The unblemished record is gone after a tough loss at Washington, but now Stanford returns home to the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium. The question last week was how the Cardinal would respond to its first road challenge, and the answer was anything but satisfactorily.
It’s a completely different question this week: How will Stanford bounce back from its first loss of the season? I do not have the answer right now. In fact, this preview is going to be a bit different than usual. After seeing Stanford beat itself up in Seattle, I’m going to focus on the key improvements the Card will have to make to beat Arizona, rather than touch on the usual positional matchups.
It all starts with the offense, which was brutally unproductive at Washington. Coach Shaw commented that Stanford only had three productive drives where the team moved the ball. That just won’t cut it in the Pac-12, especially against a team with the offensive firepower of Arizona. Not only will Stanford need to score more than six points on offense to win the game, but the offense has to have sustained drives to give the defense a chance to rest.
Arizona, under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, will run a fast-paced offense. In every game this season, Stanford’s opponents have utilized the no-huddle to try to wear Stanford’s defense down. The defense only looked tired late in the Washington game, and the lack of rest on the sideline certainly was a large factor.
Stanford struggled in pretty much all aspects of the offensive game, but it all points back to the quarterback. Josh Nunes did not have a good game in Seattle, and no one is trying to hide that. Coach Shaw has made it clear that Nunes is Stanford’s quarterback to stay, so I won’t talk about alternatives at the position. For Stanford’s offense to succeed and win consistently, Josh Nunes has to play better. He doesn’t have to play a lot better, but there are a few places he has to improve dramatically for Stanford to have any chance of salvaging its season.
Josh Nunes has to complete his short passes. When a screen pass is well blocked, Nunes cannot ever miss his back (see Ryan Hewitt vs. Washington). When Zach Ertz or Levine Toilolo is open on a slant, Nunes has to hit him at a very high percentage.
Why is this so important? Stanford threw the ball 12 times on second down against Washington. Six of these went for positive yards, five were incomplete, and one went for a four-yard loss. The positive plays resulted in three first downs, a manageable fourth-down attempt, which was intercepted, and two punts. The negative plays resulted in four punts, one turnover and only one first down.
Neither set was particularly impressive, but Stanford was three times more likely to pick up a first down after a positive completion on second down versus an incompletion or negative play. With Stanford’s offensive struggles and stingy defense, every first down could be the key to victory.
Defensively, there’s really only one thing to focus on improving. Stanford has to limit the opposition’s big plays. Stanford’s defense has been extraordinary all season long, showing that it is one of the best, if not the best, in the entire country. However, the unit has been plagued by big plays at times, including a 61-yard touchdown run that allowed Washington back in the game.
This week, Arizona brings a fast-paced offense with a lot of speed on the outside. I don’t think the Wildcats are good enough to have sustained success against Stanford’s dominant defense. However, Arizona certainly has the athleticism to turn a broken tackle into a long touchdown, something Stanford fans are all too familiar with seeing.
Everyone on the field needs to be involved in stopping these big plays. The defensive line needs to generate pressure and stop the run as well as possible by itself, freeing up the other eight guys on the field to focus more on the outside game. Then, Stanford’s linebackers need to fly across the field on short passes to the perimeter to provide help to Stanford’s secondary.
Lastly, that Stanford secondary needs to play smart football after the catch. When Terrence Brown or Barry Browning sees Shayne Skov running to help on the tackle, he needs to force the receiver toward Skov, not dive at his feet and allow for a possible big play.
The other defensive key in this game will be generating consistent pressure on Arizona quarterback Matt Scott, knocking him down as much as possible. I’m not asking Stanford to attempt to injury the hobbled Scott, but knocking him down will, at the very least, slow Arizona’s tempo tremendously.
Every team has attempted to go no-huddle at times against Stanford this season, with varied success. Washington moved the ball well in the no-huddle for a lot of the game. However, when Stanford knocked Keith Price on his back, Washington had to slow down and huddle to allow Price to gather himself. This will be pivotal against Matt Scott and the Arizona offense known for its ludicrous speed.
Sam Fisher is practicing playing in a no-huddle offense in preparation for the Ink Bowl. Give him some tips at safisher “at” stanford.edu.