This week’s edition of Behind Enemy lines comes to us from the very strong Stanford blog Rule of Tree.
Be sure to also check out their article on the problems the Stanford defense has this year as well as their report of Ty Montgomery being doubtful for this weekend’s game against the Irish.
The Stanford offense was a well-oiled machine in 2010 and 2011; through five games this season, it’s required a fair amount of WD-40. Perhaps no statistic is more revealing of just how much the offense has regressed than the Cardinal’s conversion rate on third down. In 2010, Stanford converted a nation-best 57.6% of its third downs. In 2011, the Cardinal ranked third in the country at 52.6%. This year? Sandwiched between Memphis and Duke at 33.8%. With a certain quarterback no longer leading the offense, this wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Josh Nunes, otherwise known as the guy who replaced Andrew Luck, has had his struggles this season, most notably in Stanford’s only road game of the season, an ugly 17-13 loss to Washington. Nunes, who had outplayed Matt Barkley 12 days earlier, finished the game 18-of-37 for 170 yards and an interception. With some fans clamoring for a QB change – the battle between Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham lasted through most of fall camp – David Shaw stood behind Nunes and the incumbent quieted his critics with a brilliant performance against Arizona. His numbers were nice (21-of-34, 360 yards, 5 total TDs), but it was the manner in which he coolly led Stanford back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit that stood out. It’s cliché, but Nunes seems to have it, which compensates for what he’s lacking in accuracy, and to a lesser degree, arm strength. He won’t wow you with his throws, but he makes good decisions and he’s a surprisingly decent scrambler (one pretty juke move against USC, three touchdowns rushing against Arizona).
The running game (outside of Nunes) has been solid, if unspectacular this season, with Stanford replacing NFL draft picks Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro along the offensive line. Stepfan Taylor delivered huge games against USC and Arizona, but was held in check against Washington, as the Huskies stacked the box and dared Stanford to beat them through the air. (The plan worked.) Backup Anthony Wilkerson has been limited by an injury and underclassmen Kelsey Young and Remound Wright have been used sparingly. Coby Fleener is now catching passes in the NFL, but tight ends remain a focal point of the Cardinal passing attack. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo have combined for nearly 600 yards and four touchdowns. Nunes likes to target Ertz on quick slants and seam routes, while he prefers fade patterns to the 6-foot-8 Toilolo. Throwing jumpballs to Toilolo has been mostly ineffective, but Stanford seems to run this play at least twice a game. Ty Montgomery, the Cardinal’s leading receiver who isn’t a tight end, is unlikely to play, which means seniors Jamal-Rashad Patterson and Drew Terrell (14 catches between them) need to step up.
Through four games, the defense lived up to its billing as one of the better units in the country. If the Stanford offense could’ve done anything against Washington – the Cardinal’s only touchdown came on an interception return – this team would be 5-0 and we’d be talking about a matchup of Top 10 teams. Then the Arizona game – and the Wildcat’s 617 yards of offense – happened.
The strength of the Stanford defense is its front seven. The pass rush was one of the keys to the win over USC and its absence for much of the Arizona game was part of the reason Matt Scott was able to have so much success. The linebacking corps, led by Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov has been stout. Defensive end Ben Gardner leads the team with six tackles for loss and three sacks. Stanford has been strong against the run this season, though Washington’s Bishop Sankey burned the Cardinal for a long TD run on fourth-and-one and Ka’deem Carey had a big day on the ground for Arizona.
Stanford is more vulnerable against the pass, though the secondary played well in the first four games. While opposing quarterbacks completed a high percentage of passes against Stanford in the first four weeks, most of them were short completions, and the Cardinal’s defensive backs managed to avoid giving up some of the big plays that burned them last year. One of the biggest concerns from the Arizona game is that the Cardinal was beaten deep on several occasions. Stanford replaced three of four starters in the secondary, so it’s a relatively inexperienced group that doesn’t match up particularly well against up-tempo offenses that like to spread the field and take shots deep.
Stanford’s Special Teams
Special teams have been a little shaky. Jordan Williamson, who missed three field goals in the Cardinal’s loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, is 7-of-11 this season and booted a kickoff out of bounds in the second half of the game against Arizona that could’ve proved costly. Daniel Zychlinski has done a fine job punting, with six of his 27 punts downed inside the 20 and nine punts of at least 50 yards. If Montgomery can’t go, Stanford will be without its leading kick returner. Freshman Alex Carter, the son of former Notre Dame star Tom Carter, could fill in. Punt returner Drew Terrell has one return for touchdown this season
This game is tough to figure. I think the outcome will depend partly on which Josh Nunes shows up. If it’s the Washington version, Notre Dame should roll. If it’s the Arizona version, I’m confident the Cardinal will win. More likely, I suspect Nunes will be somewhere in between awful and awesome, which should be good enough to make it a game against a team that doesn’t have quite the same firepower as Arizona. I expect a low-scoring game dominated by the defenses. It wouldn’t surprise me if the difference in the game is a defensive touchdown.
Stanford 16, Notre Dame 13.