With the Stanford game now two days away, it’s time for our weekly “Five questions, five answers” look at the opponent.
And as we often down when it comes to Stanford, we turn to one of the deans of the Pac-12 media corps, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, who runs the popular and indispensable College Hotline blog.
As always, our questions and his answers.
Question 1: I know many fans around the conference figured Stanford might be a pretty beatable team after the way Cardinal played against San Jose State. Obviously the Cardinal has looked like a different team since. How do you explain the San Jose State game and is there any lesson there for future opponents?
A: First off, San Jose State isn’t awful. Second, Stanford had a series of malfunctions related to game management and communication that can be attributed to not having Andrew Luck as the coach on the field. But the Cardinal got those issues solved and has found an early-season rhythm. It’s a different team than the 2010-11 versions even though the philosophy (physical, run-oriented) hasn’t changed: This edition is more likely to win games 21-14 than 41-31. The defense is very good, with an elite front seven and a talented, albeit young, secondary.
Q2: What were 2-3 keys to Stanford’s win over USC?
A: I’d offer a few explanations: 1) Stanford is in USC’s head; 2) USC was without center Khaled Holmes, and that had a huge impact on the Trojans’ efficiency; 3) Stanford’s defense, and defensive gameplan, were terrific. The Cardinal stuffed the run – again, no Holmes was a big reason why – and forced USC into passing situations. Matt Barkley’s not Mr. Mobility, and Stanford was able to pressure him with four- and five-man rushes. And the secondary was physical with receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Q3: How has Josh Nunes (pictured in an Associated Press photo) developed as the successor to Andrew Luck?
A: He’s done as well as Stanford could have hoped. Spotty in the opener, not much of a factor in the second game and mediocre against USC until it mattered: In the fourth quarter, he had a key first-down run and a touchdown pass that turned the game. Nunes (pronounced Noon-es) is, like many first-year starters, being asked to manage the game. Of course, that’s code for: Don’t screw up! But with Stanford’s defense and running game, all he has to do is complete basic passes and the Cardinal should be formidable.
Q4: How has David Shaw been able to apparently keep the same physical approach and dominance on both lines that was begun by Jim Harbaugh?
A: As much as any team in the conference, with the possible exception of Oregon, Stanford has a guiding philosophy that determines how it recruits, how it practices, how it prepares for games and how it executes. Shaw coached in the NFL for years and is the son of a longtime NFL coach: he believes in running the football, like Harbaugh. And frankly, for socio-economic reasons, it’s easier for Stanford to recruit fullbacks and tight ends than receivers who run 4.4 40s.
Q5: The USC game also seemed to make clear that Stanford’s defense may not get enough attention. What are the keys to making the defense work, either in terms of personnel or scheme?
A: The front seven is experienced and tough. It has terrific leadership and a handful of high-round NFL draft picks, especially at linebacker. It is able to generate pressure on the quarterback without having to devote more than four/five players to the pass rush. And they have a lot of options: The players are smart and have been in the system for years, which gives the coaches the option to use multiple fronts, blitzes and coverages. The place to attack Stanford has always been in space. If Washington can get Keith Price outside the pocket and get its receivers (and Austin Seferian-Jenkins) in 1-on-1 situations, it has a chance to move the ball. The one thing UW cannot afford is relentless series of second/third-and-long situations. If Stanford knows a pass is coming, the Huskies are in trouble.