Expert Analysis: DBs vs. USC

The last time I was in the Coliseum, we walked off the field with a 24-23 upset that has been referred to as the biggest upset of all time. On that night, the only people who thought we had a chance in that game were the coaches and players in our locker room. This game had a much different feel.

Coming off a 51-42 victory against Oregon, it seemed as though many fans and analysts were giving us a very good chance to win the game. After watching the Cardinal take care of business and win the game by a very impressive score of 55-21, it seemed as if everyone was somewhat expecting it. This is a very good thing for Stanford football: people are no longer surprised when we upset high-ranked teams, especially people who actually know what they are talking about. It is a very exciting time to be a part of the Stanford football program.

I knew for us to get the win against a team like USC, our defense would have to do two things. With an offense like ours, the defense has to eliminate the big play and the quick score to allow our long drives to have an effect on the ball game. Facing USC and all of its talent, this is usually a very tough task for any defense. The other thing our defense would need is turnovers. Getting the ball back to our ball-control offense just crushes other teams, leaving them with no time to play catch up. In this game, our defense stepped up with four huge turnovers and limited USC's explosive players to just a few big plays. This allowed our offense to literally run away with this game. I am very excited to write this article in what was probably our best defensive effort of the year. Now for the DBs…

First quarter

USC opened up the game with a "tunnel screen" to Brice Butler that goes for 17 yards. The tunnel screen is the quick pass to the WR who is running back towards the QB with the lineman coming out in front to block. To defend this type of play, the DBs must attack the blockers and force the WR back in to the rest of the defense. The linemen and linebackers are really the ones who need to make this play. They must recognize the play and hustle out to make the tackle before the WR really has the chance to get going. On this play, Butler was able to get out into open field before being tackled by safety Delano Howell. This is a tough open field tackle on a shifty WR that stopped Butler from a much bigger gain. Howell is a sure tackler that seems to be comfortable making these one-on-one tackles in open space, which is not an easy task.

A few plays later, QB Matt Barkley finds WR Ronald Johnson for an 18-yard gain which moves the ball deep into Stanford territory. Senior safety Bo McNally is in coverage on the play. One-on-one coverage is not McNally's strongest suit, although he is probably our best safety in terms of man coverage. On this play, he needs to stay square in his back pedal and trust his feet instead of flipping his hips and giving Johnson a two-way go. Bo recovers and closes ground on Johnson quickly, but not in time, as Barkley throws on target and makes the completion.

On the next play, Will Powers times his blitz perfectly from his outside linebacker position and causes Barkley to fumble as he drops back to pass. Senior defensive end Tom Mcandrew, wearing No. 20 in honor of injured teammate Clint Snyder, is there to scoop up the ball. Good call by defensive coordinator Ron Lynn, and even better individual efforts by the Stanford defense. Just the turnover we needed to stop USC as they were driving the ball down field. Stanford ball!

The next drive, after USC picks up one first down, they find themselves at second and nine. Matt Barkley drops back and is intercepted by defensive lineman Matt Masifilo on a RB screen. Masifilo is not a DB, but he sure looked like one on this play. He is coming around the end on a stunt from his defensive tackle position and recognizes the screen intended for USC RB Joe McKnight. He gets his head on the QB and sees the ball come out and is able to jump up and break up the pass. Showing a lot of ball control, he stays with it and dives to make a very impressive INT. Stanford's defense comes up with its second straight turnover!

USC starts its next drive with a 51-yard run up the middle by Joe McKnight. On this play Delano Howell finds himself one-on-one with McKnight in the open field, but is unable to make the tackle. McKnight is a special player who is very tough to tackle in the open field. That being said, we have seen Howell make this play before, and if he can find a way to get him down, it changes a 51-yard gain to only about eight yards. You have to love the speed and hustle by corners Richard Sherman and Johnson Bademosi to run down a very speedy McKnight and give our defense another chance to keep USC out of the end zone.

On the next play, Howell shows his short memory by shaking off the missed tackle and nearly intercepting a pass intended for TE Rhett Ellison. I like our chances when Howell is covering a tight end. If not for a very bad pass, this one is intercepted by Howell, who got a good read on QB Matt Barkley and beat the Ellison to the spot.

On 3rd and 5, Barkley hits #17 Travon Patterson on a slant, picking up the first down. Johnson Bademosi is in coverage. Bademosi has to realize the down and distance and "play the sticks". He needs to be more patient and play much tighter than he would on first or second down, because USC loves to throw slants on third and short. Bademosi has shown lots of ability in his last couple of starts. Now I would like to see him start learning the game and playing smarter through film study and game experience. He will make many more plays if he knows what his opponents are trying to do.

On the very next play, Bademosi makes a very strong physical tackle on RB Joe McKnight. A few plays later, Allen Bradford runs it in for USC's first touchdown of the day.

Second quarter

Stanford now leads 21-7 after a touchdown by running back Toby Gerhart. USC finds themselves at 3rd and 7 on their next drive. Barkley's pass is nearly intercepted by a diving Bo McNally, and USC is forced to punt. Three and out! On this play Stanford is in the nickel package and fakes a blitz, dropping seven back in to zone coverage. Barkley is pressured by Stanford's four-man rush and is forced to throw a bad pass just out of the reach of McNally. Good pressure by the front four makes the DBs' job a lot easier.

2:00 drill! USC is down 14 with 2:20 left in the half and goes in to a hurry-up offense. USC starts its drive with another WR screen. This time Richard Sherman does a fantastic job of stoning his blocker, forcing the WR back to the inside. The D line and linebackers are flying to the ball, and there is nowhere for Travon Patterson to run. One-yard loss, clock is running.

Stanford is in a cover-2 defense, designed to keep USC in bounds and not give up the deep ball with two safeties deep. Barkley finds WR Brice Butler on a slant for 13 yards and a first down. On this play, it appears that Bademosi gives up the completion, but he is actually doing his job of forcing the WR inside. Nickelback Michael Thomas is responsible for the slant of the outside WR. Instead, he bites on a slant by inside WR and gives Barkley an easy lane to hit Butler for a USC first down. Thankfully McNally makes a solid open field tackle to prevent an even bigger gain.

Barkley is looking sharp, as USC picks up a few first downs, while Stanford's defense is mainly concerned with keeping the ball in front of them and in bounds. Then, young corner Johnson Bademosi allows Brice Butler to get out of bounds after an 11 yard gain. His inexperience shows again as he doesn't seem as concerned with keeping the ball in bounds and the clock running as he needs to be. Just as USC is getting close to field goal range, Matt Masifilo comes up with another big-time play, as he sacks Barkley for a five-yard loss and all but ends USC's chances of scoring on this drive. Barkley misfires on fourth down, and Stanford goes in to the locker room up 21-7.

Stanford could hardly ask for a better first half on either side of the ball. The defense does a terrific job forcing two turnovers, a three-and-out, and a turnover on downs in the first half. One big play, a 51-yard run, set up USC's only score of the half. The way our offense is playing and controlling the clock, all our defense has to do is limit the big plays in the second half and USC will not be able to catch up from behind. Two turnovers on USC's first two drives really set the tone for this half.

Third quarter

After USC picks up a first down, Bademosi stops Ronald Johnson on a quick pass for a one-yard gain. Stanford's corners have shown a lot of improvement since the Arizona game of reacting to short throws from off coverage. Bademosi is playing about eight yards off the ball, but is able to react to the throw of the QB to hold Johnson to a minimal pick up on first down. USC is forced to punt after an incomplete pass on 3rd and 10.

Sudden change! Stanford's defense is back on the field after a fumble by running back Toby Gerhart. I am in the stands telling my former teammates and fans that USC will probably go deep to try and capitalize on the momentum shift. What do you know, on the first play Barkley hits Brice Butler for a 36-yard touchdown pass. Johnson Bademosi is in decent coverage, but does not make a play on the ball as Butler pushes off at the last minute. Watching the play more carefully, Bademosi needs to get hands on Butler at the line of scrimmage, as there is not any "bump" in his bump and run coverage. Then, as the play develops, he should lean into Butler, forcing him to the sideline and making this a much more difficult throw and catch for USC. Also, Butler has a significant size advantage over Bademosi. Sometimes when playing these taller receivers, it is better to turn into the WR and play through his hands than to look back and try to make a play on the ball. This makes it much more difficult for them to push off and create separation. 21-14.

USC starts its next drive with another tunnel screen to WR Brice Butler. After seeing this play a few times, senior safety Bo McNally sniffs it out and shoots past the blocker, stopping Butler for a loss of five yards! This is a very veteran play, as Bo has already seen this play a few times, and probably several times on film, and knows what is coming. The game is a lot easier when you know what your opponent is going to do. McNally is able to play very fast on the field because he is very confident in his ability and has very good football instincts.

On third and long, Barkley finds Ronald Johnson for a gain of 14 yards and a first down. Stanford is in a cover-2 defense, and nickelback Michael Thomas is defending the zone in which Johnson catches the pass. Thomas needs to understand that on third and long, the WR is going to run to the stick and turn around. I would like to see Thomas sitting right in front of Johnson, forcing Barkley to throw over his head. Thomas has developed a very good feel for playing the zones from the nickelback position. Hopefully now he can start taking his game to the next level and really understanding the way the offense is trying to pick up these first downs on third down.

On the next play Joe McKnight is able to completely reverse field on the Stanford defense and get around the left corner on a run that originally started to the right side. McKnight shows incredible athleticism on this play, but cornerback Johnson Bademosi should be there to contain the ball. Bademosi is hustling hard to get to the ball and allows McKnight to get outside of him as he cuts all the way across the field. Sometimes it is hard for younger corners to not chase the ball down, but he has to realize that he is not making that tackle and that his job is to stay home and not allow anyone outside of him. If he is there to force the ball back inside, McKnight has nowhere to run and is probably stopped for a minimal gain instead of a 17-yard run.

After a sack by Will Powers, who is having an impressive game so far, USC faces 3rd and 16. Matt Barkley drops back and finds Brice Butler for a 24-yard first down. Richard Sherman is on coverage on the play, and again I would like to see him do a better job of "playing the sticks". He should be just waiting to jump any pass near the first down marker. Instead, he loses Butler as stops at the top of his route and is unable to recover in time to stop the completion on a well-timed pass by Barkley. We need to be able to get off of the field on third and long.

On the next play, McKnight busts through the middle for a 28-yard TD run. On this play, McKnight is able to "split" the safeties and go basically untouched to the end zone. Our safeties, Bo McNally and Delano Howell, need to do a better job of playing together and squeezing McKnight back to each other. Howell comes up to fast and ends up chasing McKnight from behind, and McNally is a little slow coming up, allowing too much space for McKnight to work with. The result is bad as McKnight basically runs past both safeties with nobody there to even slow him down. USC is now within striking distance at 28-21.

Fourth quarter

After a TD reception by Coby Fleener, USC starts its next drive down 35-21. On 2nd and 6, Sherman is playing zone coverage and reacts late to a pass to TE Anthony McCoy. Sherman sees Barkley throw the ball, but hesitates to leave his WR to jump the throw to the TE. But, on the very next play, Sherman, again in zone coverage, reads Barkley's eyes all the way and steps in front of a short pass for an interception and 43-yard touchdown return! This is the play of the game! This time, Sherman trusts his eyes and breaks on the ball just as it leaves the QB's hand, as Barkley was staring down the WR the whole way. Also it is third and two, so it shows that he was probably expecting a short throw. Sherman has shown significant improvement after regaining his starting position. Just like that, Stanford is up 42-21!

Michael Thomas joins Bademosi at corner for USC's next drive. USC seems very deflated and is forced to punt after picking up just one first down.

After another Toby Gerhart touchdown, USC takes the field. On the first play, Matt Barkley is intercepted by safety Bo McNally. Michael Thomas is still playing corner, so #28 Harold Bernard is manning the nickelback position, and Bernard does a good job of rerouting the WR as McNally is playing over the top. Again, Barkley stares down the route as McNally does a fantastic job of reading his eyes and jumping in front of the pass. McNally pretty much shuts the door on USC with this interception, similar to the way he ended USC's last drive the last time the Cardinal came to the Coliseum in 2007.

In the second half, Stanford's defense gave up two big plays which resulted in two USC touchdowns. But, the defense also produced two more turnovers which put the game out of reach for the Trojans, and allowed Stanford to win the game easily. This was Stanford's most complete game as the Cardinal were able to win in all three phases of the game. With the exception of a few big plays, Stanford's defense controlled the Trojan offense all game. We were finally able to create turnovers, and I think we all saw how important these turnovers can be for a defense. With an offense like ours, opposing teams cannot afford to turn the ball over, because they may not get it back for a long time. If we can continue to cause turnovers and limit the big play, we will be very tough to beat down the stretch.

Some areas where we need to improve are playing smarter on third downs and containing the ball on the outside. We have to be able to get off of the field on third down, and our players should be able to learn to play the sticks in the weeks to come.

I want to also acknowledge the DBs playing on special teams. The DBs make up the bulk of the special teams, both starters and reserves. Players like Kris Evans, Austin Yancy, Taylor Skaufel and Harold Bernard, as well as the four starters, are busting their butts on special teams and play a big part in our special teams' success.

Thanks to the DBs, my last two trips to the Coliseum were very memorable, one as a player and one as a fan.

Go Card!

Before graduating with the Class of 2007, cornerback Nick Sanchez (#2) was one of Stanford's top cornerbacks in recent memory. In his final game on the Farm, his two interceptions sealed the Cardinal's first Big Game victory in far too long, 20-13 over Cal. Look for much more from Nick in the weeks to come!

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