NCF Nation: Jarek Lancaster

Execution weak link in Stanford escape

September, 1, 2012
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- What a difference a year can make.

Nearly a year removed from a 54-point drubbing of San Jose State, Stanford rang in the post Andrew Luck era with a thud. The Cardinal needed a 20-yard field goal from Jordan Williamson early in the fourth quarter to provide the difference in a 20-17 victory.

The smiles and laughter that followed last year’s 57-3 season-opening win against the Spartans were replaced by straight faces and looks of concern.

Running back and potential Heisman Trophy candidate Stepfan Taylor said the team needs to work on its communication. Coach David Shaw said the poor play was due to a lack of execution. Whatever it was, it won’t be good enough when the Cardinal entertain better opponents -- certainly not No. 1-ranked USC in two weeks.

[+] EnlargeBlake Jurich
Kyle Terada/US PresswireStanford's defense couldn't quite keep a lid on San Jose State, which trailed just 17-10 after this Blake Jurich touchdown early in the third quarter.
With Luck and offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin off to the NFL, the supposed strength of the team was its defensive front.

That wasn’t the case Friday as the Cardinal struggled to get pressure on San Jose State quarterback David Fales, who completed 24 of 35 passes for 216 yards.

“(They didn’t play) up to their capability, flat-out,” Shaw said. “I told them flat-out after the game, they are much better than the execution that was out there. Those guys shouldn’t stay blocked. It’s one thing to get blocked, it’s another thing to stay blocked.”

The team’s best pass-rusher was nickelback Usua Amanam, who recorded a pair of sacks and four tackles for loss.

Usually that designation would belong to outside linebacker Chase Thomas, who considered a jump to the NFL but returned for his fifth year on the Farm. San Jose State keyed in on Thomas, who finished with five tackles and half a sack. He did, however, provide the biggest hit of Fales on the night, but it came after he’d already got rid of the ball.

Next week against Duke, the front seven should benefit from the return of potential All-American linebacker Shayne Skov. Skov, who missed most of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, served a one-game suspension Friday for a February drunk-driving arrest.

“(Skov’s) experience is going to be huge,” Shaw said. “Getting him back will give us four guys on the inside that can play.”

Skov is expected to start alongside sophomore James Vaughters, who displaced last year’s leading tackler, Jarek Lancaster, as a starting inside linebacker. Vaughters made five tackles in his starting debut, but has some cleaning up to do, Shaw said.

While expectations are high for the front seven, the same can be said for the Cardinal running game which, early on, looked like the same unit that helped the team qualify for BCS bowl games in each of the past two seasons.

Behind Taylor and its power running game, Stanford scored touchdowns on its first two possessions. By halftime, the Cardinal led 17-3 and had 118 yards on the ground with 86 from Taylor.

The second half was a different story.

After averaging 5.6 yards per carry before halftime, Stanford ran for just 37 yards on 20 carries the rest of the game.

What happened?

“That’s what I want to know,” Shaw said. “Next question.”

Taylor pointed to a lack of communication that comes with breaking in several new offensive linemen in the first game of the year, and while Shaw agreed, he wasn’t ready to make any excuses.

[+] EnlargeJosh Nunes
Kyle Terada/US PresswireJosh Nunes was 16-for-26 for 125 yards and a touchdown in his starting debut.
“They made some adjustments, which always happens,” Shaw said. “We made some adjustments after that. And, honestly, we made a lot of mistakes. We need to make sure we step it up a notch, but at the same time, when we run a play against a defense and it’s successful, and we run the same play against the same defense and it’s not successful, we’ll look to see why.”

Taylor finished with 116 yards on 26 carries.

While Luck had autonomy at the line of scrimmage last year, his replacement, Josh Nunes, isn’t quite there yet. The redshirt junior was solid in the first start of his career, but wasn’t asked to do a whole lot.

“It was everything I dreamed,” Nunes said. “I wasn’t nervous at all.
It was nice being back on the field again.”

Nunes completed 16 of 26 passes for 125 yards and found Drew Terrell on an 11-yard first-quarter touchdown, the first of his career.

“He played extremely well and was very poised under pressure,” Shaw said. “San Jose State gave a few looks we had not seen and Josh handled it all very, very well. He showed great leadership for our team out there and we look forward to having him do so throughout the season.”

Nunes knows he won’t be Luck, but realizes there will be comparisons.

In Luck’s first start as a redshirt freshman, he was 11 of 23 for 193 yards and a score in a 39-13 win at Washington State.
Our question this week: Who has the best position group in the conference?

Lots of teams have a strength at a certain area -- running back, receiver, linebacker, etc. -- but whose team strength is the strongest?

Our thoughts.

Kevin Gemmell: Anytime you have a four-man position group and half of them could be All-Americans, that's phenomenal. And that's what Stanford is looking at this year and that's why I'm picking its linebackers as the best individual position group in the conference.

[+] EnlargeChase Thomas
Bob Stanton/Icon SMIChase Thomas, who had 8.5 sacks last season, helps make Stanford's linebackers one of the Pac-12s top position groups.
It starts on the outside with Chase Thomas (52 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for a loss) -- a first-team All-Pac-12 performer and All-American. On the other side, Trent Murphy (40 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss) is underappreciated because of all the attention Thomas gets. But Murphy is a beast at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds.

Then you move to the inside linebackers where Shayne Skov is one of the best in the nation. There is a to-be-determined punishment pending for his DUI arrest and he's still recovering from a season-ending knee injury from last year. But once he's paid his penance and is 100 percent healthy, he'll be on par with the best middle linebackers in the country.

Who lines up next to Skov is a question. And also a good problem for the Cardinal to have. Jarek Lancaster (team-leading 70 tackles) and A.J. Tarpley (57 tackles) were both outstanding in Skov's absence last year. Lancaster in particular came on very strong at the end of the season.

Highly touted sophomore James Vaughters is also slotted for inside linebacker. The coaching staff treated Vaughters with kid gloves last season -- using him mostly as an extra pass-rusher on third downs, where he tallied 11 tackles, four for a loss, and a sack. But he's expected to be unleashed in 2012.

Another aspect that makes this group so scary is the overall depth. Because of guys like Lancaster, Tarpley, Vaughters, Alex Debniak, Kevin Anderson and incoming freshman Noor Davis, the Cardinal are in a position to absorb a significant injury like they did with Skov last season. Of course, no one wants to see that happen for any team. But injuries are part of the game. And if something happens to one of Stanford's starters, there is significant talent that can rotate in.

One thing to keep in mind is the loss of co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Jason Tarver. He was a brilliant operator of the 3-4 defense -- which is why he's now a defensive coordinator in the NFL. He did an amazing job coaching up Lancaster and Tarpley, which helped Stanford boast the No. 1 rush defense in the conference last year. Allowing just 84.4 yards per game on the ground, Stanford was the only Pac-12 team to hold opponents below 100 yards per game on average.

Factor in the talent returning on the defensive line and that makes the linebacking corps that much better. Stanford not only has the deepest and most talented group in the conference, but you can make an argument that as a unit it is one of the best groups in the country.

Ted Miller: I know you guys are going to get on Kevin for picking Stanford, but I agree with him: Stanford's linebacking corps is the best complete unit in the Pac-12 in terms of both skill and depth. But, of course, a "ditto" doesn't make for much of a "Take 2" now, does it?

I like California's running backs, Oregon's LBs, Arizona State's RBs and Utah's defensive line, but I'm going to go with USC's receivers.

The Trojans aren't terribly deep at receiver. In fact, they are decidedly top-heavy. But what a top.

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIUSC's Robert Woods, arguably the nation's top wide receiver, averaged over 107 receiving yards per game last season.
First, you have junior Robert Woods, a 2011 first-team All-American. He ranked eighth in the nation with 107.7 yards receiving per game in 2011. He's the leading candidate heading into 2012 to win the Biletnikoff Award given annually to the nation's best receiver.

Second, you have Marqise Lee, second-team All-Pac-12, who actually outplayed a banged-up Woods over the home stretch of the 2011 season. He ranked 15th in the nation with 95.3 yards receiving per game. He also is a Biletnikoff candidate, and it wouldn't be too shocking if both of these guys earned All-America honors this upcoming season.

They combined for 26 touchdown receptions. The next highest total in the Pac-12 for a receiving combo was 19 (Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas and Lavasier Tuinei).

Put it this way: If you made a list of the top-five receivers in the nation this fall, most folks would include Woods and Lee.

Now, it's not unreasonable to question the Trojans' depth at the position. Both Brice Butler and Kyle Prater opted to transfer. Both are capable and would have made this unit scary good. While there's plenty of talent behind Woods and Lee, it's unproven.

That said: It's entirely possible speedy sophomore George Farmer has his own star turn this fall. Folks thought that might happen last year for everybody's prep All-American, but injuries and an odd position change to running back slowed that down. No question Farmer has All-American talent. If he stays healthy, the Trojans could end up with a troika that is almost impossible to defend, one that is superior to many NFL teams. For real.

Other guys who have the ability to help: Junior De'Von Flournoy and redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell. In the fall, true freshmen Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers could potentially get into the mix.

So there will be solid options for the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 receivers.

Still, this is about the top. It's not hyperbole to project that Woods and Lee, with QB Matt Barkley returning, are in position to write themselves onto a very short list of the best receiver combinations in college football history this fall.
If 2011 was the season of learning for Stanford linebacker Jarek Lancaster, then the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State was graduation. And the first-year starter walked away with defensive valedictorian honors. In a game that wasn't exactly overflowing with defensive bright spots -- for either team for that matter -- Lancaster was one of the few defenders who stood out.

"He made a lot of plays," said head coach David Shaw. "He was physical. In a game where we missed some tackles on defense, he was as sure a tackler as there was in space. He made big-time stops at big times. It's how the season went for him. We ask him to do more and he steps up and does more."

[+] EnlargeJarek Lancaster
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsJarek Lancaster, right, had seven tackles in Stanford's Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
And more is on the way, both in the production and expectation departments. The third-year sophomore admits that when he first stepped in to the starting inside linebacker spot following Shayne Skov's injury, there were plenty of jitters. But he also knew that in time, they would pass.

"When you first get thrust into a starting position, you want to think you'll get better and believe you have the potential to get to another level," Lancaster said. "When I first got in there, the game seemed really fast and I wasn't as comfortable as I am now. It's been real nice to see the game slow down in front of my eyes and be able to feel more confident when I'm in there."

And confidence wasn't a problem in the Fiesta Bowl, where he matched senior safety Delano Howell for the team high in tackles with seven.

"I felt like I played pretty well with the open-field tackles, because they are a speed team," Lancaster said. "They didn't really run the ball, which is something you want to do -- make them one-dimensional. They were the better team that night, but overall I thought I played pretty well."

So next season, there won't be any excuses. No first-year starter excuses to fall back on. Not that Lancaster did anyway. But the better he plays, the better he will be expected to play.

"His open-field tackling was outstanding," said co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "They were big-time drive-stoppers for us. I was really excited about that. I was happy to see him do that. After a long season and starting on two special teams and playing almost every snap on defense, he worked through everything in his first year starting and his production per play was very good.

"I can't wait to see him progress. We were already talking about certain areas where he needs to grow right after the game and on the way home. He put a lot of good things on film. Jarek's a pretty amazing kid and he has a great ability to stay in the moment."

Despite leading the Cardinal with 70 tackles this season, Lancaster had just one sack on the year. That's something he said will be a major point of emphasis in the offseason.

"I need to get better at my pass rush," Lancaster said. "Maybe I can get some hands, too, so I can get a pick next season."

Is A.J. Tarpley, the other starting inside linebacker, giving him a hard time because he has a pick?

"Yeah, a little bit," Lancaster joked. "I need to fix that."
With the announcement over the weekend that outside linebacker Chase Thomas is coming back for another season, it's worth taking a quick look at what Stanford's front seven will look like next season -- because the Cardinal are loaded.

With six of the starting seven returning (plus a seventh, Shayne Skov returning from injury), the Cardinal figure to be even better than this year's group, which finished with the No. 4 rush defense in the country (88.3 yards per game), 11th in sacks (3 per game) and 28th in tackles for a loss (6.8 per game).

Here's a look at the starters coming back and the one guy leaving.


  • 2011 highlights: He led the Cardinal in sacks and tackles for a loss, and was first-team All-Pac-12 and Sporting News First Team All-American. A ferocious pass-rusher who skipped on the NFL for another season to gain size and put together a more consistent résumé on film. He should be one of the top outside linebackers in the nation again next season.
[+] EnlargeChase Thomas
Bob Stanton/Icon SMIStanford's Chase Thomas should be one of the best outside linebackers in the nation next season.

  • 2011 highlights: He quietly put together a strong season opposite Thomas, though didn't get as much publicity. Murphy started all 12 games and finished with 40 tackles, 10 for a loss and was second on the team with 6.5 sacks. He had a career high 10 stops against Oregon. Murphy is very good at setting the edges and his size and reach make him a difficult player to block.

  • 2011 highlights: One of the marquee special teams players forced into immediate action after the injury to Skov. He ended up leading the team in tackles with 70, including 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss. Lancaster will likely add more size in the offseason. He has good speed and very good at shedding blocks. His open field tackling improved each week and he was stellar in the Fiesta Bowl loss.
A.J. TARPLEY, ILB, 6-2, 231

  • 2011 highlights: Like Lancaster, split time until finally earning a starting role. A very instinctive linebacker who prefers to go through blocks rather than around them. He should also pack on a little more size in the off season. He finished third on the team with 57 tackles and had 1.5 sacks and four tackles for a loss. A very bright player who should have a fantastic career. His interception against USC was one of season's defensive highlights.

  • 2011 highlights: He's understated for what he does, but also very good at it. He eats up blockers for the linebackers to do their thing. Stephens finished with 11 tackles, including four for a loss, and forced the fumble against USC in triple overtime that Tarpley recovered to close out the game. A vocal player who should grow into a leadership role on the defense.
BEN GARDNER, DE, 6-4, 263

  • 2011 highlights: An outstanding season that earned him second-team All-Pac-12 honors. He finished with 35 tackles -- including 10 for a loss, adding 4.5 sacks and six quarterback hits. A high-motor player who earned the team's outstanding sophomore award. And, according to his Twitter account, the mullet will return in 2012. Phew.
SHAYNE SKOV, ILB, 6-3, 244

  • 2011 highlights: He was the team's leading tackler with 19 in two and a half games until a knee injury in the third game of the season caused him to miss the rest of the year. The question mark is whether or not he'll return at 100 percent. And if he does, whose reps get reduced, Tarpley or Lancaster? Either way, the Cardinal should be deep at linebacker and if Skov can return healthy, he'll be one of the premier inside linebackers in college football.

  • 2011 highlights: The Cardinal are going to miss this guy more than most probably realize. He committed to the team in the midst of a 1-11 season and saw the rebuilding process all the way through. He was the only returning starter on the line this season and had 34 tackles, eight for a loss and 2.5 sacks. His possible replacements are Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro.

And this just covers the starters. Players like Anderson and Mauro saw playing time this season, along with nose tackle David Parry, outside linebackers Alex Debniak and Blake Lueders and inside linebackers James Vaughters and Joe Hemschoot.

The Cardinal are in fantastic shape if everyone stays healthy. And if they encounter another situation like they did this past year with a season-ending injury, they should be deep enough and experienced enough to absorb the blow. Plus, we'll see how head coach David Shaw and his staff treat some of the incoming freshman, like standout outside linebacker Noor Davis.

Halftime: Stanford 21, OSU 21

January, 2, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Some first-half thoughts from the Fiesta Bowl.

Turning point: On fourth-and-4 at the Stanford 32, Brandon Weeden hit Justin Blackmon for 23 yards with less than a minute in the half, setting up first-and-goal. On third-and-goal at the 2, Weeden took it in himself to knot the score at 21-21. It was Weeden's first career rushing touchdown.

Stat of the half: After only 13 three-and-out drives all season, the Cardinal already have two in the first half.

Best player for Stanford: Linebacker Jarek Lancaster is having a fantastic game. He’s made several open-field tackles -- including two on critical third downs -- and been in on several others.

Best player for Oklahoma State: Blackmon became the first wide receiver to gain more than 100 yards on the Cardinal this season. Through the first 30 minutes, he has four catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns.

Best tackle of a teammate: Jeremy Stewart taking down Ty Montgomery on a kickoff that Montgomery thought about taking 5 yards deep out of the end zone. As Montgomery approached the line, Stewart brought him down. The form was questionable and it might have been helmet-to-helmet, but no flag was thrown.

Best fan-made sign in the stands: “Superman wears Andrew Luck socks.”

First Quarter: Stanford 7, OSU 0

January, 2, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A little different start than the Rose Bowl.

The lone touchdown was a 53-yard, play-action touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to Ty Montgomery.

Outside of that, we haven't seen too many offensive highlights (though Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor already has 61 yards on six carries).

This was the first time all season OSU had been held scoreless in the first quarter.

However, we've had plenty of defensive highlights from both teams.

Among the top defensive plays of the quarter:
  • Terrence Brown picking off Brandon Weeden on his first pass attempt of the game. Justin Gilbert also grabbed his fifth interception of the year off of Luck at the end of the quarter. Though neither team could turn the interceptions into points.
  • OSU's Richetti Jones sacking Luck on a crucial third down (just the 10th sack the Cardinal have allowed this season).
  • Stanford linebacker Jarek Lancaster making an outstanding open-field tackle on Isaiah Anderson -- also on third down.

New look, same Ben Gardner

December, 30, 2011
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Ben Gardner doesn’t think he’s tempting the football gods. He’s just sick and tired of blowing through bottles of shampoo.

“It’s nice going in the shower and not having two handfuls of shampoo just to wash my hair,” Gardner said.

The Stanford defensive end has shed his trademark mullet -- much to the dismay of some teammates.

“He decided he was going to keep it through the whole season, then he decided that bowl games don’t count so he decided to lose the hair,” said linebacker Jarek Lancaster, who has his own impressive locks nearing shoulder length. “We told him that was not the case. Even though we told him and even though we all tried to stop him, as you can see, he doesn’t care what we had to say. He got ahold of some clippers. It’s pretty disappointing.”

Save the Samson and Delilah jokes. Gardner said he doesn’t anticipate any loss of strength. Actually, quite the contrary.

“I think I’m less wind resistant and more aerodynamic,” Gardner joked.

Gardner has emerged as one of the marquee players on Stanford’s defense, which ranks fifth nationally against the run. He has 34 tackles on the season and is second only to Chase Thomas in tackles for a loss on the team with 10. He’s third on the team with 4.5 sacks and he leads the squad in quarterback hits.

“Everybody told me that chicks dig the mullets, so I bought into it and played it out for a while,” Gardner said. “I don’t think it’s true anymore. It was time to get rid of it.”

Naturally, the reaction from his teammates ran the gamut.

“He looks like a normal human being,” said the long-haired Coby Fleener. “Hopefully it will improve his luck with the ladies.”

Said quarterback Andrew Luck: “I don’t know what it says about him. I guess he’s just a free spirit that doesn’t like to conform.”

Added linebacker A.J. Tarpley: “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad omen. I hope not. I wouldn’t want to put that kind of pressure on him. But it’s a lot different. The first time I saw him, I didn’t recognize him and then you’re like ‘oh, that’s Ben?’”

The question now: Exactly who has the best/worst hair of all of the players?

“I want to give deference to Fleener since he’s the oldest,” said the clean-cut Luck. “But [fullback Ryan] Hewitt’s hair is pretty mangley.”

Cardinal finally starting to heal

December, 27, 2011
A healthy Stanford is a happy Stanford. And for the first time since about the midway point of the regular season, the Cardinal are as close to 100 percent as they are going to be.

When Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, several key players will be moving quicker than they were in the final few games of the regular season. Understanding just how beat up his team was heading into the postseason, head coach David Shaw said repairs on both sides of the ball were a top priority.

[+] EnlargeZach Ertz
Steve Conner/Icon SMIStanford tight end Zach Ertz is expected to be near full strength for the Fiesta Bowl.
"We've got to get healthy," Shaw said after the Notre Dame victory in the regular season finale. "We played with our three tight ends and two of them were probably 80 percent. Our backs have been beaten up and bruised all year. We have to get them fresh."

Injuries, no doubt, took their toll on the Cardinal this year. It all started in the third game of the season when middle linebacker Shayne Skov -- arguably one of the top run stoppers in the country -- went down against Arizona and was lost for the year with a knee injury. Suddenly one of the best run defenses in the country looked a little thin. A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster filled in admirably -- better, in fact, than most expected -- but neither is at the level yet of Skov.

Still, they have endured, ranking fifth nationally in rush defense, allowing just 90.3 yards per game.

Like all teams, the Cardinal fell prey to the typical bumps and bruises. But a critical bump occurred against USC, when tight end Zach Ertz suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff and would go on to miss the next three games.

Why is Ertz so significant? About one-third of Stanford's offensive playbook involves three-tight-end formations. With Ertz, Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo on the field at the same time, the Cardinal offense was able to exploit numerous mismatches. Ryan Hewitt split time between fullback and tight end during that stretch. But even then, quarterback Andrew Luck would lose Hewitt out of the backfield, one of his most reliable and productive receivers coming out from behind the line of scrimmage.

Ertz returned for the season finale against Notre Dame. Nowhere near 100 percent, he caught one ball for no yards. But the fact that he was even on the field was a morale boost for his teammates. He's expected to be near full-strength -- if not at 100 percent -- for the Fiesta Bowl.

"It's exciting to have the tight ends back together and ready to go," said Fleener, who was recently named to the AP All-America third-team offense. "I think it's just exciting to know that we have a lot of guys back at full strength and hopefully we can be as good as we were before a lot of the injuries. It can only make us better as a team."

Obviously, Skov won't be back. Neither will wide receiver Chris Owusu, who has suffered at least three concussions in the past 14 months -- the scariest (as if they aren't all scary) coming against Oregon State when he was taken off the field in an ambulance.

There was some hope for Owusu's return because he's a senior and one of the emotional leaders of the offense, but head coach David Shaw told reporters last week "it's not going to happen."

"He's just been one of those guys," Shaw said following a practice last week. "And he's gotten beaten up and knocked out, and he comes back. He's been beaten up and knocked out, and he comes back. And the players recognize that as the guy that they look to for courage."

In Owusu's absence, true freshman Ty Montgomery has been filling in, giving Cardinal fans a glimpse of the future. In the final three games, Montgomery caught 10 balls (on 16 targets) for 130 yards and a touchdown in the finale against Notre Dame.

Still, they have endured, ranking 11th nationally in total offense while averaging almost 481 yards per game.

Offensive linemen Cameron Fleming and Jonathan Martin also had lingering lower leg injuries that forced Fleming to miss time. Both are expected to be back at or near full strength.

Offensive lineman David DeCastro offered a more glass-half-empty view of the Cardinal injury situation.

"We're never going to be injury-free," he said, "that's just part of college football."

On the opposite side of the ball -- aside from Skov -- one of the biggest temporary losses was safety Delano Howell. While he convalesced his injured hand for three games -- only to re-injure it in the first half against Oregon -- Michael Thomas stepped in and split time between free and strong safety.

Youngsters Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards got lots of playing experience that will aid the Cardinal in years to come, but Stanford is clearly a better defense when Howell is on the field. He too is expected to be at full strength.

And yet throughout the injury-plagued season, the players have never used injuries as an excuse.

"I think what it comes down to is no matter who is available, the coaches did an awesome job putting us in the best positions to succeed," Fleener said. "Whether it was Zach or Hewitt in there, ultimately our identity is running the football and being a physical team regardless of who is on the field. That shouldn't change with the personnel."

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Stanford Cardinal (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys (11-1)

Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Stanford take by Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell: Welcome back to the BCS. The Cardinal return after smoking Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season -- many thinking it was the final game for coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck.

Harbaugh left, Luck stayed. And he turned in a Heisman-worthy season, throwing 35 touchdowns to nine interceptions, including a perfect 26-0 touchdown-interception ratio in the red zone.

With a trio of top-flight tight ends -- headlined by Coby Fleener -- Luck has proved why he's considered the No. 1 NFL prospect. But he's not the only top draft pick on the team. Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin is considered one of the two best left tackles in college football and guard David DeCastro is the best interior lineman in the country.

The tight ends -- Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- have accounted for more than half of Luck's 35 passing touchdowns on the season.

But what makes Stanford go is its balance. Stepfan Taylor had his second straight 1,000-yard season, and he did it platooning with Tyler Gaffney, Jeremy Stewart and Anthony Wilkerson.

Defensively, Chase Thomas leads a front seven that is one of the best in college football. The loss of inside linebacker Shayne Skov in the third game of the season was a blow to the defense, but youngsters Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley have filled the void nicely -- steadily improving every week.

Oklahoma State take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: The Cowboys are best known for their offense, and for good reason. Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are one of the nation's best pass-catch combos, and between Blackmon's physical nature and Weeden's accuracy, they're a nightmare for defenses.

Making matters more difficult is Joseph Randle, who has quietly had one of the best seasons of any running back in the Big 12. He's racked up 1,193 rushing yards with 23 (!) rushing touchdowns. Only three players in college football have more TDs. The first-year starter might be the Cowboys' secret weapon.

Defensively, the raw numbers aren't great for the Cowboys, but those rumors you've heard? They're true. The defense is a lot better than most give it credit. The Cowboys have an efficient defense that plays well when it counts, and ranks second nationally with a plus-20 turnover margin. Tough to beat that.

Quinn Sharp and Justin Gilbert make things interesting on special teams, too. Sharp leads the nation in touchbacks, is one of the Big 12's best place-kickers, and would be one of the nation's best in punting average -- if he had enough attempts. Gilbert is a dangerous return man who already has four touchdown returns in his first two seasons.
Just so we're clear, I'm not a fan of what-ifs. Never have been. But a lot of you are, and I can see the for-kicks value of asking what-if questions.

Over the course of the season, I've kept several of these questions in my back pocket. They were sent to me through email, mailbag and just general conversations with readers at games and around the stadium. These are composites of the most popular what-if questions I've been asked this season.

You guys wanted them, so here we go: Questions worth asking, the "what-if" edition:

  • [+] EnlargeStanford's Shane Skov
    Matt Kartozian/US PRESSWIREHow would the Oregon game have turned out had Shayne Skov not been injured?
    What if Andrew Luck had left last season?
    Pretty safe to assume Stanford would not be going to a BCS bowl game. There would have been a quarterback competition, and since Brett Nottingham won the back-up job, let's assume he would have won the starting gig. First-year starting quarterbacks are exactly that -- first year-starters. He would have had some struggles. While the defense would have performed the same, the offense probably wouldn't have clicked as efficiently. With the talent at tight end and running back, plus with the same defense, I would confidently say nine wins. I think they would have dropped Oregon, USC and at least one other road game in which they were favored to win. It happens to almost every first-year guy -- that "one" game where nothing clicks.
  • What if Jim Harbaugh was still the head coach? First off, I don't think the San Francisco 49ers would have nine wins. So as a Niner's fan raised in the South Bay during the Montana-to-Rice era, I'm happy he's there. But I think we'd still be looking at an 11-1 season. I don't think the result of the Oregon game would have turned out differently. David Shaw still would have set the general offensive game plan. Stanford has kept the essential defensive system that Vic Fangio installed, with a few new wrinkles. But for the most part, I think things would have turned out the same.
  • What if Zach Ertz was healthy and played against Oregon? I like Ertz a lot. But as we saw in the Notre Dame game, the tight ends could use some brushing up on their tackling skills (great hustle by Coby Fleener, bad technique on the horse collar). What I'm getting at is Ertz doesn't play defense. When things became pass-heavy for the Cardinal in the second half against Oregon, another reliable option in the mid-range passing game would have helped. Would it have made enough of a difference to overcome a 23-point loss? I don't think so. Certainly, Luck and the coaching staff would have had more of the playbook at their disposal with the three tight-end sets. But I don't think one tight end would have been enough to make that significant of a difference.
  • What if Luck had "marquee" wide receivers, ie. Robert Woods, Ryan Broyles, Justin Blackmon etc? I think they would make fantastic downfield blockers in David Shaw's pro-style offense ... But seriously, I hear this a lot. I think Griff Whalen has given every ounce of talent his body is capable of this season. But it's not like Luck has been throwing to Pee Wee League guys. Fleener is the most productive offensive tight end in college football. Ertz and Toilolo are probably NFL bound down the road. Would his numbers be better? Yeah, probably. But he's had some pretty good targets to throw at this season.
  • What if Shayne Skov played the whole season? He would lead the team in tackles. I think we can all agree on that. This takes us back to the Ertz issue versus Oregon. Would Skov had made a difference? In this case, maybe. The Ducks got a lot of their production by running up the middle. You have to think Skov would have been in on at least half of those plays. Would it have been enough? Again, I don't know. I do know this, they won eight of nine games without him, and Stanford's middle linebacking corps looks filthy next season. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley return with eight full games of experience under their belts -- plus Skov (not breaking any news here, just assuming he comes back).

So there you have it, your first and only what-if blog post of the 2011 season. The debating flood gates have been opened. The floor is yours ...

What we learned about Stanford

November, 27, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- Five things we learned about the Cardinal in their 28-14 win over Notre Dame Saturday night.

  1. [+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
    Kyle Terada/US Presswire Andrew Luck threw four touchdown passes in Stanford's win Saturday night.
    Stanford can start fast: Normally this is a question; phrased by swapping the "can" and "Stanford." It’s been an off-and-on issue for the Cardinal this season. But they came out, with the exception of one or two plays, and looked solid on both sides of the ball in the first half. Andrew Luck moved the ball efficiently through the air (save the interception), Stepfan Taylor rushed for 75 yards in the first half on nine carries (an average of 8.3 yards per carry) and the defense held the Irish to just 75 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes.
  2. Chris Owusu got his play: Classy move by Stanford head coach David Shaw to allow wide receiver Chris Owusu to take the field on the victory formation kneel down to end the game (more on this later today). Owusu’s tale of concussions has been well-documented, and for him to be able to be on the field -- on senior night -- and be a part of the victory was a special moment.
  3. The tight ends are back: Good to see the Tree Amigos reunited. Zach Ertz returned from a knee injury he suffered on the opening kickoff against USC. He didn’t do much statistically -- one catch for zero yards -- but his presence allowed things to open up down the field for Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo. Fleener had a monster game: four catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns, including a 55-yarder in the fourth quarter. Toilolo also had a 3-yard touchdown reception. Ertz simply being on the field impacts how teams defend the Cardinal.
  4. The Cardinal have a case: Probably not for a spot in the national championship, but certainly for a spot in one of the other BCS bowl games. An 11-1 record and a Heisman finalist should be enticing enough to get the Cardinal into one of college football’s red-carpet gatherings. Wherever they land, the Cardinal can make a case that they shouldn’t play again until 2012.
  5. The Farm’s farm system looks OK: There are several spectacular players and a once-in-a-generation college quarterback who played their final game at Stanford Stadium Saturday night. But the cupboards aren’t totally empty. Guys like Ty Montgomery (six catches, 77 yards, touchdown), Jarek Lancaster (six tackles, one for a loss) and A.J. Tarpley (two tackles, sack) provided a glance at what Stanford’s future will look like. And it looks promising. David Yankey and Cameron Fleming will continue to grow. James Vaughters (one tackle) will get bigger and faster. The foundation is there for a pretty good football team.

Stanford weekend rewind

November, 21, 2011
Saturday night had all of the ingredients for another historical Big Game. But Coby Fleener's recovery of the onside kick in the final minute dashed Cal's hopes of a crazy comeback. Before we start looking ahead to Saturday's regular season finale against Notre Dame, let's take a look back at a few highlights from the 114th Big Game.

[+] EnlargeRyan Hewitt
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireCardinal fullback Ryan Hewitt is congratulated by tight end Davis Dudchock (back) after scoring a touchdown against California.
Highlight reel: Jarek Lancaster's sack on Zach Maynard in the third quarter was instinctual linebacking at its finest. Lancaster wasn't going in on a designed blitz. He reacted almost immediately to Maynard rolling to his left, he shed a blocker and then turned up field before throwing Maynard to the ground. Those are the kinds of plays that make defensive coaches giddy.

Best play: Ty Montgomery's 34-yard touchdown run was a text-book end around. A little motion to get the momentum going, then great blocking by Jonathan Martin and Griff Whalen. Loved the hustle by center Sam Schwartzstein to try and get downfield to make a block. But Montgomery was just too darn fast for his own linemen -- and the Cal defense. This guy has some serious speed.

Who's hot: No one hotter right now than fullback Ryan Hewitt. From various receiving positions -- tight end, receiver, slot and fullback, he caught all seven balls thrown his way against Cal for 64 yards and a receiving touchdown. He also got the job done in two short-yardage running situations.

Who's not: On the whole the offensive line. Still too many leaks and too much penetration. After going four games with just one negative play, running back Stepfan Taylor was brought down four times in the backfield -- and that's penetration. Plus, quarterback Andrew Luck was sacked twice against Cal, making it five in the last two games.

The good: A win anytime is good. A win against Cal is better. A win when four teams ranked ahead of you in the BCS standings all lose in the same weekend is absolutely smashing.

The bad: Still too many missed tackles in the open field. It got better with the return of safety Delano Howell, who had five solo stops. But still way more than you'd like to see 11 games into the season.
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Let’s take a trip back to those carefree days between Week 1 and 2. Stanford was coming off its blowout win of San Jose State in the season opener and preparing to go on the road against Duke. Head coach David Shaw made a passing comment:

“Missed tackles in the secondary lose football games.”

It was logged and noted at the time. And in these tense days between Games 9 and 10, it’s gone from casual comment to paramount prophecy.

[+] EnlargeDelano Howell and Johnathan Franklin
AP Photo/Paul SakumaStanford will need to do a better job tackling when they play Oregon on Saturday.
The Cardinal have fought their own tackling demons throughout this season. Part of it is losing one of their best tacklers in Week 3 -- linebacker Shayne Skov -- and losing another of their best tacklers for a quarter of the season -- safety Delano Howell.

Howell will return to the lineup this week for the epic showdown against Oregon, which begs the question: Is this the week Stanford’s defenders can put it all together?

“We get better every week,” said linebacker Jarek Lancaster. “Obviously this week with the explosiveness [Oregon has] we’re trying to wrap up more in practice, run our feet through contact. Anytime on defense, it’s something to worry about. I think we’ve gotten better and this should be our best tackling game.”

It has to be. Or the Ducks will run wild all over Stanford -- which they might do anyway -- even if the Cardinal are able to wrap up.

“You can play well against Oregon and give up 35 points,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “If one guy is out of position on one play, it’s a touchdown. That’s just the way it is.”

Too often this season we have seen big plays from opposing teams because they have broken a tackle, or tackles, and picked up critical third downs or taken it all the way to the end zone.

Safety Michael Thomas said it’s time for players to start taking it personally.

“There are going to be situations with one-on-one, with you and another guy in open space and you have to bring him down,” Thomas said. “It’s athlete versus athlete … we can’t miss tackles. These guys are too talented. They are fast, they run hard and we can’t afford to miss tackles.

“It’s a matter of will with that guy. It’s one-on-one with me and him in open space and I can’t miss."

Howell’s absence these last three games has been notable and his return gives Shaw a much needed veteran presence in the backfield. It takes a significant amount of pressure off Thomas to set the defensive alignments.

But then you have two young middle linebackers in A.J. Tarpley and Lancaster. Both have played very well since the Cardinal lost Skov. But neither has faced a team with Oregon's explosiveness.

“It’s not just being in a big game. It’s about playing these guys, specifically on defense,” Shaw said. “Chip Kelly says it all the time and he’s 100 percent right. Time of possession is overrated. It’s what you do with the snaps that you get. They are going to line up, run a play and run right back up and run a play again. You have to communicate quickly, especially from the safety position … I feel great being able to have Delano back this week.”

While Oregon has the ability to run between the tackles, they are at their best when they are running outside the hashes and using their speed to stretch defenses. That puts the onus on the linebackers and safeties to either take proper angles, or simply not allow Oregon’s speedy backs to get to the outside.

“We have to cage them,” Lancaster said. “Set the edges. Force everything inside. If we can keep them caged, we can do really well. We just can’t let them out.”

Oregon offense never out of options

November, 9, 2011
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- We know Oregon has speed. Chip Kelly might as well have it printed on his business card:

Chip Kelly, head coach, Oregon. “I recruit speed.”

Speed at the skill positions, speed in which they get off plays and speed in which they execute those plays.

In the time it took you to read this, Oregon has run four plays and gained 72 yards.

But it’s what they do with that speed that makes them so dangerous.

Let’s take a look at what Oregon does on offense that makes them so potent.

[+] EnlargeOregon Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas
Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIREThe speed of Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas and the rest of the Ducks will be a challenge for Stanford.
Setting up in the shotgun, a standard run play starts with the double-option. Quarterback Darron Thomas reads the defensive end and then decides whether to hand off to one of his blistering backs if the defensive end dives or he keeps it himself.

Simple enough. But then…

Oregon starts bringing slot backs across in a fly motion or arc motion which adds a pitch element -- turning the double option into the triple option. They’ll also do this out of a triple-I formation or split backs -- which is what you would see from traditional wishbone teams, only the Ducks do it out of the shotgun.

Getting tougher. But then…

Thomas starts reading the man inside of the defensive end -- be it an inside linebacker or nose guard in the 3-4 scheme -- and it becomes a mid-line option.

Getting a lot tougher. But then…

Oregon pulls one of its athletic guards on a trap block and Thomas fakes the dive and follows the trap.

Getting really hard now. But then…

Eight or nine defenders have been sucked in and are committed to the run and Thomas pulls off the play-action -- or simply spreads out his receivers to create crater-sized pockets in the secondary.

By the way, they will do all of the above out of multiple formations, from the hurry-up and with the nation’s leading rusher LaMichael James -- or the equally fast Kenjon Barner or De'Anthony Thomas -- standing next to or behind Thomas. Starting to the get the picture?

“It’s pretty tough,” said linebacker Jarek Lancaster, who then corrected himself. “Actually, it’s really tough. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. They do a lot of different things. But we’ve put in some really good calls that have made it as simple as possible for us … The type of defense we have is built-in to stop those runs. Just play your man and don’t be a hero out there. That’s how you do your job.

“No freelancing on these guys because they will burn you if you freelance.”

A defensive coach whom I admire greatly once told me there is no way to stop the triple-option on a chalkboard because the defense is always outnumbered.

Some pretty doom-and-gloom stuff if you happen to play defense for the boys in red. But there are ways around it – option rules that players can adhere to in order to minimize the impact of what Oregon can do offensively.

“What Chip and the guys do, they do a great job picking different formations every week,” said Stanford co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. “What he’s shown, he’ll run the same play out of different formations. He uses all of that speed he has to cross your vision.”

And then you start thinking. Too much.

“If you think about all of those things when you are on the field, that’s when you get into trouble,” said safety Michael Thomas. “ … Coaches are coming up with a game plan that is very simple for us and allows us to go out and play fast. They are going to have motions and move guys around. You can’t get caught up in all of that. You just have to line up and play fast.”

An important key for Stanford is to stay multiple on defense. Keep changing up the looks. Keep changing up the formations and the blitz patterns so that Thomas’ reads are increasingly difficult. Teams that become stagnant in their alignments make it easier for Thomas to make his reads as the game progresses. The more multiple Stanford can be, the tougher it will be Thomas to make a clean read.

“That’s their pace,” Tarver said. “Their pace goes so fast that they want the simple looks so they read you in the same spot all of the time. The biggest thing you have to do is be ready and play sound. We’re a multiple-look team anyway.”

Stanford head coach David Shaw said there is no way to simulate Oregon’s players in practice. But he can simulate the pace. He’s running two scout teams -- right when one gets done, the other is on the line ready to go. The safeties have to react quickly and make the calls in a short amount of time so they can get a feel for how quickly Oregon moves.

And there is always the trap of getting away from what you do well to try to stop a certain play.

“You gotta remember, this game is being played by 18-22 year olds,” Shaw said. “And you asked them to do a lot against an offense that does a lot. There is a lot of variance in there where one guy just has to be out of position to give up a big play. You want to give multiple looks, but you have to trust your base defense to a certain degree because the guys know it and they know where to line up.”

Every play is a chess match. A 2-yard Oregon run might be setting up another play two drives later. Likewise a Stanford blitz might be setting up a different coverage later in the drive.

“This is the kind of game where you better be on your best behavior schematically,” Shaw said.

Stanford: All Hallows' Eve edition

October, 31, 2011
Don't think a tree can be scary? Wait till one smashes through your window and hijacks your kid.

Frightening. No?

That's all I've got when it comes to scary tree things. Enjoy this year's Halloween post, the Stanford edition.

  • Paranormal Activity 3: Starring Levine Toilolo, Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener. It's not right what those three can do.
  • The Exorcist: Playing Nov. 12 at a stadium near you. One-night special engagement only.
  • Silence of the Critics: It puts the wins on the scoreboard or else it gets the hose again.
  • Witchcraft: Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton in the red zone: 47-of-47. What kind of sorcery is this?
  • Sunday the 13th: Could be a comedy. Could be a tear-jerker.
  • Nightmare on Galvez Street: An undefeated Stanford team falls 65-0 to Notre Dame in the regular season finale. I just got the chills ...
HALLOWEEN COSTUMES (all in good fun):