Punt (Jack Salisbury)
It's the end of October, and the stretch run is nearing for the Cardinal. Stanford could have made qualifying for a bowl game much easier if it didn't drop the game in Arizona, but I'll stop there--there's no reason to mention any more about what transpired in Tucson. What we can talk about though, is what Stanford needs to do and who it needs to step up to get the team to that magical mark of six wins (or maybe even seven, who really knows?)
The first guys I'm going to mention are probably who you've already been thinking of: talented Cardinal receivers not named Ryan Whalen. Namely, Chris Owusu and Doug Baldwin. Owusu and Baldwin give Stanford deep threats, and Owusu has followed through on that threat many times this season. But, as you all already know, his drops have plagued the Cardinal at key points against Oregon State and Arizona. Andrew Luck does throw with a lot of velocity on the ball, and putting more touch on the ball in appropriate situations is something he may have to work on. But it's clear that he could use a bit more help, too. Owusu has the chance to be a real good one before he leaves; talents like his don't make their way on the Farm all that often. But he, and the Cardinal for that matter, won't reach their full potential in the future with drops like the ones we saw the past two weeks.
Counterpunt (Wyndam Makowsky)
I certainly agree on the wide receivers. Baldwin isn't as much of a factor simply because he doesn't see the field that often. I don't know what's happened to Owusu over the past couple of weeks. He has to be a reliable offensive option throughout the remainder of the year, and if his case of the dropsies persists, we're going to be in trouble. At the least, I hope the coaching staff has looked at its younger players like Griff Whalen, who got some action against both Arizona schools, and the true freshmen Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson. Terrell has already assumed the PR duties, but if they can show that, well, they can catch, then get them on the field!
But the wide recievers are not our biggest problem. For that, we can look to defense. Let's make it simple: at this point, our tackling and coverage abilities are below poor. Guy runs into the pile? Great, we'll stuff him. Gets into the open field? Uh oh. The problem is defense-wide, which makes it hard to single out one or two players. But in that vein, I hope the coaching staff plays Shayne Skov, our surest tackler in the back seven, more than they have. After the Oregon State game, it looked like he was due for extended playing time against Arizona, but that never really came. He got a lot of reps against Arizona State—I hope that remains the norm. In terms of the secondary, the coaches have yet to decide which duo will start at cornerback against Oregon. Johnson Bademosi and Quinn Evans looked good against the Sun Devils—I'd like to see whether that was a function of bad quarterback play or legitimate skill. Plus, no one else has earned the "right" to the position. I'd also like to see Bo McNally try to do a little bit less--as the leader of a fairly green secondary, he's "roamed" a bit more than he used to, especially in coverage, so much so that he's broken up, by my count, two interceptions because of over-pursuit. While it's almost contradictory to say that in light of our CBs' problems, having Bo stay home a bit more will at least help him in the passing game.
It's true that the play of our defense has probably hindered us more than anything else. While mistakes by Owusu and Baldwin have plagued the team at particular points in games, their poor play has not been nearly as systematic as the way the defense was carved up the last two games. Our secondary definitely needs some work—the Richard Sherman experiment never seemed to get off the ground, and now it looks like it's finally backfiring for Harbaugh—but I think it all starts with the run defense. The run game is ultimately the foundation of any offense, and conversely, any defense's approach to that particular offense. Stanford's rush defense has shown chinks in its armor all year, whether it was Washington State's Dwight Tardy making consistent gains against us, or even UCLA's Jonathan Franklin finding holes against the defense. If the Cardinal hadn't jumped out to leads in those games, both of those running backs on mediocre teams could have easily rushed for 100 yards.
Those chinks broke down against Oregon State and Arizona, whether it was Jacquizz Rodgers running all over our defense or Greg Nwoko running for 57 yards on third and 18. (Third and 18... it hurts just thinking about it.) In the coming weeks, we're going to see the best running games we've faced all year, so the D line better be ready.
The problem doesn't seem to be with the defensive ends. The word about Tom Keiser is spreading around the nation by the minute and Erik Lorig isn't too shabby of a guy to have on the other side either. But those rare sacks and tackles-for-loss are not what anchor a defense; stronger play from the tackles is what the Cardinal needs to sharpen its run defense.
Actually, I'd say that Lorig's absence has shown some weaknesses in our defensive end rotation, mainly because he is our best defensive end against the run. Keiser still has work to do in that department, and Chase Thomas is almost strictly a speed rusher at this point. Tom McAndrew gets his TFLs, but he is one guy--having Lorig back could shore up our run defense at the corner. But, the ends are the least of our problems. As are the DTs. Given the injuries to Matt Masifilo and Brian Bulcke, I think Udofia and Fua have carried their weight, and Masifilo looked good in his return against ASU. Those are three gigantic guys in the middle and again, not a lot of success is coming from pounding the rock into the pile.
Mainly, I'm interested to see the defensive back combinations we come up with. By my count, we have nearly a dozen guys who could all see some serious playing time.
Speaking of more offensive issues, let's see how much the tight ends are used in the second half. Luck has started to look more toward Konrad Reuland and Jim Dray, and he was playing well with Coby Fleener during the off season. If the WRs can't catch, go to that group. There is a lot of talent there--Reuland has a knack for getting open, Dray is a reliable pass catcher (which gets overshadowed because of his blocking ability), and Fleener is absurdly talented. His combination of speed and size is rare at any level.
My final nomination for who the Cardinal need to step up would be a group has been solid for most of the year so far: our linebacking corps. I mention them in particular, because if Stanford has had trouble stopping the run this year, who knows how it'll fare against Oregon on Nov. 7?
Ducks QB Jeremiah Masoli looks as if he might be a linebacker himself. He's not afraid to run over a safety the way Toby Gerhart might, and he seems to be a great fit for Chip Kelly's spread option. He's gotten plenty support this year from not LeGarrette, but LaMichael. LaMichael James is likely on his way to winning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, having already amassed 735 rushing yards on the year. The Stanford linebackers are going to be crucial in tracking down both Masoli and James. The linebacking corps always seems to get its tackles, but it's going to have to earn each and every one of them next Saturday when the Ducks come to town.
The linebackers looked good against San Jose State, Washington, UCLA and ASU, but looked poor against Wake Forest, Arizona and Oregon State. The problem? Speedy backs and receivers, which the latter three teams possessed, can drive us absolutely nuts. That is not a good problem to have, especially when James, Joe McKnight and Jahvid Best are some of the backs you have to face over the next few weeks. And then there's the almost sure possibility that Michael Floyd could be back for the Notre Dame game. It will take a collaborative defensive effort to slow those guys down.
It appears that we've gone through practically the entire roster. But that's okay—in order to survive this murder's row, the onus is on the team as a whole to take the next step forward.
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