ASU is behind us. Time to turn the page to Stanford.
At a high level, Stanford is in a similar transition period as ASU. After parting ways with long-time coach David Shaw, Stanford is in year 0 with new HC Troy Taylor, formerly of Sacramento State. For all of the accomplishments that the Harbaugh-Shaw era brought to a rejuvenated Stanford program, the end of that era was bleak. Stanford has never been an easy place to win at, and it is in large part due to the lack of emphasis placed on athletics at the world-renown university and the corresponding challenges associated with attracting, admitting, and retaining football talent. Unlike other first year HCs in the conference, Taylor was unable to lean on the transfer portal to flip the roster and infuse much needed talent into a roster that had fallen off from its peak.
None of this is to say that Stanford should be taken lightly. We have just been reminded how deep this conference is, and everyone has a chance at an upset.
The Scheme & Personnel
Schematically, Stanford hasn’t shifted very far away from the basic structures that we saw under Harbaugh and Shaw’s various defensive coordinators. The Cardinal are still reliant on 3-4 types of personnel deployed in various odd and even fronts, and they still like to play single-high coverage structures. Where the Cardinal have changed under DC Bobby April is in their coverage philosophy. April, formerly with Wisconsin, has called a lot of zone coverage this year. Much like the Tulsa and Michigan State strategies that I’ve previewed earlier this year, teams with talent deficiencies at key areas like CB and DE often compensate for this by utilizing zone coverages. Zone coverage allows for better team defense that can mask individual match up disadvantages, it allows for better disguises, and it keeps more eyes on the backfield. A well-coached zone-based defense can be just as effective in coverage as a talented man-based defense, and there can even be additional benefits in run support and better plays on the ball with the zone-specific techniques utilized by DBs.
Pressure has been a soft spot for UW, but it has been for the Cardinal as well. With just 16 sacks on the year, the Cardinal are tied for 58th in the country. Now that’s significantly more than our paltry 7 sacks on the year, but the problem for them lies with where their pressure comes from and how it affects their defense. LB David Bailey is their best rusher by far with 5 sacks on the year, but 3 of them came against a woeful Hawaii team. He’s a phenomenal talent as a former top-40 recruit, but he’s young and inconsistent. He’s also their lone threat. Remove his production in that game, and he’s still their sack leader as the only player with more than 1 sack. That’s good for them in the sense that Stanford has been able to manufacture pressure without dominant talents on the DL, but it hurts their zone-based defense because it makes them susceptible to well-coordinated passing attacks that can attack the soft spots in their zones. Zone defenses need a consistent pass rush, and Stanford doesn’t have that.
Keys to the Game
If we learned anything from the ASU game, it is that we need to keep the pocket clean for Penix if our offense is to produce like it did for the first half of the season. The depth of our WR room has helped keep us afloat despite injuries and should continue to find opportunities against a soft Stanford secondary that often concedes free releases to prevent big plays, but it won’t make a difference if we can’t protect Penix. As I broke down in this week’s Film Study, we threw the kitchen sink at the pass protection problem. We tried to use empty sets to get quick passes, and we tried max protections to buy time for routes to develop. Neither worked particularly well, but a happy medium of 6-man protections and a different approach to play calling might do well against Stanford.
What I mean by that is a greater emphasis on pass plays over the middle. If Stanford wants to consistently concede free releases, then leaning on our slot receivers or moving guys like Odunze and Polk in to the slot could open things up. The key to that is, yet again, preventing interior pressure from shutting that down. ASU used simulated pressure with their ILBs to create interior pressure and clog passing lanes over the middle. If we are able to get our counter run game back on track to force Stanford’s LBs back off the line in order to flow with the runs, then we could see the over the middle passing game get back on track as well.