After a two week sabbatical brought on by an FCS opponent and a bye week, we're back with our weekly position previews (and more importantly, we're now talking about Pac-12 opponents, which means that I actually know more about these teams than a few hours of blind research can tell me).
This week, the Dawgs take on the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal, a team that has done nothing less than dominate the Huskies for the last three years, in a Thursday night game at Century Link field.
In a season full of intriguing Pac-12 storylines --- the hiring of four new high-profile head coaches, the return of USC to bowl eligibility, Chip Kelly's never ending Ross-and-Rachel-style, will-he-or-won't-he flirtation with the NFL --- Stanford's ranks as among the most exciting, due in large part to the team's underdog triumph last weekend over then-No. 2 USC in Palo Alto.
In the space of just three weeks, Stanford has played both above and below its apparent talent level, from barely edging San Jose State to putting on a clinic of physical dominance against the Trojans. Though the team has been somewhat enigmatic so far, one thing seems certain: The college football world will know a lot more about the Cardinal at the end of Thursday night, after the team leaves the confines of the Farm for the first time in 2012.
Quarterback: Stanford's biggest task in 2012 will be breaking in a new quarterback to replace a three-year starter named Andrew Luck, the Heisman runner-up in 2010 and 2011 --- perhaps you've heard of him. In addition to being an absolute physical specimen at 6'4", 234 lbs., Luck possessed an understanding of the intricacies and minutiae of the game that is largely unprecedented at the collegiate level. There's a reason that Luck came out of college as the most heralded player since Peyton Manning was taken first overall in the 1998 NFL draft, and it's the same reason that, less than a year after his departure, the Cardinal's offensive coordinator position has been endowed as the Andrew Luck Director of Offense: He's a special, special player whose ilk won't likely be seen again for another generation.
All of this is to say that first-year starter Josh Nunes, even in the most perfect world he can imagine, has an enormous pair of shoes to fill. Stanford's fans have grown accustomed over the last few years to BCS bowl appearances and top-10 finishes, and there are high expectations for Nunes to at least emulate his predecessor, if not live up to him. Through three games, Nunes has been serviceable, throwing 47 completions on 88 attempts (53.4 percent) for six touchdowns and three interceptions. He's been afforded the luxury of relying on a solid ground attack and experienced defense to provide him some cushion, and has so far done the most important thing a first-year starting quarterback can do: He hasn't lost any games by making poor decisions, especially against SC. Head coach David Shaw was noticeably non-committal toward naming a starting quarterback until near the end of fall camp, though, which means that it will not be surprising to see talented junior Brett Nottingham take some starting reps at QB before the year is done. For Thursday, though, provided the wheels don't come off for the Tree, Nunes will likely take every meaningful snap against the Huskies.
Running Back: Stanford has employed the power running game like no other program on the west coast for the past several years, thanks in large part to a talented stable of backs that includes players like Toby Gerhart, who finished second in the 2009 Heisman voting (I'm beginning to sense a pattern here) and Stepfan Taylor (pictured above), who became my personal favorite running back in the conference as soon as Chris Polk declined to return for his senior year. Seriously, is there a running back in college football who has had quieter back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons than the Cardinal's workhorse? Taylor is well on his way toward making this season a threepeat, as he's averaging a sturdy 5.04 yards per carry for 338 yards and three touchdowns, as well as one receiving touchdown on 10 catches.
Offensive Line: As Stanford must replace its all-world quarterback, so too must it fill in for first- and second-round draft picks David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, the former of whom is the pride of Bellevue High School and reportedly a key reason that Joshua Garnett found his way to Palo Alto. So far, the unit has performed admirably, giving up only two sacks and none against USC. In last year's game against UW, the Cardinal offensive line played perhaps their best game of the season, paving the way for a school-record 446 yards rushing and allowing zero plays of negative yardage. A similar performance on Thursday will be the first step toward a very, very long night on Montlake for the Dawgs.
Tight End: Though Coby Fleener has departed the Bay Area to the Indianapolis Colts, who took him with the first pick of the second round in this year's draft, the remaining two-thirds of the Tree Amigos remain with Stanford. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are as prototypical as tight ends come, coming in at 6'8", 265 lbs. and 6'6", 252 lbs. Accordingly, the tight end position is more vital in Stanford's offense than just about any other offense in the nation: In 2011, receptions by tight ends accounted for 29 percent of the team's completions, 39 percent of its passing yardage and 53 percent of its touchdown receptions. Things look to continue much the same in 2012, as Ertz and Toilolo have each tallied one of Nunes' six touchdown passes this year.
Wide Receivers: Arguably the weakest link of Stanford's offensive machine, the Cardinal wideouts bear a lesser burden than the running backs and tight ends in Shaw's system. Senior receiver Drew Terrell has made the most of his opportunities through the 2012 season, grabbing two scores on seven targets, while true sophomore Ty Montgomery demands respect from opposing secondaries for his big-play potential: At 6'2", 212 lbs., he creates a matchup problem for most cornerbacks, and has tallied nine catches for 100 yards through the first three games of the season. As in previous years, though, it's likely safe to assume that Shaw's two skyscrapers at the tight end position will continue to merit most of Nunes' attention.
Tune in tomorrow for our preview of the Cardinal defense, and for our look at their special teams on Wednesday.