- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2011 season is over. That means report cards are due.
Up next: Stanford
Offense: The Cardinal had one of the most productive offenses in the country -- mostly because they had one of the most productive quarterbacks. Andrew Luck was efficient and potent orchestrating Stanford's pro-style scheme. He was brilliant in the red zone and proved his NFL-readiness with his play-calling. He also put Stanford's running backs in the best possible plays to succeed, and they did. Stepfan Taylor netted 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns, sending him over the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year. The tight ends were the featured players in the passing game with Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo combining for 86 catches, 1,356 yards and 20 touchdowns. The offensive line matured quickly with three new starters and returners David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin were outstanding -- which will be reflected when they are taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Wide receiver Griff Whalen turned in a steady season and true freshman Ty Montgomery emerged late as a deep threat following a series of concussions to Chris Owusu. But for the most part, the wide receiver position was the one area that lacked significant production in an otherwise potent offense.
Defense: Regular readers of the Stanford blog know that I reference this David Shaw quote from Week 1 a lot: "Missed tackles in the secondary lose football games." That was never more evident than in the Fiesta Bowl, where no one seemed to be able to bring down Justin Blackmon. Stanford's front seven was one of the best in the country -- and with six of the seven returning (plus the return of linebacker Shayne Skov from a knee injury) they should be even better. OLB Chase Thomas was one of the best pass-rushers in the Pac-12 and Ben Gardner emerged as one of the top defensive ends in the conference. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley grew into their middle linebacker spots and were extremely productive. The secondary gave up a lot of yards -- though played pretty well against some of the top wide receivers in the country -- that is, until the Fiesta Bowl. Up until that game, they had not allowed a 100-yard receiver. Finding replacements for safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas will be a top priority.
Overall: For all of the hype surrounding the Cardinal in the preseason, it's pretty safe to say they lived up to it. Luck took a step forward in his maturation as a quarterback, they reached 11 wins in David Shaw's first year as head coach and the Cardinal returned to a BCS bowl game. For much of the season, they were major players in the national championship conversation and boasted the nation's longest win streak for a good chunk of the 2011 campaign. They are on the verge of signing a Top 20 recruiting class and though many are leaving, a lot of very good talent returns. But an extremely successful 2011 season will forever (or at least for a really long time) be overshadowed by the image of a wide-left kick.