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Opponent Defense Preview: That Darn Farm

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An improved Stanford defense will almost always give them a shot.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 16 Stanford at Washington State Photo by Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Intros are dumb. Here’s a preview of Stanford’s defense:

Personnel and What to Expect

Overall, this looks to me like an improved-ish Stanford defense from the last couple years where they’d faltered somewhat. They’re still not absolute havoc wreakers or anything, but they have fewer clear weaknesses and seem more spatially disciplined. That’s reflected in the scoreboard, where they almost always allow 20-something points and only twice more (other than most recently, against WSU).

If there’s a single takeaway you’d want to plan around as an offensive coordinator and execute as a player, it’s don’t give them time to swarm. That’s obviously true of any team — watching overconfident ball-carriers dance around instead of moving their feet forward might be my longest-running, pull-my-hair-out pet peeve — but Stanford has a particular disparity between their success against indecision and poor vision versus their success against quick-developing plays and players with good vision who can pin their ears back and just full send it. Obviously, the latter is much more effective.

Two players who have most illustrated this are Jayden Daniels and especially Max Borghi. Daniels for his ability to see weak spots in the field and either lead his receiver there or, in some particularly explosive incidents, to see space open up for him to run it; Borghi on the other hand is hand-crafted to beat the Cardinal with his foot speed, lack of excessive lateral (read: tryhard) movement, and vision. Neither of these players had eye-popping stats against Stanford, but that didn’t really matter.

Otherwise, the Cardinal mostly show up in 2-4-5 with the occasional 3-3-5 or 3-4 in goal line situations. But also, at this point it feels pretty redundant to mention base personnel in my defense previews — pretty much everybody’s base is nickel anyway at this point, so it’s a given to be one of those two options. But I digress...

Despite looking improved in many little aspects of their defense, it stands out to me that depending on the game, their pass rush is anywhere from inconsistent to minimally existent. That being said, they also don’t typically leave massive lanes open for quarterback. They’re pretty disciplined, although there were a few times I’ve noticed interior linemen at least appearing to not work that hard when initially beat, which doesn’t look great. Still, they just don’t really get the consistent enough non-sack pressure that you kind of depend on in a philosophy like that. As is, Stanford’s defensive line tends to leave a lot of space more often than not for quarterbacks to feel comfortable.

This naturally puts a lot of stress on their secondary. Other than the difficult circumstances they’re put in, I’d say the defensive backs actually do a pretty good job. You don’t often see opposing receivers completely wide open, and many of them have clearly apparent ball skills; Kyu Blu Kelly for example has two interceptions — including a pick six — and three games with multiple PBUs.

Along with being more spatially disciplined than most (all?) of Washington’s opponents so far, this defense I think is overall just better at fundamentals in multiple aspects of the game. They aren’t smothering tacklers, but they mostly tackle better — not to mention tackle harder, in many players’ cases. The impact of that really shows in short yardage and goal line scenarios, where they played their most impressive football against Oregon, Wazzu, and ASU. If the Cardinal know you’re running up the gut, good luck.

On the other hand, explosive plays against Stanford look to primarily come from pretty shallow routes and yards after catch or, related, running backs getting outside the edge and keeping their feet moving forward. There are certainly opportunities for chunk plays from longer-developing pass plays since their pass rush doesn’t create urgency, but that’s less of a sure thing anyway. And if you do want to open up space mid-downfield, there’s noteworthy instances of inside linebackers biting hard on play action.

In fact, while you’ll find less huge areas of space on the field against Stanford than against Washington’s previous opponents, they still aren’t great at holding the edge against the rush. From there, linebackers and linemen who’ve detached from their blockers often take inefficient angles — that’s where your running backs will find space against Stanford, since it’s otherwise not an easily found commodity.

Really, the only explosive plays you’ll get through the middle is if you have a quarterback like Jayden Daniels who can capitalize on the rare lack of lane discipline from the pass rush. But that’s a rare opportunity from Stanford’s defense, and most offenses don’t have a quarterback as nifty with his legs as Daniels, so... Don’t try to replicate that on planned runs, I guess?

Bottom Line

If Washington tries to rely on their usual A gap malarkey, this could be really not fun. Like, not even from a Washington fans standpoint, just from the standpoint of people who enjoy football. That would be not only painful for Washington fans, but boring as hell for everyone else.

My gut is that Lake and Co could find some success getting some receiver sweeps in early in the game — not that they’d go for 30 yards each time, but because they’d get seven or eight and prevent Stanford from cheating inside as the game goes on. Forcing them to defend sideline to sideline — while turning uphill as soon as possible — feels particularly critical since their back seven defense tends to have better anticipation than the defenses the Dawgs have faced so far.

Pretty much: Don’t run up the gut, but if you do against this defense, at least force them to consider other options.

Otherwise, if I were feeling halfway optimistic, I’d say this could be a game for the offensive line to re-establish themselves and show Dylan Morris he can trust them again! But of course it’s pretty tricky to be an optimist at the moment, so uh... I’d ask them to just hold their own. Anticipating this, shorter crossing routes or meshes that are easy, give the receiver momentum into space, and don’t ask too much of the line seem like they’d be a pretty reliable bet.

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