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Zimmerman: Secondary improving for Card

My weekend was undoubtedly better than yours for one reason: I made my first career appearance on Skycam. The suspended camera that follows the ESPN crew on Saturday nights is one of my favorite sports creations of all time. Inventor Garrett Brown has to feel snubbed by the Nobel Prize committee.

While I could never have envisioned accomplishing such a lofty life goal, my two seconds of fame placed runner-up in the list of I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened moments during the matchup between Stanford and Arizona.

This is because the Cardinal secondary played well for the second week in a row.

I’ve harped on the safeties and corners for the entire season. They have been the whipping boys on the field and in the media. We have blamed them for nearly every ounce of team failure this year.

Deservedly so? Maybe. Through the Washington State game two weeks ago, the defense had been torched through the air. Excluding Sacramento State, the secondary had only given up 231.6 passing yards and 1.4 touchdowns per game. While these stats appear decent, they fail to account for countless opposing drives that consisted of quick pass after quick pass after quick pass that dismantled and exposed the entire defense.

More telling is the fact that three of Stanford’s top five tacklers (safety Delano Howell and corners Johnson Bademosi and Richard Sherman) are members of the secondary. For weeks on end, opposing teams found exponentially more success throwing quick outs to their receivers than they did running the football. I can’t even begin to count the times I’ve vocally—and I mean really vocally—questioned the decision to give receivers six yards of cushion on every play.

After letting Washington State’s Jeff Tuel, of all people, go off for 298 yards and four touchdowns, I couldn’t help but shiver at the sound of two pending matchups with Jake Locker and Nick Foles, who, despite injuries and mild disappointment, are two of the best quarterbacking talents in the nation.

And what did the Cardinal secondary do? First, it went into Seattle and forced Locker, once a potential first-overall pick in the NFL Draft whose value was upwards of $50 million, into a 7-14 passing performance for just 64 yards and two interceptions. It held Husky receiver Jermaine Kearse, who came into the game with 10 touchdowns on the year, to just four receptions for 53 yards. Although the defensive line deserves credit for making the quarterback literally run for his life, Stanford’s secondary blanketed the UW receivers and elicited one of the worst performances of Locker’s career.

Then Arizona, a top-15 team with a top-10 defense and a potent passing attack, came into town looking to make a statement and vault itself into BCS contention. Foles, who many pegged during the preseason as a better quarterback than Andrew Luck, was expected to pick the secondary apart. We thought the damage was inevitable, the question was just how severe.

Foles threw 20 incompletions, one interception and was held to just 248 yards. This same guy annihilated Oregon State to the tune of 440 yards and three touchdowns. Suffice it to say, the Stanford secondary was up to the task.

The implications are obvious. When the secondary does its job, Luck and the rest of the offense perform better. During the heart of the defense’s struggle, the offense had to play mistake-free football. It needed to score on every possession, as punts routinely led to points. But now, defensive holds at the beginning of the game produce big leads early, and this, in turn, allows for more creativity and risk-taking, things that make one of the nation’s best offenses just that much more potent.

With three games remaining, the Card looks poised to make a BCS bowl appearance. While I’m sure most of you will bombard me with our mathematically slim chances for getting an at-large bid if we fail to make the Rose Bowl, I’d have to politely disagree and say that a top-six BCS team that wins out will ultimately be chosen one way or another.

Winning out is the key, and with matchups against Arizona State, Cal and Oregon State left on the schedule, I’m feeling pretty good. The Cardinal secondary just stifled two of the nation’s best in Locker and Foles. Steven Threet, Brock Mansion and Ryan Katz don’t hold a candle to these guys, something Stanford fans should feel confident about.

It took a while to put all the pieces together, but the secondary finally joined the party. Stanford is no longer just a strong offensive team.

We have ourselves a complete team.

Zach Zimmerman needs to do something more exciting than appear on Skycam. Give him some ideas at zachz “at” stanford.edu.