The worst part of the two cosmetic touchdowns Oregon scored in the fourth quarter last Saturday was that they took some of the shine off of what was yet another fantastic defensive performance by Lance Anderson’s defense. After three quarters, it was 52-10, and that’s a far more accurate reflection of how well the defense played against the Ducks.
Unlike Stanford’s recent offensive paroxysm, there are no asterisks necessary to contextualize the defense’s role in the Cardinal’s three-game winning streak. Arizona and Oregon State are pretty horrendous teams, but Oregon is a very good offense, and recall that the Cardinal also shut down Notre Dame and Colorado, it’s clear that the numbers quantifying their performance are legit.
On the surface level, Stanford’s defense may appear as solid, but not elite. The Cardinal is fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring average allowed at 21.4 points per game. It’s rush defense and and pass defense are not spectacular in conference play. The Cardinal allows 4.3 yards per rush and 7.7 yards per pass. That’s sixth and seventh in the league, respectively. The team’s 36 tackles for loss are sixth in the league as well.
However, digging deeper into the numbers reveals just how good the Cardinal has been. Stanford has raised “bend don’t break” to an art form this year. Only 51% of opponent trips inside the Red Zone have yielded touchdowns, the best (lowest) rate in the Pac-12. Stanford allows 1.57 points per opponent drive, good for 17th best in the nation. Opponents have scored on only 28% of their drives this year, 18th best nationally.
If any asterisks are to be assigned, it’s probably to the Cardinal’s struggles on defense against the Washington schools. No other team has cracked 30 points on Stanford, and only Oregon got past 20. Those are the two best teams in the conference, yes, but they also got to face the Stanford secondary without Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder. As soon as they returned, Stanford’s defense snapped back into form. Despite the big loss of Holder in the Colorado game and the loss of Hoffpauir prior to the Oregon game, the ascents of Frank Buncom and Justin Reid have more than compensated for those losses.
Anderson, of course, gets a big assist from his staff, most notably Duane Akina, who currently stands as one of the best hires of the David Shaw Era. Anderson has dealt with injuries, spotty play from both his linebackers and safeties, and an offense that struggled to produce more than one touchdown for five consecutive games. Despite all that, he has successfully re-established the Cardinal defense as one of the nation’s best.
In 2014, Stanford allowed 1.42 points per drive on defense, eighth-best in the country. That crew had to carry an offense that also struggled, though not nearly as much as this season’s. Last year, Anderson’s crew suffered some slippage despite having essentially only three available defensive linemen. Stanford fell to 48th in the nation in this category, so the rebound this year to 1.57 and 17th is significant.
Big Game this year looks slanted in Stanford’s favor primarily because in Cal the Cardinal offense once again has the chance to feast on a truly horrendous defense, one maybe not quite as horrid as Oregon, but still pretty awful. How awful? Cal’s defense has allowed teams to score on a whopping 48% of their drives, 122nd in the country.
The Bear offense, while not firing on all cylinders, still features Davis Webb and some skill players who can definitely stress a defense. Should the Cardinal retain the Axe, it’s likely that a team led by its defense all season long will once more stand on the shoulders of Coach Anderson’s side of the ball.