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See The Forest For The Trees



Photo Attribution: Icon SMI

I traded questions with Hank Waddles who writes at the blog You can see my answers here and Hank’s below. He did a great job breaking down the other side of what should be a terrific game on Monday night (not sure why I would expect a Stanford to not do a great job writing and analyzing something like football).

1. Who is the offensive player not named Luck that OSU fans should be worried about?
People who haven’t watched Stanford play this year would probably be surprised to learn that Andrew Luck doesn’t have a consistent threat at wide receiver. There is no Justin Blackmon on this team. (Alright, there’s no Blackmon on any team.) You asked for one player to watch, but instead I’ll give you three — tight ends Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, and Levine Toilolo. These three players combined for 79 receptions, 1,281 yards, and 19 touchdowns. Even though all three of them will be on the field together about 40% of the time, their skill sets are different enough that they can each impact the game in distinct ways.

Ertz is more of a possession receiver, and is often Luck’s first look on third and short. Fleener is a deep threat, and even though defenses know this and know to watch for him on play action, he still somehow manages to get loose behind the defense at least once or twice a game. Once he gets free, he won’t be caught. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he’s the second-fastest player on the Stanford offense, even though he’s 6’6″ and 244 pounds. The third tight end, Toilolo, is even bigger at 6’8″ and 263. You’ll see him running patterns over the middle where he’ll shed linebackers as if they were schoolboys, but he’s most dangerous around the goal line. When Luck finds himself inside the five yard line, he’ll often look to split Toilolo out wide against a cornerback and throw a jump ball towards the corner of the end zone. The defender is usually half a foot shorter than Toilolo, which isn’t really fair.

2. Would Stanford be 12-0 if Jim Harbaugh was still the coach?
I’ve heard some people say this, even some Stanford fans. The idea is that Harbaugh would’ve given the team that extra edge necessary to keep things together and beat Oregon. I don’t buy it. Jim Harbaugh was a great coach, and all year long I’ve been saying that he was probably the only human alive who could’ve done what he did. He arrived at a school without much recent history of football success, and he arrived following what was indisputably the single worst season in the history of Stanford football.

I don’t think the athletic department had any inkling of what would happen next. In fact, I believe most of the decision makers — including Bill Walsh — had given up on the football team. Harbaugh believed he could build a championship-caliber team at Stanford, then went out and did just that. His departure wasn’t a surprise, but David Shaw was probably the perfect choice as his replacement. There might have been a decision or two that could be questioned during the Oregon game, but I just don’t think Stanford was going to beat the Ducks on that night, Harbaugh or Shaw.

3. Is this year’s Stanford team better or worse than last year’s squad that buried Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl?
I think there are two differences between last year and this year, and neither has anything to do with personnel. First, the 2010 Stanford Cardinal was incredibly healthy. The 2011 squad has resembled a MASH unit. The top defender, Shayne Skov, went down during the third game of the season. The top wide receiver, Chris Owusu, suffered three concussions and only finished six games. Other key players on both sides of the ball also missed games, and all of that certainly weakened the team.

The second issue was the schedule. Last year the Cardinal lost to Oreogn in the fifth game of the season and had seven games after that during which to build momentum. This year they coasted through a ridiculously easy early schedule before stumbling in their tenth game against Oregon and having trouble with Cal and Notre Dame. If Stanford seems weaker now than they did last season, it might just be a matter of perception. Obviously, we’ll know a lot more in a few days.

4. Do Stanford fans feel slighted that they weren’t even really mentioned for the title game even though they had a significantly better loss than OSU?
I think Stanford fans are used to being slighted. I think everyone agrees that Cam Newton was the clear Heisman winner in 2010, but you won’t be able to find a single Cardinal fan who doesn’t believe Toby Gerhart was the rightful winner in ’09, just as Luck was the rightful winner in ’11. But we get it. If you take a look at the top ten, there’s one team that doesn’t seem to belong. Stanford is new to this party, so it’s not surprising that people might wonder if they belong. If it were up to me, I’d have put Oklahoma State in the national championship game. I’ve got no interest in seeing LSU-Alabama again, and even though losing to Oregon isn’t as bad as losing to Iowa State, I think the Cowboys deserve to be ranked ahead of the Cardinal. Does that mean OSU is better than Stanford? Not so fast, my friend!

5. What does Stanford’s defense do well?
The Stanford front seven is one of the best groups around, and they are dominant against the run. They give up ninety yards a game, good for fourth in the nation, and 3.1 yards per carry, which is tied for tenth-best. It starts up front with a large three-man defensive line that does a great job absorbing blockers and allowing the linebackers to close the gaps and stuff the run.

As I mentioned earlier, the defense has been without its leader and best player, Shayne Skov, but the emergence of the younger linebackers has probably been the biggest surprise of the season. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley were expected to contribute eventually, but not this year, and they’ve both been tremendous. Outside linebacker Chase Thomas has been the unit’s best player all season, and probably should’ve been the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. (Another Stanford slight.) The Stanford defense likes to blitz, and Thomas is usually the weapon of choice. He led the conference in tackles for loss and finished second in sacks.

The defensive backfield is a bit more suspect, but safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell are solid. The biggest problem with the secondary isn’t covering as much as it is tackling, which doesn’t bode well for their match up with Blackmon. There’s been a lot of talk about how this game will be an offensive shootout, but I think it’s more likely that one defense or the other will decide the outcome.

6. Who do Stanford fans look at as the 2nd best QB in the nation?
This is a really interesting question. There are at least five truly great quarterbacks out there — OSU’s Brandon Weeden, Baylor’s RG3, Boise State’s Kellen Moore, and Houston’s Case Keenum come to mind off the top of my head. But I think most Stanford fans would say that Matt Barkley is the second-best quarterback in the country. Sure, his coach loves to run up the score and never seems to run the ball in the red zone, plus he has the benefit of throwing to two guys who just might be the second- and third-best wide receivers in the country, but Barkley is flat-out good. He doesn’t have a bowl game to play in this year, which is a shame, but you can pretty much lock USC into a BCS game next year, maybe even the national championship game.

7. Which OSU opponent does Stanford most resemble?
I don’t think Oklahoma State has played a team like Stanford, and the reason I think this is because there aren’t too many teams like Stanford out there. Think about something. Stanford has a back-to-back Heisman finalist at quarterback, so it makes sense that they rank eighth nationally in total yards per game and fifth in scoring. What you wouldn’t expect, though, is that the Cardinal offense ranks higher in rushing yards per game (19th) than passing (27th).

Andrew Luck is great at a lot of things, but he’s probably best at the hidden aspects of the game, the things the casual fan misses. After Stanford destroyed Washington 65-21 and set a school record by rushing for 446 yards, Coach Shaw apologized to Luck for not sending in too many passing plays. Luck responded that he thought he had just played the best game of his career. Each time he came to the line of scrimmage he was able to figure out what the defense was giving him, and he called the correct play every time. Running back Stepfan Taylor is usually the beneficiary of this, and he’s topped the thousand-yard mark two years in a row.

8. What’s your prediction for the game?
My friends tell me I’m hopelessly optimistic about the Cardinal, and they’re right. I don’t remember the last time I predicted a Stanford loss, and I’m not going to start now. I think the Stanford front seven will shut down the OSU running game, making the offense one-dimensional. That one dimension is pretty good, but I don’t think it will be enough. Meanwhile, look for Stanford’s offensive line to pave the way for a big game from Taylor and the other running backs. Once the running game gets going, Luck will unveil the most devastating part of the Stanford offense — the play action passing game. The game will likely be close at least until halftime and maybe into the fourth quarter, but I see the Cardinal winning by ten. We’ll say 41-31.

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