In Saturday morning’s defensive press conference, defensive coordinator Derek Mason and five of the Cardinal’s senior leaders sat down with the media and discussed their Rose Bowl matchup with the Spartans offense, as well as some of the behind-the-scenes dynamics that have helped Stanford’s defense continue to assert itself as one of the nation’s best units.
For a Cardinal defense that has been tested in all sorts of ways throughout the season — from Washington State’s patented Mike Leach “Air Raid” to Oregon’s fast-paced, option-oriented offense — Sparty will present a relatively unique challenge: a run-first, smashmouth, pro-style attack.
“They’re a physical football team,” said senior linebacker A.J. Tarpley. “They’re going to want to run the ball right at us, and that’s what we’re going to try and stop.”
“You know, watching film these last couple weeks, I like to draw a lot of similarities between [Michigan State] and Oregon State,” added fifth-year senior nickelback Usua Amanam, the defensive MVP of last year’s Rose Bowl. “They have the big-play ability but they also have the great back. They have a great quarterback back there manning what they do on the offensive side…They’ve got a bevy of wide receivers and they have a big O-line and their running back [Jeremy] Langford can make some plays.”
Any similarities to Oregon State aside, Michigan State’s offense likely looks comfortingly familiar to the Cardinal defense in that it mirrors Stanford’s own offensive style extraordinarily well.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Trent Murphy pointed out that the Spartans are a physical team that keeps defenses honest by setting up a solid running game in order to take occasional big-play shots downfield. His fifth-year senior counterpart at inside linebacker, Shayne Skov, added that Michigan State keeps defenses guessing by running out of many different formations and personnel groupings. Both of those elements describe Stanford’s offensive philosophy to a tee, and the Cardinal’s own players likely know better than most how effective such a balanced attack can be when executed well.
But Stanford’s defenders are confident that they are capable of stopping it.
“I think that for us, I think the key point is that we always take pride in stopping the run,” Skov said. “I think that’s one of the first things in our kind of objectives and they’ve successfully run the ball this year, so I think that’s the very first challenge for us.”
“I think Coach Mason, [outside linebackers] coach Lance Anderson, [defensive line coach] Randy Hart, they’ve really put together a great game plan for us, and if we go out and execute it, I think we’ll be fine,” Amanam remarked.
In discussing the culminating factors that have shaped the Stanford defense in the season leading up to the Rose Bowl, Mason and his players talked about how the personality of the team and its players have led to the effective practices, mentality and depth that make the Cardinal’s defense one of the best in the country.
“[The players] don’t come to Stanford to be good; they come here to be great,” Mason said. “They want to play great football, not good football, so with that being said, those practices and what we do within those practices are held to a certain standard. If they don’t meet it, they hear about it. If they meet it, we move on…that’s what spirited means for us.”
“I think it’s just the competitive spirit between guys,” added senior free safety Ed Reynolds. “We’re family when it comes to off the field and when it comes to playing against someone else. But when we step between the white lines of practice, I wouldn’t say it’s purely offense versus defense, but we definitely kind of have this competitive spirit where [it's], ‘Okay, who’s going to win this practice?’”
Some of the biggest contributions this year have come from the Cardinal’s stellar linebacking corps, spearheaded by Murphy, Skov and Tarpley. According to Tarpley, the linebackers embody the competitive nature of the team as well as anyone else despite sharing a tight bond that allows them to flow as a cohesive unit.
“In the linebacking corps, none of us are going to stand down to the other,” he said. “We all want to play better than the next at the same time while rooting for each other, so it’s a fun atmosphere.”
Murphy, however, was quick to point out the overarching camaraderie that pervaded the squad through all of the competition and spirit.
“We kind of poke fun at each other more than any other unit in the country,” said the ‘Yeti,’ as teammates and fans alike call Murphy. “I think you can only joke so much with guys that you’re comfortable with and you know they’ve got your back, even though they’re giving you a hard time.”
Although Skov is the player most often associated with leadership in the Cardinal clubhouse, the linebacker remains adamant that a strong group effort is really what makes the defense tick — not his spirited pep talks.
“I think a lot of times, I get too much credit for the leadership,” Skov commented. “It’s really a collective effort. I talk a lot, so that’s probably part of the reason why…the way our team is built is we’ve got a lot of older guys and a lot of mature guys on the team, so I think it’s not about one or two guys, it’s really about everybody kind of working together.”
And while Skov is commonly associated with leading Stanford’s linebacking corps, said linebackers are usually credited for being the focus and heart of the Cardinal defense. The linebackers disagreed with that sentiment. A common theme from the linebackers’ responses was how the defense worked so well because of its strength and depth everywhere.
Murphy and Tarpley were quick to credit Stanford’s younger but no less talented secondary, one that has often been under heavier scrutiny for allowing more yards through the air than expected under the Cardinal’s “bend but don’t break” philosophy. Mason, meanwhile, praised the defensive line for stepping up through numerous injuries to its leaders to continue playing at a stellar level.
And in the end, the Cardinal defensive coordinator expressed his unadulterated praise for the whole unit that has played its heart out for him all year and has made him one of the most heavily sought and respected coaches in college football.
“It’s a testament to those guys and the work that was put in, because coaches coach and players play,” Mason said. “Everything that happens, it happens between the white lines. I tell these guys all the time…I’m almost a quarter of a mile upstairs calling plays. When these guys make it happen, it’s a great thing, and I appreciate these guys. I love them all. I love every one of these guys.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.