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“We wanted to make a statement” : Taking a look back at Stanford’s elite defenses

Shayne Skov and Jordan Watkins reflect on what made the Stanford defenses of the past so dominant.

The 99th Rose Bowl Game - Wisconsin v Stanford Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

“We wanted to make a statement,” remembers Shayne Skov.

The Stanford defense made plenty of statements with Skov as their middle linebacker, but the greatest certainly came against Oregon in 2012.

The undefeated Ducks were 21.5-point favorites for good reason. They were averaging 325 rushing yards per game and had Heisman contender Marcus Mariota. Meanwhile, the Cardinal were facing the Ducks at Autzen, the loudest stadium in the country, with freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan and two losses.

Simply put, Oregon could not handle Shayne Skov and the Stanford defense, which held their superstar running back Kenjon Barner to only 66 yards. The Ducks offense, who had been averaging nearly 50 points per game, only managed 14 points against Stanford. The Stanford defense dominated the nation’s top-ranked offense, and they did it with style.

From 2012-2014, the Cardinal allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards per game and averaged 49 sacks per season. Beyond the statistical dominance was the savvy, the style, and the intimidation that came with playing for Stanford.

For much of Skov’s career, he donned eye black across his face and sported a mohawk. In 2013, he earned the cover of Sports Illustrated, dressed in a fearsome nerd outfit that barely fit his large frame.

“I heard some trash talk about it,” he says of the eye black, “But my play always backed up my style.”

Pac 12 Championship - Stanford v Arizona State

His play certainly backed up his look. During his Stanford career, he earned multiple All-American selections for his extremely physical playing style. Stanford, on both sides of the ball, was arguably the biggest and most physical team in the country, but it was the defense who consistently disrupted backfields and wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

That physicality all started in practice. There was little to no difference between games and practice for Jim Harbaugh.

“Tuesday and Wednesday were full-pad practice, no matter what,” Skov recalls. “And Jim Harbaugh was so competitive as an offensive coach that I went into practice every day trying to beat his offense. I stopped thinking about playing good defense and instead just tried to disrupt the offense.”

The Stanford defense just practiced differently than everyone else. They started every practice with a nine on seven drill, and both sides of the ball took pride in winning.

On the Wednesday before the Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech and the ACC media interviewed a handful of Stanford players and thought the Cardinal players were joking when they mentioned doing a full-pad Oklahoma drill and a nine on seven drill just the day before. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, had not practiced in full pads for months.

Even after the Jim Harbaugh days, practices were just as competitive. Jordan Watkins, a defensive lineman on the 2015 Rose Bowl team, does not remember any “off days” in his early years with David Shaw.

Stanford v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

“We were hitting twice-a-day during training camp instead of going to the movies like other teams,” he recalls. “Even during the season, we were still going at it and hitting in practice.”

Randy Hart, the defensive line coach from 2010 to 2015, excelled over his 46-year-long career as an “old school” coach known for running practices with intensity.

“If we could show up to practice one day and just hit each other for two hours, I think Coach Hart would be happy,” Watkins jokes. “I don’t remember when we did have two-a-days and Coach Hart was not happy.”

In 2017, the NCAA outlawed two-a-day practices, which Watkins believes has hampered the Stanford defense.

Ultimately, though, the Stanford defense was much more than a group known for its physical brutality. True to the Stanford mantra, the brutal Stanford defense was teeming with intellect.

Yes, the offense gets most of the credit for a complicated playbook. Watkins pointed out that the offense typically gets to the line of scrimmage with three different plays, but even so, the defense is equally complicated and requires more communication between position groups. Linebackers like Shayne Skov were in charge of captaining the defense and communicating with the players on the field.

“Our linebackers studied, they were vocal leaders, and they did a really good job of getting you in the right position,” recalls Watkins.

Surely, Stanford did not feel a shortage of linebackers during their dominant stretch. Shayne Skov dominated in 2012 and 2013. AJ Tarpley suited up next to him and played until 2014. Blake Martinez overlapped with both players, and in 2015, he recorded an astonishing 141 tackles. There was not much concern when a player departed. When one guy graduated, another stepped up, each linebacker learning from the one before him.

Blake Martinez is the perfect example. He came to Stanford as a well-regarded recruit and played 14 games as a true freshman, but was never expected to be a leader with Shayne Skov and AJ Tarpley on the field. In 2015, it was his turn to lead. He was ready because he got to “soak up knowledge” from the leaders before him, said Watkins.

For the most part, Stanford was fortunate enough not to have to worry about player turnover, which established depth and allowed more time for developing players. Guys stayed despite the NFL knocking on their doors. Skov, Tarpley, and Martinez exhausted all their years of eligibility as did other legends like Chase Thomas, Trent Murphy, and Ben Gardner. It’s hard to think of anyone from the great Cardinal defenses who chose to leave early. (Right now, I can’t.)

Different players had different reasons for staying at Stanford instead of bolting early for the NFL or transferring to other schools. For Skov, the chance to win a national championship brought him back. For Watkins, the ability to get a graduate and undergraduate degree from Stanford kept him from transferring. For others, it was difficult to leave a close-knit group for uncharted territory in the NFL.

The group’s chemistry definitely showed on and off the field. Together, the team invented phrases like “Party in the Backfield,” “Revenge of the Nerds,” and “Intellectual Brutality.” Stanford put the phrases on shirts, used them as hashtags, and even created snapchat filters with the phrases.

“Players ran with the phrases and embodied them,” Skov remembers.

Watkins even recalled the Oregon game in 2013 when all the players wore nerd glasses to the post-game presser. Certainly, players had embodied intellectual brutality and branded themselves—giving themselves an identity that other teams lacked.

The strength staff in particular helped shape that identity and chemistry for Stanford. Skov believes one of their main jobs was to develop a mindset and identity for the group. In fact, because of NCAA rules that bar football coaches from seeing players for part of the year, strength coaches spend more time with the team than actual football coaches.

Shannon Turley was head strength coach during Skov’s career, and Skov described his role in the program: “He was a fundamental contributor for the mentatlity of the program. Our off-season training was always carefully planned not only in the physical components but also in terms of team building, camaraderie, toughness, and injury prevention. He did a phenomenal job integrating those elements into our training programs and definitely should get his fair share of credit for our performance.”

Turley connected well with players. Richard Sherman was quoted by The New York Times as saying that he uses what he learned from Turley in the NFL, and that it was common for NFL players to return and lift with Turley at Stanford (it also helped that Stanford has a state of the art workout facility.)

But Stanford’s defense wasn’t great because of its coaches; the players made it great. They were the ones who put in extra work in the weight room and who devoted themselves on the field during practice and during games. Many stars on the defense were not highly recruited out of high school, but became superlative performers on the defense.

Defensive tackle David Parry, for example, was unranked out of high school. Safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, defensive end Henry Anderson, and outside linebacker Trent Murphy all were three-star recruits. Defensive end Ben Gardner was a two-star recruit. All of these players went on to the NFL.

“These guys underwent serious development while at Stanford. A part of that development goes out to the coaches, but my hat also really goes off to the players. They brought an attitude and mentality to put in the work and put in the hours,” Skov states. “They were committed not only to the team record but also themselves.”

Players also held each other responsible for their mistakes and set a high standard.

“We weren’t afraid to call each other out,” says Skov. “Players and their willingness to collectively hold each other accountable made the biggest difference in ensuring the team dominated.”

The word Skov uses to describe the defenses he was a part of: tenacious.

The 2012 game versus Oregon serves as a perfect example of that tenacity. Let’s rewind to understand why.

In 2010, Stanford led Oregon by 18, but the Ducks came back and embarrassed them. Stanford felt like they let “victory out of their grasp.”

Stanford was talented in 2011, but hammered by key injuries. They lost in the Fiesta Bowl and came into the 2012 season “frustrated.”

When 2012 arrived, Stanford should have had no shot against the undefeated Ducks. If they couldn’t beat them with Andrew Luck, how could they win with newcomer Kevin Hogan?

However, the underdog mentality hadn’t phased Stanford in the past. “We relished the challenge,” Skov explains. “We were actually looking forward to going up to Autzen Stadium to play them. We wanted to make a statement and silence that crowd.”

A statement is what they made in their overtime victory. The defense held Oregon’ s high-octane offense to only 14 points. They proved they could stop anyone.

The combination of competitive practices, intense coaches, a high-quality strength program, and—most importantly—the players’ own mindset allowed Stanford to make many more statements during the decade.

They made another statement just weeks later when the team captured its first PAC-12 Championship versus UCLA. They made an even bigger statement when they won the Rose Bowl. Both trophies had eluded Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh’s high-powered offense.

The tenacious, ferocious, and intellectual defense was what finally put Stanford over the top.