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The play that cost Stanford a win Saturday

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Charlie’s Cardinal Corner notices a disturbing trend

Stanford v Colorado Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I was wrong about the Stanford vs Colorado outcome. This year has been a strange year for Stanford football. One week they’re controlling a top-15 (at the time) Washington team. The next week, they get manhandled by a bad UCLA team. Then, behind the return of KJ Costello, the Cardinal bounced back versus Arizona. On Saturday, their offense was awful versus one of the worst defenses in the country. I think I should stop making predictions entirely for Stanford.

The biggest takeaway I made from the Colorado game was that Stanford has officially lost its identity as the tough, physical team that no one wants to face.

Just look at this play:

This play decided the game. If Stanford stops the Buffaloes, they have plenty of time to pick up enough yards to attempt a game-winning field goal. If Colorado converts, they run down the clock and attempt a game-winning field goal. Clearly, the latter occurred, despite Stanford being ready for the play.

Stuart Head is in position to stop Laviska Shenault Jr., but the Colorado receiver catches Head dead in his tracks—a fundamental mistake for a defender.

I played three years of high school football, and as a freshman, we were taught how to properly tackle. The first thing we learned was to keep our head up (for safety reasons), yet the Stanford safety fails to keep his head up. The second thing we learned was to step into the tackle, so we could use our momentum to take down the defender. Head comes to a stop and as a result gets run over.

Head is a safety. For the most part, his job is to be the last resort option to make a tackle. In this case, he really was playing the job of last resort. The blame does not entirely lie on him; plenty of it goes to Ryan Beecher, who read the play terribly. There’s an enormous gap created by the offensive line, making it clear where the runner is headed, yet he doesn’t fill it.

Head and Beecher’s inability to make the play represent a bigger issue though. No longer is the Stanford filled with superstars, and no longer are they a feared group.

Stanford legends like Shayne Skov or Blake Martinez would have certainly filled the gap correctly and almost certainly would have made the tackle in the backfield. Or a safety like Jordan Richards would not have been caught in his tracks.

Stuart Head and Ryan Beecher don’t exactly fill the shoes of Skov and Richards. Head and Beecher represent the bend-but-don’t break defensive philosophy; Skov and Richards didn’t bend or break. Their defenses absolutely shut down opposing running games and terrorized quarterbacks.

From 2012-2014, the Cardinal allowed less than 100 yards rushing per game and averaged 49 sacks per season. This year, the Cardinal allow just over 150 yards rushing per game and have sacked the quarterback 21 times. They are not exactly partying in the backfield, which keeps their offense off the field and does not set the Cardinal offense with good field position.

Say what you want about Stanford’s struggling offense, but if Stanford wants to go back to being a championship contender, they’ll need to start by fixing their defense.

How do they fix the defense?

Maybe, they just need to recruit better, but many of past Stanford legends were not highly-touted. Stanford’s 2013 defense might be considered their best ever, and for the most part, the group was filled with three-star recruits.

Defensive tackle David Parry was unranked out of high school, and safety Ed Reynolds, defensive end Henry Anderson, outside linebacker Trent Murphy and Richards were all three-star recruits. Defensive end Ben Gardner was a two-star recruit.

Every player listed went on to play NFL football in some capacity. Do you think many guys on Stanford’s defense have NFL chances? They’re likely slim.

So what’s the issue? It’s player development. I think it stems from the injuries and lack of depth on Stanford’s roster, which does not allow Stanford to practice at full speed, fearing potential injuries.

Stanford players are likely practicing with less ferocity in practice, and it’s showing in games.