There's a saying among the players in Stanford's secondary: Finish the drive.
What that means is no matter what happened previously -- be it a 76-yard screen pass or a three-and-out -- it's the last play of the drive that counts. And more often than not for Stanford's defense, the last play of the drive usually doesn't end with a touchdown dance.
Stanford's secondary has been an interesting case study this season. It's given up a lot of yards -- 240.6 per game. But it's only yielded four passing touchdowns in five games. And only one of those has been to a wide receiver.
It's been more lockout than lockdown.
"Our mentality is good as far as being aggressive, swarming to the ball and we stop players from getting in the end zone," said safety Delano Howell. "We always play the field. If it's a big play, we get back and defend the rest of the field. If they are in the red zone, our goal is to keep them out of the end zone. We never quit if they have a big play or get a lot of plays. We always want to finish the drive."
Ask head coach David Shaw what he thinks about yards allowed and you'll get an honest answer.
"Passing yards given up is the biggest misleading stat there is," Shaw said. "We've had large leads. And in those large leads we're going to get teams to pass the ball more. But the biggest stat for a defense is touchdowns allowed. We've been able to stop teams from scoring touchdowns and trying to force them into field goals ... we've been able to keep people's scoring down. When it's all said and done, the only thing that matters is how much you score and how much you allow them to score."
The large leads is one reason. Stanford has yet to trail in a game this season so everyone is in constant catch-up mode. Another reason is the run defense. Stanford's front seven has taken away the opponents' rushing attack and made them one-dimensional by the end of the first half. In the first 30 minutes of the game, Stanford is outscoring opponents 104-34 and holding teams to an average of 6.8 rushing yards in the first quarter and 4 yards in the second quarter.
And the pass defense gets stronger as the game goes on. The Cardinal have allowed an average of 53.6 passing yards in the first quarter and 111.8 in the second quarter. Compare that to the second half where they allow an average of 30.4 in the third and 44.8 in the fourth.
But there have also been some missed tackles. Missed tackles lead to touchdowns, and no drive was a clearer example than in Colorado's lone scoring drive last Saturday. Buffs running back Rodney Stewart caught a screen pass that went for 76 yards. Safety Devon Carrington read the play perfectly. He sniffed it out and was in position to make the play at the line of scrimmage. But he missed the tackle. And then several other Cardinal defenders took improper angles and missed tackles. To Carrington's credit, he did rally and make the touchdown-saving tackle 76 yards later.
But two plays later, running back Tony Jones caught a 5-yard inside screen -- in which Stanford missed two tackles -- and he scored.
"We are missing out on some opportunities to make plays," Howell said. "We're leaving some production on the field, so we do realize that in order to eliminate the yards against, we need to eliminate missed tackles."
Despite the one hiccup, the secondary is coming off one of its best games of the season against Colorado, where it broke up nine passes.
"We've had our hands on balls," Shaw said. "It's not like guys have been running all over the place wide open."
Plus, Stanford nabbed its first interception of the season, courtesy of safety Michael Thomas, which was a bit of a relief.
"It's great that it happened," said Shaw. "Now, let's try to get it some company. Even with that chatter the last two weeks [about not having an interception yet], our guys haven't been jumping at things and taking chances. They've been playing the coverages like they're supposed to be playing them.
"... There is nothing we have to change schematically to get more. Our guys just need to keep playing in the structure of the defense and they will come."
This week against Washington State, Stanford faces an offense that's similar to what it saw a couple of weeks back in Tucson, Ariz. Mostly spread formations. But the Cougars have tried to be more balanced the past couple of games. If recent history has anything to say about it, Wazzu will abandon the run if it gets into a deep hole. That's been the trend this season. So it'll likely lean on the pass. Which means the defense will have to lean on the secondary.
"We like to play tight coverage," said cornerback Johnson Bademosi. "We like to play top down and we can't give up touchdowns. We just keep everything in front of us and not let things fly over our heads.
"And you got to tackle. You have to get your man down every time. You can't just be a cover guy. You have to be well-rounded and we take tackling really seriously."
Given the fact that so many teams pass against Stanford, it's no surprise that the top three tacklers on the team come from the secondary. Thomas and Bademosi lead the Cardinal with 22 tackles apiece and Howell is right behind with 22. Howell and Bademosi also lead the team with four breakups each.
"Those few opportunities you have to make a play, you have to make them," Howell said. "You have to play sound, technical football and trust the defense."
The Cardinal were working on a four-man rotation at cornerback until freshman Wayne Lyons injured his foot and has been inactive the past three games. That leaves Bademosi, Terrence Brown and Barry Browning as the primary rotation.
"We've been playing together for a while," Bademosi said. "We know each other really well. There is a lot of verbal and non-verbal communication. We all see the same thing so we know how to react to it."