This game comes right in the middle of a rough 13 game stretch...wait, what's that? You say our season is only 13 games long?
Oh yeah, I forgot for a second there.
Well fortunately we've got a coaching staff that includes a number of former NFL coaches who can remind these guys that if they wan't to play on Sundays, a difficult 13 game season isn't so bad.
Anyway, week six, Stanford, in Palo Alto, Andrew Luck, #6 ranked team in preseason according to the Coaches Poll. Oy!
Follow the jump to find out why this game is stressing me out just a little bit!Stanford Cardinal
This is a whale of a team. Even without Jim Harbaugh, Vic Fangio and the other coaches that left, without three of their offensive linemen and without one of the best two-way players in recent memory, Owen Marecic. Everyone thought they would take a big step backwards last year after losing some pieces, including Heisman candidate Toby Gerhart. And what happened? They go 11-1, come in second in the conference to an undefeated Oregon team, and they dominate in their bowl game. Not only that, but they look to be very good again this year. They have to replace some guys, but they've shown the ability to do that very well. And while they've lost some coaches, they retain a good amount of continuity with David Shaw taking over. He is another former Cardinal, he's been there the last four years and was the offensive coordinator last season.
Just because they've got all-everything QB Andrew Luck (seriously, if you haven't watched him play, go out and do it. He's one of the most amazing college players you'll ever get to see. A lot of pro QBs could learn from his use of check down passes), doesn't mean they air the ball out. They run to set up the pass. Taylor ran for more than 1,100 yards last year and racked up 15 TDs. He will once again be the featured back, but they've got a number of guys behind him that will also get the ball, not to mention the scrambling abilities of Luck. They will pound the rock as much as they possibly can, and they did it very well last year. They'll be breaking in a new fullback, but they return a fantastic group of tight ends. Stanford is going to need those experienced TEs and whoever steps up at fullback to be good because they're replacing 3 of their 5 offensive linemen from last year. The two who return are All-American candidates, but they won't be able to do it themselves. James Martin will protect Luck's blindside and David DeCastro will be mauling people at right guard, but competition is wide open at the other three spots along the line. I have a feeling that guys will step up and they'll have a very good line once again.
And that's something Luck will appreciate, because he was only sacked 13 lines last season. I bet he takes a few more hits in 2011, but not too many more. Which is good, because he'll need time to find the new guys they'll be sporting outside. The very talented Chris Owusu will try to return to his '09 form after missing time last year with injuries, and they'll need him. The top two receivers (statistically) last year are gone, and the other guys returning combined for only 24 catches with one TD. They can rely on Owusu and the tight ends, but they'll need some of the other wide receivers to step up. Speaking of tight ends, they return a trio of guys to keep an eye on. Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz combined to catch 12 touchdowns last year. They also get last season's projected starter, the 6'8", 255 lb Levine Toilolo back from an injury suffered at the start of their first game, back to round out the group. With the lack of experience at receiver, there's a good chance we see a lot of multiple tight end formations out of which they'll be able to run and pass the ball effectively. Can our defense handle that? I don't know. Honestly, I'm thinking no. This is a very good offense. No gimmicks and no crazy formations. On running downs, they run the ball and they throw it on passing downs. They are just very, very good at both and have been able to do it at their will. I think we can keep them from scoring forty points, and that's only because they only return two offensive linemen.
Do you know what the difference between the 2009 edition of the Cardinal and last years team? If you said Andrew Luck, you'd be wrong. He was better, but the offense maintained their production. It was their defense, which figured things out after a few games and became a dominant group by the end of the season. They do have to replace some impact players, but they should be able to do that. They run a 3-4 that tends to be stout against the run (last years game against Oregon aside) and can bring a lot of pressure. The key to their defense's ability to stop the run last year was nose tackle, Sione Fua. He and defensive end Brian Bulcke have graduated (though the end who returns, Matt Masifilo actually led their linemen in tackles with 33 and had 4 sacks), but they have guys who are ready to step up. Terrence Stephens should be their nose tackle and Ben Gardner should be the guy opposite Masifilo. They might be slightly leakier up the middle, but they should still be solid.
Behind those guys, they return two linebackers who should make the All-Conference teams and who tied each other for the team lead in sacks in 2010. Shayne Skov is phenomenal inside and led The Tree in tackles as a sophomore and will be a true team leader this season. He is fast, strong and has great instincts, which he'll need because he'll be slightly more exposed with the losses up front. On the outside, Chase Thomas is a good pass rusher who relies on great technique to get the job done. He can do it all, and should push for double-digit sacks this season. Factor in that this will be Stanford's second season in the 3-4 alignment, and I think all of these guys will be improved. There is still fierce competition for the remaining two spots in the linebacking corps, but I think whoever they choose will be more than solid. We're going to need our tight ends to really be disciplined in both the run game and when we throw the ball to combat Stanford's quality linebackers.
In the secondary, The Cardinal will be very solid, if not pretty darn good. They return two senior starters at safety and a senior starter at RCB, in Johnson Bademosi. Sophomore contributer Barry Browning, should be the other starter outside, and will round out a very talented defensive backfield. Our Ray Polk should take note of The Tree's Delano Howell. Howell is also a converted running back, but he earned All-Conference second-team honors last year as a junior and is working hard at becoming the conference's best strong safety, while Polk is still figuring out his position. At free safety, Michael Thomas is a high energy guy who makes big plays all over the field, and the impact of having those two talented and experienced guys back there can't be discounted. This will be a team strength for Stanford. Bademosi started most of last year, and Browning played in every game as a freshman. Those guys, plus the young talent that they have will be incredibly hard for our offense to overcome. While they might be slightly more porous against the run, I don't think they're going to suffer much for it. Tyler Hansen is going to have to make excellent decisions against this defense, because they can easily make him pay for mistakes. I think we're going to have a hard time scoring more than 20 points against these guys, and I'll be very impressed with us if we can.
They have to replace a long snapper and first team, All-Conference kicker Nate Whitaker and they've got some interesting decisions to make, but they should be pretty good. Stanford's coaching staff is making sure they get kids excited about playing special teams, and they have pretty talented guys on those coverage units. They have a competition going to find a new kicker, so we'll see how that goes for them, and they have two guys who are solid competing to be the punter. Both of them have booted the ball and both averaged over 40 yards per punt (don't you wish our competition at punter was born out of having too many viable candidates?). They know who will return punts, as Drew Terrell is talented there, but they have to decide if they're going to let Owusu return kicks. He is one of the best in the nation there, but his injury concerns and his value to the offense may mean that they keep him off of special teams as a safety precaution. Usua Amanam, a sophomore is a fair returner if they go away from Owusu, but doesn't bring nearly the excitement or potential that the senior receiver does.
This is a very good team that has a shot to be even better this year (yes, better than the 12-1 squad last year). They have some questions that need answering, such as who will step up on both the offensive and defensive lines, but I think they'll be able to work new guys into the mix without losing anything. This will be a great team in 2011. They've got one of the best players in college football in Andrew Luck, but they have a lot of good players around him. I don't think we stand a chance here. I know we have made it a tradition of beating one ranked team at home each year, but I don't think Stanford will be that team, especially on the road. They are just talented everywhere, and their one biggest weakness (wide receivers) just happens to matchup against our biggest weakness (cornerbacks). This will be a tough one, which means we'll get to see if our guys fold as the game goes on like they have in the past. If Embree and Co. are really making the impact that they hope to, we'll compete all the way through the fourth quarter, even if we're down by twenty plus points.