Posted On Oct 19th, 2011   Comments Football,PAC 10,Stanford

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STANFORD’S FOOTBALL SEASON REALLY STARTS SATURDAY –

For all practical purposes, Stanford’s season starts with the Oct. 22 home game against Washington.   The Cardinal’s first six games – all against overmatched opponents Stanford dominated – merely served as a warmup for the second half of the Stanford season, which includes games against USC, Oregon and Notre Dame as well as the Huskies, who come into the Stanford game ranked No. 22.

Those games will determine whether Stanford is the top-10 team many believe it is and whether QB Andrew Luck is the top Heisman Trophy candidate many believe he is.

Most of all, though, the Washington game will indicate whether the Cardinal defense is as good as it seemed to be in the first half of the season.

While Cardinal offense has been effective, scoring at least 37 points in every game, it has had segments of inefficiency in games.   That has not happened with the Stanford defense, which ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense, yielding just 11.5 points a game and being a virtual stone wall against the run.

But that was against mediocre teams, and none of its conference games has been against title contenders.   Washington is a different animal, and it has the weapons to exploit Stanford biggest weakness – pass defense.

The Cardinal’s pass defense has not been poor, and the passing numbers opponents have put up against the Cardinal result in large part from the fact that Stanford gets so far ahead early in games that teams are forced to throw to try to catch up.   The fact that Stanford ranks second nationally in rushing defense has something to do with teams’ preference for the pass as well.

Nonetheless, Stanford’s pass defense is not as good as its run defense, and Washington QB Keith Price is very capable of exploiting it.   He has been surprisingly effective as Jake Locker’s successor, and his numbers are much better than Locker’s were.

Price ranks fifth nationally in pass efficiency, and his 21 touchdown passes are just one off the national lead.    And he throws well on the move, which may negate Stanford’s best weapon against the pass – its pass rush.

Washington TB Chris Polk is the best running back Stanford has faced this season, but the bigger threat for Stanford is Price.
The Cardinal defense does not have to be perfect, because Stanford should be able to score points on the Huskies, who have yielded quite a few points and a lot of yards, especially against the pass.

Stanford will try to wear down the Huskies defense with its ground game, as it does every week, but Luck could have a monster game passing.

NOTES

– Despite being No. 5 in the USA Today poll and No. 7 in the Harris poll, the Cardinal is just eighth in the first BCS standings released Oct. 16.    That’s because Stanford’s weak opposition in its first six games lowered its computer ranking.   Although Stanford ranks second in the nation in margin of victory (34.6 points per game) that does not matter, because the BCS computers are not allowed to factor in margin of victory.
– Stanford has won 14 straight games, which is the nation’s longest winning streak, and the longest winning streak in school history.
– The Stanford-Washington game features two of the nation’s top five rated passers.  Stanford QB Andrew Luck ranks third in pass efficiency, and Washington QB Keith Price is fifth.
– Washington is ranked for the first time this season, coming it at No. 22 in the AP poll and No., 24 in the USA Today poll.   Not only is Washington the first ranked opponent Stanford has faced this season, but none of the Cardinal’s first six opponents currently has a winning record.
– Stanford beat Washington 41-0 last season in Seattle, and that was the Huskies first shutout at home since 1976.

SCOUTING STANFORD’S OFFENSE: Stanford has scored at least 37 points in every game this season, and no team has been able to effectively slow Stanford’s ground game or its passing attack.   That was against mediocre defenses, though, although Washington has had trouble holding opponents down as well.  QB Andrew Luck is the centerpiece of the offense, ranking third nationally in pass efficiency, although he had just a so-so game against Washington State in his previous game.    His best receivers are his three tight ends – Levin Toilolo, Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener.  They are often in the game simultaneously, giving Stanford the option to run power football or pass effectively with the same personnel.  All three have more than enough speed to get deep.  Stepfan Taylor is the top rusher, and despite its passing weapons, Stanford’s offensive identity is as a power running team.  If WR Chris Owusu can’t play, that will hurt a bit, because the Cardinal don’t have a lot of experienced talent at wide receiver.

SCOUTING STANFORD’S DEFENSE: The Cardinal’s defense has outstanding numbers against the run, ranking second nationally in run defense, yielding 59.5 rushing yards a game and just 2.08 yards an attempt.   The loss of ILB Shayne Skov has not hurt the Stanford defense yet, but Washington may be the first team that might be able to expose that weakness over the middle.   OLB Chase Thomas gets the bulk of the publicity, because he has 7.5 tackles for losses and 5.5 sacks, but the biggest reason for the Cardinal’s defensive success is the work of their front three – Ben Gardner, Matt Masifilo and Terrence Stephens.  The Cardinal started the game against Washington State with just defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs.  They may do that again against Washington, although the Huskies have more of a running threat than Washington State did.

QUOTE: “We don’t discriminate.  Whoever makes plays gets the ball.  It’s all production-based.” – Stanford coach Davis Shaw, on the fact that the Cardinal tight ends play a larger role in the passing game than its wide receivers.

SATURDAY’S GAME: Washington at Stanford, Oct. 22 – Washington is 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the conference after beating Colorado 52-24 on Oct. 15.   Stanford is 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the Pac-12 after beating Washington State 44-14 on Oct. 15.  Stanford has won the past three games against Washington and five of the past six.  Washington is ranked No. 22 in the AP poll, making it the first ranked opponent Stanford has faced this season.

SERIES HISTORY: Washington leads 40-37-4.  Last meeting 2010 (41-0 Stanford).

KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford must prevent Washington WB Keith Price from having a big game, and that means applying pressure to Price and keeping him in the pocket.   When he is allowed to move around in the pocket or scramble outside, he effectively finds receivers for big gains.  Even though Washington TB Chris Polk is seventh nationally in rushing, at 121.3 yards a game, the key to Washington’s offense is Price’s passing.  Offensively, Stanford just needs to have a typical game with run-pass balance, because the Huskies defense is not particularly good. The Cardinal should be able to sustain drives if it avoids turnovers, something it has done well all season until the game against Washington State, when it turned the ball over twice in the first half and nearly had a few other turnovers.

STANFORD PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Andrew Luck – Lucks ranks third in the nation in pass efficiency, and although he did not have a particularly good game against Washington State, he still earned Pac-12 offensive player of the week honors.   He should have a big game against Washington’s suspect pass defense.
TEs Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo – Stanford’s offense took off in the second half against Washington State when these three became involved in the Cardinal’s passing game.  Fleener has 6 touchdown receptions and is particularly effective in the red zone.  All three may be in the game at the same time, which gives the Cardinal all kinds of play-calling options.
TB Stepfan Taylor – A good runner (93.2 yards a game) and good receiver (11 catches), Taylor’s best asset may be his pass-blocking.   He’s a big reason Stanford has yielded just two sacks, the fewest in the country.  He’s not as spectacular as some backs, but he’s as well-rounded a back as you’ll find.  He also has excellent ball security, although he lost a fumble for the first time this season in the Oct. 15 game against Washington State.

ROSTER NOTES:
– WR Chris Owusu missed nearly all the Washington State game after taking a hard hit to the upper body and head.  He has had concussion issues in the past, so the Cardinal will be conservative with him, making him questionable for the game against Washington.
–TB Tyler Gaffney, who had been getting increased playing time as his production increased, left the Washington State game with a side injury, and it’s unclear whether he will play against Washington.

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