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Opponent Defense Preview: Stanford

The Cardinal are alright but, for the first time in a while, quite flawed.

Stanford v San Diego State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Intros suck, so I’ll just say some buzzwords that warm you up to the idea of reading about Stanford’s defense: Lack of Solomon Thomas, “smash mouth,” the ghost of Christian McCaffrey going up against them every week in practice, Halloween, which is today, Palo Alto, “Why is it called ‘The Farm?,’” David-Shaw-looks-like-a-Canadian-from-South-Park, etc.

Kay, here’s actual thoughts on the matter:

Personnel and What to Expect

The thing that’s been the most consistent Stanford-ism across the years, even with their uncharacteristic struggles (relative) up front this season, is the versatility of fronts you see. Whether or not they have the personnel to depend on in any given look, they don’t really give a crap, they’re gonna do the fronts they wanna do and let it all play out.

This initial discover was surprising when I (upon finally paying attention to their specifics) did my first defensive write-up on them two years ago, but for different reasons; looking into Stanford then, when they had guys like Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips, I was expecting to see them in more traditional lineups — whether 4-3 or 3-4, etc. — because their physicality up front and focus on the lines, both on defense and offense, was so famous. What ended up apparent, instead, was their commitment to adaptability depending on their opponents’ offense.

Fast forward two seasons, and that hasn’t changed. And it’s still surprising, just for different reasons: namely, that they don’t have the depth of personnel all around them (read: up front) to be equally reliable in all sets — although any criticism of Stanford that’s upcoming should be marked with the asterisk for “by Stanford standards.”

In other words, you should be un-surprised if you see 4-3, 3-4, 2-4-5, 3-3-5, 4-2-5, dime with three men down, dime with four men down, 3-3-5 but with both safeties playing super shallow and stacking the box... You get it.

So... I guess, let’s just start up front?

Honestly, the Stanford line this year kind of reminds me of the Washington receivers this year: A bunch of guys that are good #2 and #3s in any given unit but, for the first time in what — three years at least? Probably more than that? — they don’t have one single player that can consistently create havoc up front. (My own personal, almost-certainly-wrong-but-I-won’t-discount-it hypothesis is that the retirement of Randy Hart hurts more than anyone anticipated. I’m probably wrong though, and there’s absolutely no evidence for this other than conjecture.)

The main thing that stands out is that, for the first time since Pete’s been with Washington and then some, there’s nobody who stands out. In the past it felt like Stanford would lose a major havoc-contributor and then there would be someone you kind of remembered from last year and then all the sudden Mr. Oh-I-Kinda-Remember-You would become Mr. Oh-God-Dammit-They-Have-Another-One?, sliding into that role, and then he’d graduate, and so on and so on.

This year, that hasn’t happened. The closest thing to me would be junior DE Jovan Swann, but it’s telling when you look through the roster of Stanford’s defensive line and see names like junior DT Michael Williams and senior DE Dylan Jackson and go “Who?

Otherwise, up front, I don’t know...? Sometimes they like to line someone out in five or seven tech with an actual, real-life hand in the ground? There. Now you know Stanford’s defensive line. They’re not bad by any stretch, they’re just not... Stanford.

Behind them is more recognizable. If nobody’s stepped up on the line, Bobby Okereke has made the jump as a redshirt senior, while outside linebacker and Oregon native Joey Alfieri — who started his career inside — has continued as a reliable force wherever he needs to be, most notably with the scoop and score touchdown against Oregon. That being said, Alfieri was out against Wazzu and his status for Washington doesn’t appear to be clear yet. Otherwise on the outside, Gabe Reid has shown he can be a threat off the edge, while Casey Toohill and Jordan Fox continue with the linebacking theme of upperclassmen. Similarly, inside linebackers Mustafa Branch and Sean Barton are also both seniors, and the two-deep is overwhelmingly seniors, a couple juniors, and Reid being the only sophomore.

While this maturity should make them the best unit on the defense — and in many ways they are — a theme of this season has been less-than-perfect tackling on shifty guys in space (a la against Britain Covey), and lots of trouble against skill players blocking or offensive linemen getting into the second level — although the latter is more an indictment of the defensive line, really. Against WSU and Utah this was readily apparent; off the top of my head, a Utah option touchdown could’ve easily been stopped if it weren’t for poor tackling, Britain Covey again stymied them frequently when given short passes in space or sweeps, and many WSU ballcarriers getting more yards than you’d expect simply from broken or missed tackles.

Speaking of poor-ish tackling in the front seven, a lot of that is reflected in the secondary since, in something you’re not used to seeing from the Cardinal, there have been multiple games where a defensive back had more tackles than anybody else — and not some “defensive back” like Chase-Hansen-for-Utah-circa-2017 where he’s a safety but really is just a glorified linebacker.

While replacing CB Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid wasn’t a small task, Bednarik Watchlist CB Alijah Holder returns (how long has that dude been around?) again. Speaking of leading the team in tackles, Holder did that against WSU and Notre Dame, which isn’t a great sign for Stanford but at least makes sense kind of against the Cougars’ Air Raid. Holder’s physicality is partnered with redshirt freshman CB Paulson Adebo’s long-limbed coverage, with Adebo having more PBUs than almost anybody in the country. Then safeties like Brandon Simmons, Frank Buncom, and Malik Antoine can either stack the box or play coverage reliably.

Overall, the secondary is, just like everyone else, it seems, mostly seniors and juniors, with a handful of underclassmen thrown in there. But they also seem like the unit that’s maybe the best but suffering the most from other units not doing their job with the ferocity of years past.

If there’s one thing to take away, it’s this: Stanford’s defense is, for the first time in a while, marred with blemishes. But they’re still Stanford.

Bottom Line

Usually when studying a defense, there’ll be a few easy strengths and weaknesses to key in on, but this whole thing feels a bit more nuanced — i.e. they’re just Stanford’s normal self but worse up front. The most likely side effect that I’d anticipate would be Washington relying on a power run game and us fans hoping that pulling guards or tight ends can get into the second level. Similarly, the weakness of the Dawgs’ receivers’ blocking in space this season particularly sucks for Washington, since if Ty Jones and Co. were even vaguely alright at that (and if Chico were in form), they’d be able to gash the Cardinal’s mid-range defense all day.

Sure, this has been the story of all Washington since Browning and Gaskin took over in 2015, but especially so against 2018’s Stanford front seven: If they run frequently and execute alright, the offense should be alright. “If,” though, hasn’t been super on the Huskies’ side this year.

Meh, we’ll see.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.