After allowing two quick touchdowns to Washington’s potent offense last week, Stanford’s entire defense put together its finest performance of the season last Friday. It allowed just 26 Washington yards on their next five drives and did not concede another score for over 36 minutes of game action.
The Cardinal gave up 7.8 yards per play in the first half before holding Washington to 3.5 in the second. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson often does a tremendous job of making halftime adjustments that foil opposing offenses after the break, but this was one of his most drastic turnarounds. Stanford head coach David Shaw also attributes the shift to players feeling more comfortable and confident as the game goes on.
“A big part of it is everybody settling down,” Shaw said after Wednesday’s practice. “Everybody has kind of grown together.”
One of the key contributors to the defensive resurgence was senior linebacker Bobby Okereke who had eleven total tackles, three tackles for a loss including two sacks and a forced fumble. On one of those sacks, Okereke chased Huskies quarterback Jake Browning all the way back to his own goal-line before bringing him down for an 18-yard loss at the Washington six yard-line. On the ensuing punt return, Stanford gained tremendous field position and scored two plays later. Okereke’s forced fumble on Huskies running back Myles Gaskin also set up a Stanford score, this time a 38-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Jet Toner that gave Stanford a two-possession lead for the first time at the start of the fourth quarter.
Okereke has become more and more effective as the season has progressed. He is third on the team in tackles, second in sacks and second in tackles-for-loss. Besides All-American candidate and senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, he has arguably been the best Cardinal defender in terms of invading and wreaking havoc on opposing backfields. Shaw says that’s a product of a greater awareness and understanding of the game which is allowing him to play faster and more aggressive.
“He’s seeing the game quicker,” Shaw said after Friday’s game. “He played really well early in the year, but he was still reacting. Now he’s anticipating, and that’s a huge difference because he’s got speed, length and athleticism, and now he’s feeling the game and making some unbelievable plays.”
Stanford had at least one standout performer at every level of the defense against Washington. Okereke provided the spark at linebacker, and Phillips once again played a fantastic game up front disrupting the Huskies offensive line. The star in the secondary was a little bit more of a surprise. Junior safety Frank Buncom stepped out of the large shadows cast by fellow junior defensive backs Quenton Meeks and Justin Reid to have the best game of his career in a victory over the ninth-ranked team in the country. Buncom had eleven total tackles as well, including a key stop of Gaskin on fourth-and-one that halted a Huskies drive in the Stanford red zone and began the stretch of Stanford’s defensive dominance.
“Those were not easy tackles,” Shaw said about Buncom’s performance. “Those were tough tackles, particularly that fourth-and-one where he’s coming back inside with the big bodies and going face first and stopping the guy.”
Buncom made the transition from corner to safety in the offseason to escape a crowded cornerback depth chart and to provide some help at a position of need for the Cardinal. Shaw said the former four-star recruit picked up his new position about as quickly and smoothly as possible.
“On his first day back there, it’s like that where he’s supposed to be,” Shaw said. “We kind of found a safety by accident, believing he was gonna be a corner.”
There have been some rough outings, particularly in the tackling department as Buncom has dealt with the different angles and heavier involvement in the run game that come with playing safety.
“I had a lot of struggles early in the year,” Buncom said. “I missed a few tackles because I was overrunning the play. But I think I’ve started to get my stride there, and it’s been a lot of fun to make that transition and be able to be versatile in our defense.”
This week, the Cardinal will face a Cal offense with a lot more versatility than in years past when they ran more of an air-raid attack under former head coach Sonny Dykes.
“They’re trying to pound the ball a little more, trying to be a little more physical,” Buncom said about the changes the Bears have made in head coach Justin Wilcox’s first year. “They like to run the ball a lot more, so they’ve changed the passing game. They like to go vertical a lot.”
The secondary and the defense as a whole will need to be prepared for run or pass on every play, particularly play-action. But if the second half Cardinal defense shows up in the Big Game, it’s going to be tough sledding for Cal’s offense no matter how balanced they try to be.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.