Three weeks into the 2012 college football season, we know a few things about Stanford’s team. Losing Andrew Luck was a big blow but there is enough talent spread throughout the roster to overcome it. QB Josh Nunes is able to make some big plays when it counts. RB Stepfan Taylor not only has a chance to break the school records for both rushing yards and TDs this season but is a legitimate Heisman candidate. And finally, Stanford’s defense is one of the best units in the country. While all four of these points showed up in the HUGE upset win over the #2 ranked USC Trojans, it was really the defense that emerged as the biggest potential story of this season. More on that in a bit.
- FB Ryan Hewitt returned from an injured ankle, TEs Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo continued to make plays down the field, and the OL made big strides in coming together as young players like Andrus Peat and Kevin Danser showed improvement. Despite losing four players to the first 42 picks of the NFL draft last year, Stanford has shown the ability to reload and still put up big numbers on the ground.
- Stepfan Taylor’s gaudy 213 yards of total offense (153 on the ground and 60 receiving) don’t fully explain just how valuable he was last Saturday. The OL and Taylor’s tough running combined to produce zero carries of negative yards. USC employed a similar defensive approach to that of Duke and SJSU by bringing the safeties up to the line of scrimmage. While this can ostensibly slow down run game it also leaves them susceptible to big plays because there is no deep defender. They were basically gambling they would stop the RB after a short gain, but Stepfan made the Trojans pay by reeling off a 59 yard TD run that included two cutbacks and showed great patience settig up his block. Patience also came into play in the second half as Monte Kiffin reacted by playing more coverage by dropping the LBs deep to take away the TEs and deeper WR routes. Stanford countered with the screen game and Taylor finished with 6 catches, but none bigger than the 23 yard TD on a screen where he dodged three tacklers and set up the guards, Danser and Wilkes, to pull and lead the way up the sideline. Stepfan has vision, patience, speed, power, hands, and is the best blocking RB in the country that I have seen. Total package at the position and another Heisman hopeful from the Stanford backfield.
- Josh Nunes went into the tunnel at halftime having just thrown 2 INTs which capped off a 6-16 first half. He emerged from the tunnel a new man and went 9-16 with two TDs and 33 yards on the ground, including a 13 yard scramble on 3rd and 10 where he dodged four tacklers in the process. That conversion led to a 37 yard TD to Zach Ertz where Nunes threw the skinny post perfectly and allowed Ertz to make the catch, avoid the safety, and finish in the end zone for the go ahead (and stay-ahead) score. Those were the two biggest plays of Nunes career, and the fact that he was able to shake off the INTs proves that this young man is growing up and gaining confidence. David Shaw has spent a lot of time talking about Nunes’ composure and leadership, but Josh spoke volumes on that game winning drive with his actions.
- I talked about what the defense had to do against USC to have success, but I didn’t know that Stanford was capable of completely shutting down one of the most high-powered offensive units in the country (future NFL Drafts will show just how stacked this squad is). The Cardinal used scheme, speed, and straight power to get to Matt Barkley and force the timing of the passing game to be off. However, it was the domination of the run game that really showed how much better the Cardinal was on Saturday. The Trojans finished with 26 yards on 28 carries, but 30 yards came on a draw before halftime when Stanford was in prevent defense. -4 yards on 27 carries for the rest of the night. Stanford also dominated when Barkley dropped back to pass, recording 4 sacks, forcing two INTs, and holding him under 50% passing and without a TD for the first time since 2010. Stanford held Marqise Lee and Roberts Woods, the dynamic receiving duo that Stanford coach David Shaw called "the best he’s ever seen", to a combined 12 catches for 138 yards. Over the last 15 games, those two combined are averaging nearly 16 catches for 198 yards and 2.5 TDs per contest. Safeties Jordan Richards, who leads the country with 9 pass break ups, and Ed Reynolds continue to lead the secondary and enforce the toughness that David Shaw preaches is the very essence of the team. The Cardinal defense established itself as dominant and it could be powerful enough to take this team to the conference championship game, but it is a long road to that destination.
These four components which added up to a fourth straight Cardinal win over the Trojans aren’t just a winning formula for one game. They are the buildings blocks for a competitive program year in and year out, something that Jim Harbaugh and now David Shaw envisioned and now have built. Saturday proved that Stanford is more than one player, and the opponents on the schedule are going to watch the USC game tape and realize that when they play the Cardinal, be ready for a well-coached and talented team with the toughness to finish off anyone.