In my column last week, I said that Stanford football head coach David Shaw would safely be able to sit his starters by the beginning of the fourth quarter against San Jose State if he wished to do so, which at the time didn’t seem like what you would call a bold statement. Well, I obviously couldn’t have been more wrong.
Despite being 25-point underdogs, the Spartans frustrated the Cardinal on both sides of the ball in the second half as Stanford eventually managed to eke out an unconvincing 20-17 victory. Who would’ve thought that San Jose State would have the opportunity to win the game on its last possession? Or that the Spartans would actually outgain the Cardinal on offense?
How was this possible? Maybe it was because of the critical missed blocks by the offensive linemen. Maybe it was because of a few inaccurate throws by Josh Nunes. Maybe it was because of a couple blown coverage plays in the secondary. Or maybe it was because San Jose State quarterback David Fales, who passed for 4,635 yards and 37 touchdowns in two previous seasons at the junior college level, wasn’t fazed in his first start and has a lot more talent than he was initially given credit for.
If you dissect last Friday’s game a hundred times, you can probably find a hundred reasons explaining why Stanford wasn’t able to pull away. But long gone is game one and quickly arriving is game two. While the Cardinal certainly needs to learn from its mistakes, there is nothing more dangerous for a team in college football than to brood over it blunders, wondering what could’ve been, should’ve been instead of focusing on the game plan for what lies ahead. Throughout this week’s practices, there is no doubt that the only thing on the players’ minds is moving on and performing at a much higher level against Duke.
Here are four fundamental things that the Cardinal should do to fare better against the Blue Devils on Saturday.
Less predictable/conservative play calling:
The Cardinal’s play calling against San Jose State was too bland, even if coach Shaw’s game plan was purposely vanilla. For the most part, the Stanford offense ran like the following: run on first and second downs, pass on third downs and throw in the Wildcat once or twice. I’m not saying that the Cardinal needs to do anything deceptively confusing like it did in the Orange Bowl or emulate Boise State’s back-to-back trick plays against Michigan State last week, but a bit more variety like some extra play-action couldn’t hurt.
I understand that part of the team’s inability to sustain a long-lasting drive in the second half of last Friday’s game was due to poor execution. But if an offense runs the same kinds of play over and over again, the opposing defense is bound to adapt. Even with perfect execution, the play isn’t guaranteed to work if your opponent already knows what you’re going to do.
The perfect example of this conservatism backfiring was when Stanford elected to go for it on fourth-and-one at the Spartans 15. In an all-too-predictable play, Stepfan Taylor ran the ball right down the middle and a swarm of Spartans defenders easily stuffed him. It wasn’t just the San Jose State defense that recognized the play before the snap; the whole stadium pretty much knew it. Not a single person was fooled. No one believed that the fullback was going to run a flat route to catch a pass or that Nunes would dish out the ball to Ty Montgomery to capitalize on the mismatch in the one-on-one coverage near the sideline. On that play, the predictability cost the Cardinal a solid chance to put the game away for good.
In a conference full of gamble-loving coaches like Chip Kelly, Lane Kiffin and Rich Rodriguez, being too conservative and predictable on offense can potentially hurt you. At some point, the Cardinal needs to take some calculated risks of its own.
Trust Josh Nunes more:
There were countless mistakes that Stanford made in its season opener, but some of the criticisms leveled at Josh Nunes were neither correct nor fair. Yes, completing 16-of-26 for 125 yards and a touchdown isn’t impressive by any means. But many of those incompletions came from drops (Montgomery’s mistake in the fourth quarter alone took 60 yards and a score away from Nunes’ stats) as well as tough third-and-long situations that even the best quarterbacks in the nation would have a difficult time successfully converting. And while Nunes wasn’t dazzling throughout the whole game, his first-quarter touchdown pass to Drew Terrell was brilliant and overall, he managed the game effectively.
In particular, some people blamed Nunes for mismanaging the clock during the last drive before the half, which is absurd because that was actually his shining moment. Shaw adamantly defended the quarterback’s decisions on that last drive and it was difficult not to admire how efficiently he drove the team down the field via the hurry-up offense.
My question is, why not give Nunes more of those chances? While I understand that Stanford wants to establish its running game early in the season, there will be—whether Shaw likes it or not—situations in future games where defenses will force Nunes to make an accurate throw or extend a play with his feet. I can’t imagine why the coaching staff would want to put Nunes in that spot for the first time against USC, so Friday’s game against Duke is optimal to give Nunes a chance to practice handling himself in those tough situations.
I’m not suggesting that the offense should adopt Mike Leach’s disastrous “air raid” at Washington State, but the rookie quarterback deserves more opportunities to show that he can make the right passing plays at the right time.
Contain wideout Conner Vernon:
Some of you might already be wondering how in the world Stanford will be able to deal with the duo of Marquis Lee and Robert Woods, two of the nation’s deadliest wide receivers, when USC invades the Farm next week. As it turns out, you’ll get a decent preview of the answer when the Cardinal secondary faces Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon. Though perhaps not as well known outside of the ACC, Vernon has undoubtedly emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
The senior veteran rightfully earned ACC honors last week with a tremendous 10-reception, 180-yard effort—an impressive stat line even if he was facing a clueless Florida International secondary. Besides tallying his tenth 100-yard game, the ten catches also gave him 208 career receptions, crowning him as the all-time school leader in that category.
When Stanford met Duke last season, the Cardinal secondary, which arguably had more experience than this year’s squad, struggled to slow down Vernon, letting him amass 98 receiving yards. That ended up not being a huge deal because Andrew Luck threw four touchdowns, but this time around, the price might be too high if Vernon is able to capitalize off the secondary’s mistakes. The standout averaged 80 yards per game last year—fourth in the ACC—and don’t think for a second that he’s going to back off with a rising NFL draft stock in his last collegiate season.
I’m not expecting the Cardinal to shut him down. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound receiver is bound to make a few plays throughout the game, no matter what the cornerbacks and safeties throw at him. And while Duke quarterback Sean Renfree hasn’t quite reached the elite level yet, he’ll have no trouble of finding Vernon if he gets open. That’s why “contain” is a more suitable word. The last thing that Stanford needs is a wide receiver taking over the game in a Justin-Blackmon-like fashion, a hard-learned lesson from last season’s Fiesta Bowl.
Linebackers need to live up to their hype:
The Cardinal linebacker corps played nowhere near its potential against San Jose State. Outside linebacker Chase Thomas will tell you himself that he wasn’t very pleased with his own performance. Sure, he had two tackles for loss and was credited with half a sack, but the Spartans were largely able to keep him in check—certainly not what you’d expect from one of the best linebackers in the nation.
The linebackers will need to pass rush more effectively to contribute to the defensive line’s effort as well as take some pressure off the secondary. Strong safety Jordan Richards led the team with 7 tackles against San Jose State, and while this is partially explained by Richards’ important presence in the secondary, it’s also indicative of the fact that the front seven was simply not getting to the quarterback enough. With an important leader in Shayne Skov making his return, Stanford won’t have any excuses for why they’re not dominating up front come Saturday.
George Chen is forgetting that his own pass-rushing was surprisingly quiet last week. Spur him on to three sacks against the Blue Devils at gchen15 “at” stanford.edu.