September 6, 2008

Stanford preview

With its season opening 36-28 win over Oregon State at home last Saturday, Stanford has back-to-back Pac-10 wins (including last season's finale versus Cal) for the first time since 2005, and has won four of its last seven conference games.

Of course, the Cardinal also lost five of their final seven games last season following the highly improbable 24-23 win over USC in Los Angeles on Oct. 6, a win we would suggest was even more of an upset than Appalachian State over Michigan.

Stanford has some continuity under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh and a veteran team, returning an almost unheard of 20 players who started six or more games last season. Then again, when those players return from a team that went 4-8 and 3-6 in the Pac-10, there are two things we feel comfortable predicting: One, the team will be improved. Two, its players are still not good enough to compete on a consistent basis at the highest level in this conference.

Outside of the certifiably insane 1-in-100 (1-in-1000?) win over the Trojans and a 20-13 win over Cal in the season finale (we know practically anything can happen in that game on any given year), there wasn't much for Stanford to be particularly proud of last season, being blown out by six other Pac-10 opponents (14 or more points in each game), with losses to TCU and a bad Notre Dame team sprinkled in.

Still, after the Cardinal snuck by the Beavers last Saturday, at least one Pac-10 coach decided he'd seen enough to heap praise on the Harbaugh-led bunch.

"Stanford to me is the most improved football team in our league that I've seen," ASU's Dennis Erickson said. "I'm not just talking about what happened [against] Oregon State. I'm talking about as your track them back through last year, I've watched every tape on them last year and this game (and) the improvement that they've made, how they play physically, the attitude under coach Harbaugh is an unbelievable improvement."

Nice praise certainly, and we sense Erickson has genuine appreciation for the job done thus far by Harbaugh, but the cynical part of us has to wonder how much of that is being said because Stanford just happens to be he team ASU is lining up against this weekend.

How much better this team is than the squad that lost 41-3 at home to these Sun Devils last season remains to be seen.

What we can say with reasonable certainty is that after finishing last in the Pac-10 in passing defense last season (allowing 266 yards per game via the air) Stanford's secondary is again suspect, at least at this early juncture, after giving up 404 passing yards and three touchdowns to a thoroughly inexperienced and unproven Lyle Moevao. This is a quarterback who threw six interceptions and two touchdowns in all of the 2007 season, on 147 passing attempts.

Keep in mind, Moevao hasn't started a nation-best (OK, tied for the national best) 32 consecutive games like Rudy Carpenter has; he doesn't have as many quality wide receivers targets as Carpenter has to throw to (the greatness of Sammie Stroughter notwithstanding; he didn't get the luxury of playing on his home field in that game, as Carpenter will.

So what can we expect from Stanford in this game, keeping in mind the team this year added Ron Lynn as its new co-defensive coordinator, a coach who is extremely well known for his attack-attack-attack blitzing style defenses which attempt to control the line of scrimmage and force opponents to throw the ball.

We're guessing it will be about the same approach as the Cardinal threw at the Beavers. Yeah, Stanford is going to try to take away ASU's run game, blitz the ever-loving you-know-what out of the Sun Devils and try to make Carpenter win it via the air.

And don't think for a second the Sun Devils don't know it, and aren't willing to face the challenge. Look no further than the public comments of Erickson and Carpenter this week.

"Our football team, right now philosophically is we're going to come out flaming," Erickson said following practice Wednesday. "If they kick people out of [the box] and stop it then we'll run. It's a little different that what we were a year ago where we ran it and when they brought guys down in [the box] then we threw it. We're a little different philosophically this year."

"[The defense] seemed pretty similar from what they did last year but when Oregon State was kind of playing catch-up in the second half, they played a lot of three down defense and they started blitzing a whole lot more," Carpenter said. "So I'm under the assumption that we're probably going to get blitzed a whole lot, so we've got to be ready for that."

Keep in mind, last week ASU played an NAU team that also tried to take away ASU's run game and force Carpenter to air it out, and the senior hit for 388 yards in two-and-a-half quarters. Granted, NAU probably didn't blitz as much as Stanford will, or disguise that pressure as well, but it's still, as mentioned, a defense that gave up more yards than any other in the Pac-10 via the air last season, and it's still the defense that gave Moevao 404 yards via the air last week.

Stanford's defensive game plan isn't the only one that is pretty easy to figure out, however.

Something else we saw last week was Stanford rush for 238 yards on 48 attempts (a combined 37 between the impressive running back due of Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble) against the Beavers, while only throwing the ball 17 times for 91 yards on 10 completions.

Junior quarterback Tavita Pritchard made seven starts last season, and played in nine games total, and finished the season with just five touchdowns against nine interceptions.

So the key, certainly, is to load the box up and try to limit the success of the run game, and in particular Gerhart, a big 6-foot-1, 232 pound junior who had 152 yards on 19 carries against the Beavers.

About Stanford

Head coach: Jim Harbaugh (second season)
2007 Season: 4-8 (3-6)

Offense

This is a run-based team that needs to establish a successful ground game to have any real shot at winning on Saturday. Gerhart and Kimble are a relatively formidable duo, and the Cardinal return a pretty respectable offensive line headlined by center Alex Fletcher, a Rimington Award and Outland Trophy Candidate, right tackle Chris Marinelli, with 18 career starts, and fifth year senior left tackle Ben Muth, who started nine games last season.

But the Cardinal finished with minus two yards rushing in the 41-3 loss to ASU last season, and from that team, the Sun Devils return five of its front seven starters. They'll likely need a complete reversal, going from atrocious to excellent to win this year's rematch, baring some unusual development like a slew of Sun Devil turnovers.

Pritchard didn't play against the Sun Devils last year, but as mentioned, he put up mediocre numbers through the seven game stretch where he did start, and the Cardinal lost two of its top three receivers from that team. The one guy who returns with a lot of production at this level is Richard Sherman, who led the team in receiving in each of the last two seasons, but wasn't even a sure-fire starter heading into the season. Ryan Whalen led the team with three catches for 30 yards against Oregon State.

Defense

Stanford returns just about everyone from its defense last season, excluding defensive tackle Chris Horn and cornerback Nike Sanchez. The front seven is the strongest part of the team, with end Pannel Egboh leading the defensive line in tackles for the second straight season in 2007. He recorded six sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss on the year.

The best group, however, is the linebackers, with Clinton Snyder and Pat Maynor being the team's second and third leading tacklers from last season. Synder, a Bednarik, Nagurski, Butkus and Lombardi Award candidate, had 96 tackles, including a team-best 14.5 for loss and eight sacks last season. Maynor had 88 tackles last season, including 16.5 for loss, with six sacks. Against Oregon State he had seven tackles, one TFL, one pass break-up and one sack.

In the defensive backfield, strong safety Bo McNally led the team with 114 tackles, 7.5 of which were for loss, and 1.5 sacks last season. He had a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown versus Oregon State. Wopamo Osaisai had 11 tackles and one pass break-up versus the Beavers last week from his left corner position. He is the Pac-10 100 meters champion. He had one interception and eight pass break-ups last season in seven starts and 12 games played. Right corner Kris Evans had nine solo stops versus the Beavers, and seven pass break-ups (though no interceptions) last season with four starts and seven games played.

Quotable

"From winning the big game (against USC) to beating Oregon State, they've got a lot of momentum going and they deserve it because they're playing real physical on both sides of the ball," Erickson said of the Cardinal. "With Gerhart running it, their offensive front's back, they're very physical. To me… we're going to have to play our rear ends off."

"They've just improved in every area from a year ago," Erickson said. "You watch them and it's a different group. Their offensive line is very physical, run the ball extremely well, which is what they did against Oregon State. And defensively they're playing better.

"The attitude from the time Jim has taken over has been an unbelievable change and they're a really good football team so we're going to have to be very well prepared."

"He is about 235 pounds, 230 pounds," Erickson said of Toby Gerhart. "He's big and physical and he's got very deceptive speed. He took one to the house against Oregon State that was a great run. Good blocker, he catches it. He's just a very good athlete. He played on the baseball team. He's a big solid back. They've got him and Kimble and it's a very good one-two punch."

"I think defensively, they're very good on defense," Carpenter said of Stanford. "They've got a lot of guys back. Their safety (McNally) is a good player, No. 6 (Osaisai) is a good player, their corner. I know they got all the linebackers back. When I was watching that game I just thought that was a very physical group and they played hard."

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