What a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, Stanford football was ready to embark on its victory tour, still riding high on Andrew Luck’s feel-good return. Looking at the 2011 schedule, the only two teams that realistically threatened the Cardinal were USC and Oregon. Expectations were through the roof. The question wasn’t whether Stanford would play in a BCS bowl game; it was which BCS bowl game the team would play in.
Today, on the eve of the Cardinal’s season opener against San Jose State, the picture doesn’t look as bright. Gone are Luck, Coby Fleener, Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu from the passing attack. Gone are David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin from the offensive line. Gone are Michael Thomas and Delano Howell from the secondary.
But with their departures, in come fresh faces like Josh Nunes, Kevin Danser, Kodi Whitfield and Lee Ward on offense. In comes new talent like Henry Anderson, James Vaughters, Ed Reynolds and Usua Amanam on defense. Though still untested, this new group of players looks to prove that it shouldn’t be written off in the race to sit atop the Pac-12 just quite yet.
With that being said, San Jose State shouldn’t pose a problem for Stanford. If everything goes according to plan, coach David Shaw should be able to rest his starters by the beginning of the fourth quarter if he wants to. Friday’s game against the Spartans will be more about the Cardinal measuring against itself and gleaning what needs to be improved rather than what the final scoreboard says.
Here’s a glance at some of the things Stanford should try to accomplish not only to successfully take care of San Jose State in game one, but to put itself in a favorable position against Duke and USC in its next two contests.
Dominate the time of possession: One of the things that last season’s Cardinal was exceptional at was keeping the ball in the offense’s hands. Stanford was fifth in the nation and tops in the Pac-12, averaging almost 34 minutes of possession per game. Controlling the ball might not seem that important against San Jose State, but when Matt Barkley & Co. pay the Farm a visit in week three, Stanford needs to do everything and anything to keep the pigskin out of the hands of the Heisman favorite. To get there, the Cardinal needs to pick up right away from where it left off last season in terms of chewing up the clock. I’m fairly confident in quarterback Josh Nunes’ ability to take up that challenge, since being able to run the offense consistently was a big part of why he beat out Brett Nottingham for the starting job.
Let Nunes air out the ball: I know that the Cardinal offense is a run-first offense and probably will remain that way for the foreseeable future. Coach Shaw asserted that even if opponents load the box, the offense will still run the ball. Talk about making a statement. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Shaw’s mindset, opponents will load the box if Nunes doesn’t show that he can make accurate passes in the first game of the season. Sure, Stanford might still be able to find an efficient way to run the ball even then, but why make life harder than it needs to be? The key here is giving Nunes the chance to show off his throwing skills. If Nunes can complete a sizable number of passes in the first game of the season, Duke and USC will be less tempted to cheat in their defensive coverage.
Also, there have been preseason questions surrounding Nunes’ arm strength. Shaw stated that Nunes can throw 60-65 yards no problem, and there’s no good reason to think that he can’t. But it’s likely that opponents will dare him to throw the long ball, especially early in the season. I say the coaching staff lets Nunes throw at least one long ball in the game. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be for a completion. One 40-yard or 50-yard bomb would be enough to serve as a reminder that Stanford can air it out long if need be. And who knows, maybe the Cardinal might actually be able to capitalize on the deep-threat potential in wide receiver Ty Montgomery this year.
Seal the secondary airtight: Pretty self-explanatory. Last season’s supposedly experienced Stanford secondary allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete on average over 60 percent of their passes. If the current young Cardinal secondary looks vulnerable against San Jose State’s new quarterback David Fales, I don’t even want to think about what the Blue Devils and Trojans will be able to do in the coming weeks.
Get off to a fast start: This was actually one of the few things that the team struggled with last year. Against a 3-9 Duke team, the Cardinal scored one touchdown in the first quarter, and against a 4-8 Washington State team, Stanford had only three points by the start of the second. When you have the best college football quarterback in the nation to bail you out, slow starts aren’t the end of the world. But when you have a new quarterback coming in for his first start, the importance of having him play with a lead right off the bat can’t be stressed enough. Hopefully, the Cardinal will be able to break its old habit with some new faces.
College football analysts seem to think that with Luck and other critical pieces gone, Stanford will experience a significant drop-off. Not many think that the Cardinal is more than an eight-win team. The preseason polls certainly aren’t in love with this year’s Stanford either—USA Today has the team at 18th and the AP even lower at 21st.
But then again, who really cares about preseason polls and predictions? Tomorrow night, all of that gets thrown out the window.