Kyle Terada/USAToday

Stanford's Defense Rebounded Strongly in 2016

Stanford's defense wasn't spectacular, but it all added up to a an excellent group in 2016.

So much of the preseason for Stanford Football focused on the offense and the two big questions facing that side of the ball:  Who would be the quarterback and how would the offensive line come together?  As it turned out, both those answers were not answered proficiently enough for Stanford maintain its status among the nation’s elite teams, and it cast a shadow on a really solid bounceback year from Coach Lance Anderson’s defense.

After suffering significant slippage in 2015 due primarily to injuries, Stanford was by every major measure a top defense.  Stanford allowed 1.57 points per drive on defense in 2016, good for 17th-best in the nation. That rank fell from 8th in Anderson’s first year to 48th last season, so the Cardinal clearly got it together and proved to be the strength of the team.

Statistically, Stanford certainly adds up as better than the sum of its statistical parts. In Pac-12 play, the Cardinal finished with  22.4 points per game allowed, good for fourth in the conference.  Their 4.29 yards per carry was seventh, and against the pass they allowed 7.5 yards per attempt, which landed them at 6th in the league.

A look at some of the advanced metrics doesn’t immediately impress, either.  In terms of explosiveness, measured by Isolated Points Per Play, Stanford had a 1.25 average, which was 62nd in the country and just a tick better than the national average of 1.27.  In terms of Efficiency, which essentially measures how good defenses keep offenses behind schedule, Stanford was an upper third team, rating a 38.8% average which was 35th out of the 128 FBS teams.

The Cardinal was also effective at keeping teams from finishing drives.  Bill Connelly of the CFB Study Hall tracks points allowed per trip inside the 40 and by this metric, the Cardinal was again, good. Stanford allowed 4.05 points on such opponent matriculations, 31st in the country.  In the Red Zone during conference play, Stanford tended to keep teams out of the end zone.  Teams scored touchdowns on 59% of their trips inside Stanford’s 20, which was sixth in the conference.

So what did Stanford do really well? One thing that definitely happened was that as the game went on, Stanford’s defense got stingier.  Here is how the Cardinal rated in S&P+ by quarter this season:

 

Quarter

National Rank

1

24

2

56

3

19

4

17

 

As you can see, Lance Anderson did a great job with second half adjustments. The Cardinal became more and more difficult to beat as the game wore on. Stanford also got stronger and more consistent as the season progressed.  In its final seven games, only one team (Cal) scored more than 20 non-garbage time points against the Cardinal. Stanford held four opponents to 10 points (Notre Dame, Arizona, Colorado, and Rice) to only 10 points, while holding Oregon to just 13 relevant points and Oregon State to 15.  Say what you will about the defenses of Stanford’s final opponents, but those are mostly legit offenses.  Only USC and Washington held Oregon’s offense down that well, and only the Huskies were able to hold Colorado to 10 points.

Individually, Stanford enjoyed the services of two potentially all-timers at their position in Solomon Thomas and Quenton Meeks. Meeks was hampered by an injury in the second half of the season, but his value was perhaps most clearly illustrated in his absence.  Stanford profiled as a top defense overall, but without him they were destroyed by Washington and Washington State.  He returned against Notre Dame and had a pick six that helped win the game for the Cardinal.

The loss of Alijah Holder should also be factored into an evaluation of the Stanford defense.  Coach Anderson talked openly about how many more options exist when players like Meeks and Holder are on the field together.  In a season where there was no elite inside linebacker to be found on the roster, the excellence of Thomas, Meeks, and Holder should not be understated.

Thomas led the team in tackles (45), tackles for loss (13), and sacks (7).  It’s rare for a defensive lineman to be a leading tackler, but Thomas is a rare talent and the absence of a tackle machine like Blake Martinez at the next level of defense put even more onus on Thomas to finish plays. Nobody else on Stanford’s team had more than nine TFL’s or five sacks.  Both those numbers are on the resume of Joey Alfieri, who played a very strong second half of the season.

Justin Reid really came on strong at safety as the season progressed, and Frank Buncom IV’s emergence was the silver lining to the injuries to Meeks and Holder during the season.  

So there you have it.  It was a strong year for Stanford’s defense, even with the dumpster fires against the Apple State schools.  Certainly the absence of Meeks and Holder provides more of an alibi than the offense can muster for their similarly poor showings against the Huskies and Cougars.

Projecting forward is problematic because without knowing Thomas’ decision there is a huge piece of the puzzle missing.  With him, along with the returns of Meeks, Holder, Reid, Buncom, Alfieri, Harrison Phillips, Sean Barton, and more, this team won’t be lacking experience and could really take another step in 2017.

 


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