They say defense wins championships. Little bears that out more clearly than the recent history of Stanford football. Stanford had successful seasons in 2010 and 2011 with Andrew Luck at the helm, largely because the offense was unstoppable. But in both of those years the Stanford defense was exposed by talented offensive teams: Oregon crushed Stanford twice, and Stanford lost the 2012 Fiesta Bowl (following the 2011 season) in a shootout with Oklahoma State.
Something changed in 2012. Suddenly Stanford's defense became one of the best in the country. Most people wrote Stanford off as a contender because Andrew Luck was gone, but the stifling defense managed to shut down Oregon, which neither the 2010 or 2011 versions could come close to doing. As a result, even with a lackluster offense, the 2012 team won the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl, again something neither the 2010 or 2011 teams could do. Another outstanding defense in 2013 helped win a second conference championship and a return to the Rose Bowl. At the end of the season, defensive coordinator—to you that's Willie Shaw Director of Defense—Derek Mason left to take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. The job of managing the best defense in the West fell to linebackers coach Lance Anderson.
Despite Mason's departure, Stanford's 2014 defense was, by far, the best unit in the Pac-12. The defense allowed a meager 16 points per game, almost a full touchdown better than Oregon, the second-best scoring defense in the Pac-12 (22.5 points per game). Stanford also led the conference in total defense, surrendering 100 fewer than the second-place team. There really weren't any weaknesses, as Stanford's defense was the best in the conference against both the pass and the run. With the exception of the Oregon game, the defense kept every Stanford loss close, despite the deficiencies on the other side of the ball.
After the 2014 season, Stanford lost nine of its eleven defensive starters. Several of those guys now play on Sundays: David Parry, Henry Anderson, Alex Carter, and Jordan Richards were all drafted, and A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters were both picked up as undrafted free agents. Lance Anderson faced a very difficult task in rebuilding a defense that lost an incredible amount of talent.
It's hard to argue with the results so far. We knew coming into this season that the defense was talented but raw: several years of great recruiting had stocked Stanford's reserves, but most of the young guys had never started a college football game. The defense was also unfortunately thin along the line, and Stanford's game on both sides of the ball has depended on winning battles along the lines of scrimmage. In fact, if you'd asked me what the worst thing that could possibly happen during the Northwestern game was (apart from losing), I probably would have said, "Losing a starting defensive lineman for the season due to injury." Okay, I might not have said that unless I wanted to avoid saying something obvious like losing Kevin Hogan for the season. But I think anyone who follows Stanford football would have put losing a starting defensive lineman near the top of the list. And that's exactly what happened: Harrison Phillips tore his ACL during the game and is out for the rest of the year.
The point is, we'd have to cut Lance Anderson some slack if the defense had under performed this year. But it hasn't. Stanford's defense surrenders a respectable 20.2 points per game, good for second in the conference (30th in the nation), and only 1.4 points behind conference-leading Washington (18.8 points per game). Stanford actually leads the conference in total defense, allowing 338.7 yards per game (20 yards better than Washington). Significantly, Stanford is second in the conference in yards per play (5.08), first in third-down conversion rate, and second in red zone touchdown rate. And Stanford has done that despite losing Phillips, a great player from a critical position group with little depth, and despite losing star linebacker Kevin Anderson for much of the year (Anderson returned on Saturday at Colorado and had a good game—look for him to play a critical role in beefing up Stanford's linebacking corps the rest of the way).
There are plenty of reasons for Stanford's continued success on defense. Talented players. The great work that secondary coach Duane Akina has been doing the past two years. The senior leadership of Blake Martinez. An offense that leads the nation in time of possession, giving the defense an opportunity to rest and recover (this is important but shouldn't be overstated: in Oregon's 45-16 pasting of Stanford last year, Stanford won the time of possession battle 36 minutes to 24). But I think the primary reason is obvious and undeniable: Lance Anderson is secretly a sorcerer.
How do I know? Well there are a couple of key pieces of evidence. The first is adjustments. Look at the game last Saturday. On its first drive of the game, Colorado went 75 yards in 6 plays and 6:07 and scored a touchdown. Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau only threw one pass—a 36-yard completion to Nelson Spruce—and Colorado's running game went for plays of 8, 1, 11, and 15 yards, capped with a four-yard dash to the end zone from Donovan Lee. Not only did Colorado score a touchdown, but it never went backwards, and was stopped for short yardage only once.
Then something happened. Stanford's defense tightened up. After going 75 yards on its first drive, Colorado managed 156 the entire rest of the game. After scoring what looked like an easy touchdown, Colorado never saw the end zone again, their only other points coming on a 29-yard field goal to open the third quarter. I know Colorado isn't very good, but the ten points it scored against Stanford was 18 points below Colorado's season average.
It's not unusual for a Stanford opponent's first drive to be its best of the game. Take the UCLA game last year. On its first drive, UCLA went 64 yards in 5 plays and 1:27 to take a 7-0 lead, scoring on a 15-yard pass from Brett Hundley to Thomas Duarte. But then Stanford's defense locked down. After going 64 yards on its first drive, UCLA's offense managed just 198 the rest of the way. Like Colorado on Saturday, UCLA scored an opening touchdown that would prove its only one of the game.
The point is that Lance Anderson is fantastic at recognizing an opponent's game plan and coming up with a way to counter it. A battle plan may never survive first contact with the enemy, but Anderson is smart enough and flexible enough to make adjustments during the game and stop even dynamic Pac-12 offenses.The other important piece of evidence is that losses due to the draft, graduation, and injuries have failed to derail the defense's success. The players deserve a ton of credit for that: the new guys are talented and have bright futures. But how many defensive coordinators could lose nine defensive starters, including 6 to the NFL, and still field one of the best defenses in the Pac-12?
One of my favorite tidbits from sports writing this year came after the Washington State game. Stanford won that game largely because of two timely interceptions by cornerback Quenton Meeks. For the most part, Wazzu fans seemed to take the game as a moral victory, as proof that they could play toe-to-toe with a top-ten team that was more experienced than they were. Coug Center, a Washington State blog, had this to say about Meeks's second interception:
How many teams have a corner that can diagnose a screen and not just elude a guy that has been called one of the best blockers on the team, but also get far enough upfield to snag the interception?
That quote comes in a discussion suggesting that Wazzu's inexperience was the reason it couldn't quite come up with the big play to beat a veteran Stanford team. But Meeks, the guy they use as an example of Stanford's football savvy, is a true freshman. Much of that play was Meeks's athleticism and football smarts, and it's undeniable that Meeks is really, really good. But a lot of it is coaching. Meeks needed to know how recognize the play, shed his blocker, and jump the route to make an interception. Anderson has done an incredible job of showing his unit how to read and contain an offense, and then execute. So much so that his second-string true freshman cornerback is apparently a paradigmatic example of an experienced college football player. In fact, Rule of Tree can exclusively "reveal" the pep talk Anderson gave Meeks during halftime of the Colorado game:
Anderson: Quenton, because I am a got dang clairvoyant sorcerer, I can tell you that there is going to be a moment during the second half when I'm gonna need you to come up with a big interception.
Meeks: Uh, OK Coach. If you say so. But how do I do that?
Anderson: Like this. [Mimes waving a magic wand] Accio football!
Meeks: Thanks, Coach.
Yes, he went for the Harry Potter reference. That may be slightly embarrassing, but don't knock it. It worked.
Admittedly, there have been setbacks. Stanford gave up 31 points to an immensely talented (if inconsistent) USC squad, and 28 to a crisp passing attack from Washington State. The defense let Wazzu move into position to win that game with a long field goal. But hey, even undercover magicians aren't omnipotent.
If there's one statistic in which Stanford's defense consistently lags, it's turnovers. Stanford currently sits at 114th in the nation (tied with Arizona for last in the Pac-12) in turnovers gained. That's not an anomaly; even the great defenses of 2012, 2013, and 2014 didn't force turnovers at impressive rates (respectively, those teams were 27th, 53rd, and 55th in the nation in interceptions and 36th, 105th, and 120th in fumbles recovered).
It seems likely that the lack of turnovers is due, at least in part, to a defensive scheme that emphasizes keeping the ball in front of the defense. Most college football offenses these days like to spread it out and speed it up, and they rely on big plays to keep rolling. Stanford has countered by playing a defense that permits the offense to operate in short yardage but, for the most part, prevents big plays. If you always make a beeline to where you think the football is going, you might force more turnovers, but when you guess wrong you'll give up that big play that Stanford has been so good at preventing.
Coaches and sportswriters often emphasize the importance of turnovers. Turnovers are definitely important to stopping an offense from scoring, but Stanford has been good at that even without turnovers. Other than that, turnovers are hugely important for two things: momentum and field position. Momentum isn't really quantifiable. But field position is, and, despite its lack of turnovers, Stanford has usually had great field position over its last four years. Field Value Efficiency (FVE) is a statistic that measures the expected scoring value of a team's possessions based on starting field positions, and it accounts for the value of turnovers created by the defense. Over the past three years, Stanford was 8th, 3rd, and 35th in FVE. This year Stanford is 11th. The point is that defense can help give you great field position not just by creating occasional turnovers, but by regularly stopping your opponent and flipping the field. Stanford's defense might not be great at getting takeaways, but it usually stuffs the opponent's offense deep enough its own territory that the Stanford offense will have a chance to score.
Looking Ahead Oregon
Now we turn to this week's task: stopping a formidable Oregon offense. Despite some struggles earlier in the year, Oregon is riding a three-game winning streak and leads the Pac-12 in scoring (42.2 ppg) and total (543.6 ypg) offense. Quarterback Vernon Adams has battled injuries and missed time since the loss to Michigan State, but he now appears to be fully healthy, and Oregon boasts one of the fastest running backs in the country in Royce Freeman.
This past Saturday, Oregon showed off its now-healthy offense by putting up 44 points and 777 yards against Cal. The 777 yards were an all-time school record. Think about that for a second. Oregon, consistently one of the best offenses in college football for the past several years, and which had a Heisman winning quarterback last year, set its all-time school record for total offense last week against a Cal defense that has been inconsistent but looks significantly better than last year's version. And Oregon will come to play: beating Stanford gives Oregon their only shot at the Pac-12 title game.
Stanford had better come to play, too. It should have plenty of motivation. The Stanford-Oregon rivalry has developed into the most important in the Pac-12, as either Stanford or Oregon has won each of the last six Pac-12 championships. Stanford will want to avenge the blowout in Autzen last year. And a victory clinches the Pac-12 North for Stanford and guarantees a return to the conference title game.
But even with all that at stake, stopping Oregon's offense will be tough. And Stanford has to try with an inexperienced defense; a secondary composed mostly of freshmen, sophomores, and converted offensive players; and a defensive line held together with Band-Aids and duct tape. If anyone can pull it together to stop the best offense in the Pac-12, defensive wizard Lance Anderson can.