September 8, 2012; Palo Alto, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal defensive end Ben Gardner (49) tackles Duke Blue Devils running back Juwan Thompson (23) after the catch at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-US PRESSWIRE
Scouts will tell you the 2012 Stanford Cardinal boast a roster with loads of NFL talent. Unfortunately, many of those future stars are young and inexperienced so regardless of how high their potential is, it will take time to reach it and mistakes are going to be made in the meantime.
For instance, Stanford is breaking in five first time starters on offense and there have certainly been some growing pains. Stanford's strengths the last few seasons have been (a) 3rd down conversions (51% the last 3 years), (b) time of possession (lead the country in 2010 and #5 in 2011) and (c) scoring TDs in the red zone. What worries me is that these three areas have not been nearly as solid for the first two weeks of 2012 and once the schedule gets more difficult, the margin of error disappears.
Stanford bounced back from a shaky week 1 performance to blow the doors off of an overmatched Duke team, although the stats don't necessarily show that. The Blue Devils outgained the Cardinal, possessed the ball for eight more minutes, threw for 363 yards, and ran 26 more plays (but lost 50-13). However, Stanford dominated field position thanks to four Duke turnovers and a 76 yard punt return by Drew Terrell which led to one fewer possession for Stanford's offense. Also, nearly 200 yards of Duke's production came in the 4th quarter, when the game was already out of hand and Stanford turned to the reserves on defense.
Some improvements were made in week 2 but Stanford is going to need to be outstanding in the following areas if they are going to beat the AP #2 USC Trojans this Saturday:
- Tackling in the secondary. We all know Lee and Woods are incredible talents at WR and are responsible for nearly 75% of the passing game production (37 catches, 399 yards and 8 TDs combined through the first two weeks). Many of those catches are short routes in single coverage and they are able to break tackles and turn those underneath passes into huge gains. That means CBs Barry Browning, Terrence Brown, and the rest of the Cardinal secondary are going to have be sure tacklers and limit the yards after the catch. They were outstanding against Duke and actually limited Woods and Lee to under 100 yards each last season (and 11 yards per catch). They are going to need a similar effort and force USC to drive down the field as opposed to giving them big plays.
- Get to Matt Barkley. Syracuse was able to get a couple of sacks last week and Senior C Khaled Holmes was carted off the field with an ankle injury which depletes an already thin Trojan OLine. Stanford cannot allow Barkley time in the pocket because he will find Lee and Woods down the field. Stanford has done a great job of scheming effective blitz packages that only bring four or five rushers which allows for more LBs and Safeties in coverage to make plays. Last season Stanford didn't get to Barkley once and he made them pay by throwing three TDs.
- Score TDs in the red zone. I know it is a "well duh" type of stat, but it really is one of the biggest factors in close games, and Stanford has been one of the best teams in the country at punching it in from close range. The reason for this success has been a physical run game that was able to get the tough yards even when the defense knew it was coming. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case so far in 2012. Stanford kicked FGs of 35, 32, and 22 yards against Duke (also missed a 38 yarder) and they will not be able to compete with the high scoring Trojans with that effort. They must finish drives in the end zone and will need to get creative because they haven't shown that same ability to line up and push people off the ball. Play action and counter run plays can be effective, but Stanford has also shown the tenancy to throw fade routes to 6'8 TE Levine Toilolo and let him operate. Also, look for TE Zach Ertz to continue to have success with some slant routes because he runs them better than anyone on the team.
Of course, turnovers will play a huge role this weekend in determining who comes out on top, but every football fan is aware of this. Matt Barkley will be fired up for Saturday because he's 0-3 against Stanford in his career, and I am going to take a wild guess that it doesn't sit well with him. Much of the responsibility for Stanford will rest on the shoulders of those young and inexperienced players. If they can play like future NFL draft picks on Saturday instead of first or second year college players, the Cardinal have a great chance to make it four in a row against the Trojans.