“Never get too high, never get too low” has been the mantra for the Cardinal all season. Unfortunately, it’s the latter part of that phrase that the players have found themselves focusing on this past week.
On the heels of a frustrating 17-13 defeat to Washington last Thursday, No. 18 Stanford (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) will try to bounce back from its first loss when it clashes with Arizona (3-2, 0-2) in tomorrow’s homecoming game.
“You’ve got 24 hours to sulk,” said senior nose tackle Terrence Stephens. “After that, you better get up….If you sit there and sulk in your misery, you’re only going to get worse.”
The Cardinal doesn’t have any room to get worse, especially not when the high-octane, no-huddle Wildcats offense will be flying in.
Revamped by first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, Arizona’s fast-paced attack has averaged 88 plays and almost 35 points per game five games into the season. Early in the season the Wildcats got off to a quick 3-0 start, a stretch that included an impressive 59-38 comeback victory over Oklahoma State. However, Arizona has not fared as well in the last two games, as it got trounced by Oregon two weeks ago and then fell just short to Oregon State last Saturday.
Even so, head coach David Shaw knows better than to underestimate Rodriguez’s expertise, and what so far seems a successful implementation of the spread offense.
“When [Rodriguez] was hired, all of us Pac-12 coaches had hoped that it would take at least a year before the offense started showing signs,” Shaw said. “But it really hasn’t. The quarterback’s a perfect fit. They’ve got good speed, good backs, good receivers. They’ve picked it up much faster than most of us would have liked.”
At the helm of Arizona’s offense is dual-threat quarterback Matt Scott, who is expected to start despite having suffered a right hip injury on the first drive against Oregon. Scott’s completion rate stands at over 64 percent, while his 321 passing yards per game puts him second in the conference, behind only Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion.
Although Rodriguez may be reluctant to have his banged-up quarterback move outside the pocket too often tomorrow, Scott’s stat line of 228 rushing yards on 52 attempts easily attests to his scrambling capabilities. That being said, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Scott currently leads the Pac-12 in total yards on offense.
Sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey, who has quietly averaged over 107 yards per game on the ground, is the other component of Arizona’s double-pronged attack. After uncharacteristically giving up 144 rushing yards to Washington halfback Bishop Sankey and inexcusably missing game-changing tackles last week, the Cardinal run defense will need to revert to its stingy, sure-tackling ways if it hopes to limit Carey’s impact on the game.
“You can’t possibly lose football games if you don’t give up any points,” said inside linebacker Shayne Skov. “The defense has to have that mentality.”
While Skov and Stephens prefer the down-and-dirty, physical aspect of defense, both of them expressed confidence in being able to keep up with Arizona’s fast-paced offense, which resembles Oregon’s but is even more spread out horizontally.
“It’s easier to play a team that plays smashmouth football,” Skov said. “It’s hard physically, but as a linebacker, it gets a little annoying when teams go sideline to sideline because it’s like basketball on grass. I’d rather be hitting people than running around cashing them. But if that’s what teams want to do, I’ve got no problem doing it.”
In light of the fact that it was the Stanford defense that scored the team’s only touchdown against Washington, perhaps the biggest concern for the Cardinal tomorrow is its ability to efficiently move the ball down the field and into the end zone.
“You never want to leave a game with the defense scoring more points than you,” said captain center Sam Schwartzstein. “We understand this is a team game and we have the best defense in the country, but we’ve got to do our part and we’ve got to be a great unit, too. We’ve got to put the onus on ourselves and say, ‘We need to help the defense out because they’re getting three-and-outs all the time.’”
To avoid those sputtering three-and-outs, redshirt junior quarterback Josh Nunes will need to perform much better than he did against the Huskies.
“You’ve got to take everything in stride,” Nunes said. “When you go out there, it’s essentially practice. You’ve got to do the things you’ve worked on in practice and apply them in the game.”
Despite being ranked last in passing efficiency among the 12 quarterbacks in the conference, Nunes has been backed up all week by Shaw and teammates. Nunes aims to complete at least 60 percent of his passes–a goal specifically set by Shaw–against a vulnerable Wildcat secondary that has given up over 284 yards per game through the air.
“One of the things I’ve learned about Josh is, he’s very good about flushing [bad plays],” Schwartzstein said. “If it’s a bad play, he has a short-term memory–he’ll flush it and get ready to go.”
The Wildcats’ subpar run defense, sitting at second to last in the conference, is another area that the Cardinal hopes to exploit. Senior tailback Stepfan Taylor was held to 75 rushing yards by the Washington defense but looks to be more effective tomorrow behind an offensive line that has been making steady strides in improving communication.
Arizona marks the third conference opponent that Stanford will square off against in just as many weeks. As the Cardinal’s strength of schedule vamps up, the intensity of the weekly grind has only increased. Yet it’s something that Shaw expected from the start.
“We all knew it was going to be tough on everybody [in the conference],” Shaw said. “Everything is going to be a battle. The big lesson our guys hopefully learned last week is that you better go into every week ready to play your best game. These teams are too good week to week to think you can not play your best and expect to pull out a victory.”
Saturday’s contest between the Cardinal and the Wildcats at Stanford Stadium is scheduled for a noon kickoff, with television coverage on FOX.