are are in the bottom half of the league's statistical breakdown. They've intercepted only two passes on the season.
Kyle Whittingham's club will blitz aggressively in an attempt to mask this subpar pass defense (they do lead the Pac-12 in sacks), but Stanford has the weapons to make the Utes pay for their aggressive approach. If the Cardinal deal with Utah's pressure effectively, they'll be in position for an afternoon of big plays.
Maintain Special Teams Dominance
A superb effort in this department allowed Stanford to beat Washington. The Cardinal's special teams unit has been fantastic so far this season. In fact, Stanford has started drives a total of 987 yards further downfield than its opponents, by far the best margin in college football. These results are born out of Pete Alamar's meticulous attention to detail. He explains below.
- Stanford players are rapidly healing. Both Shayne Skov and Ben Gardner were full-go in practice Wednesday, while the medical staff has cleared Blake Martinez for travel to Salt Lake City. Nose tackle David Parry sat out practice with a lower abdominal issue, but Shaw expected him to be back in action on Thursday. That's great news for a team that will be missing Ikenna Nwafor, Parry's backup, for several weeks.
- Shaw discussed sophomore cornerback Alex Carter's development. "He has the chance to be one of the true difference makers on this level and the next," he said. "He hasn't reached his ceiling yet."
- I asked Shaw about the earth-shattering hit that led off Hemschoot's high school highlight tape (embedded above). "That's how he got here," Shaw smiled. "That's how the legend was born. Just about everyone on the team has seen it. ... everyone in the entire room went 'Ooooooooooh'. ... He's a human missile, and the best part about him, he keeps his head up [on hits.]"
- Stanford's coaches are all moved into their new 27,000 square foot facility, and Shaw says that it has exceeded expectations when it has come to productivity. "Everything is better," he said. "We have more space. Upgraded technology in meeting rooms. We're able to do multiple things. ... We can't be thankful enough to the people who have contributed."
- Trent Murphy is on pace to record about 11 sacks and 17
tackles for loss. He's taken his explosiveness to a new level,
and his coach is certain that he'll immediately contribute to an
NFL team next year. Murphy's massive wingspan and ability to
cover huge space, particularly in zone alignments, has even
garnered serious interest from teams that run 4-3 defensive
schemes. "He will play Day 1," Shaw said.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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