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Jaffe: Balance key to Stanford’s championship aspirations

Stanford football had a bye this week, so “Stat on the Back” is going to take a look at the season so far.

Number of the season-to-date: 27

What it means: Stanford has allowed 27 points this season. No, not 27 points per game–27 total. That is the fewest points allowed by any team in the nation. Because the Cardinal has played only three games while most other teams have played four, Stanford is tied for fourth in scoring defense at nine points per game. But there isn’t a team in the country that would quibble with holding opponents to single digits on average.

Why it matters: Every team wants to have a good defense, and every team wants to stop its opponents from scoring. Duh. But on a team with a quarterback like Andrew Luck and weapons all over the place on offense, having a solid defense almost feels like icing on the cake.

For Stanford to achieve its goals this year (Pac-12 and national titles), though, the Cardinal cannot just be one-dimensional. The difference between the 2009 and 2010 seasons was the improvement of Stanford’s defense, and the Cardinal cannot hope to contend for any sort of title without a stingy defense.

Of course, it’s too early to know how good the defense really is, and obviously losing Shayne Skov for the year will hurt the team. But it is worth noting that Stanford’s three opponents thus far (San Jose State, Duke and Arizona) have all tallied season lows in points and yards against the Stanford defense. If this is a sign of things to come, it will make the offense’s job a lot easier, particularly in upcoming meetings with USC, Oregon and Notre Dame.

Other notable numbers:

9: Speaking of that offense, Stanford is ninth in the country in scoring. That makes the Cardinal one of only two teams, along with Wisconsin, to rank in the top 10 in scoring offense and scoring defense. An interesting note: the team that scores more points than its opponent has won every game this season. So this bodes well for Stanford.

28: With that great offense, you’d probably expect Luck to be the main reason for the Cardinal’s success. But even with the best player in the nation taking every meaningful offensive snap, Stanford is only 28th in the country in passing offense. Among the “better” passing teams: Troy, Middle Tennessee State, Bowling Green and Duke. Yep, Duke.

What’s wrong with the passing game? Apart from a couple rare miscues from Luck, nothing. Stanford isn’t trying to be among the country’s leaders in passing. Head coach David Shaw wants to see balance, and it’s tough to be much more balanced than Stanford has been. The Cardinal has run the ball 109 times, passed 92 times and gotten at least 140 rushing yards and 230 passing yards in every game. That’s tough to stop.

0: As stated before, Stanford’s defense has played well. But through three games, the Cardinal has come up with exactly zero interceptions. That’s right, Luck has thrown more picks than Stanford’s opponents. Only five other teams have yet to pick off an opponent: Akron, Kansas, Oregon State, Rice and Utah State. Combined record of those five against FBS teams: 2-10.

There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, the defense has been unable to come up with a turnover in the secondary despite playing two of its weakest opponents, and eventually this lack of big-play ability will come back to haunt the Cardinal against better teams. On the other hand, Stanford has been able to play dominant defense without needing a game-changing interception to stop teams, so eventually the bounces will go the Cardinal’s way.

In general, interceptions are not really Stanford’s game. The team relies more on its pass rush and forcing opponents to throw underneath to avoid big plays. Still, the 2010 Stanford defense picked off 18 passes, which was tied for 19th in the country and second in the conference. At some point this year, the Cardinal will likely need a momentum changer, and it will be interesting to see if someone will step up and get it.

1: There are 22 undefeated teams remaining, but only one in the Pac-12. Yep, we’re still in September, but Stanford is the only Pac-12 team that has not lost. At first glance, this might look promising for Stanford’s future, but keep in mind that most of these losses have come in nonconference games. These losses hurt Stanford’s strength of schedule, which wasn’t necessarily high anyway. Stanford’s future is in its own hands, but you just never know when a situation like 2004, when Auburn went undefeated but was left out of the BCS National Championship Game, will make strength of schedule a big deal.

24: You probably know by now that Stanford has won 11 straight games. But the Cardinal hasn’t just won; it has dominated. In eight of the past nine games, Stanford has won by at least 24 points. In all eight of those blowout wins, Stanford beat the Vegas spread.

This streak could continue for the next several weeks, as three of the Cardinal’s next four opponents (UCLA, Colorado and Washington State) were picked to be the three worst teams in the conference in the preseason media poll. The fourth, Washington, lost 41-0 to Stanford at home last year.

In other words, don’t be surprised if a month from today, Stanford’s closest game is still the 37-10 win over Arizona.

 

Always the pessimist, Jacob Jaffe won’t be surprised if a week from today no one has emailed him about his observations. Surprise him at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu.