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Healthy line fuels Stanford defense

9/25/2014

Stanford is allowing a nation-best 4.3 points per game. The Cardinal defense is the only unit in the country to have not surrendered a touchdown drive of 75 yards or longer. Heck, it's only given up one touchdown in 12 quarters of football.

Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith has been watching film of Stanford's sturdy crew all week, and from his perspective, the viewing sessions have been "depressing."

Wait, what the heck is going on here?

Stalwarts Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, Ben Gardner, and Josh Mauro have all left for the NFL. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason filled the head coaching opening at Vanderbilt.

Wasn't this team supposed to suffer a defensive a dropoff? On the surface, two and two don't seem to add up.

Two major road tests at Washington and Notre Dame loom for Stanford, but early indications suggest the defense is successfully weathering the significant loss of star power. And an answer as to how Stanford is defying expectations is becoming evident: The team is actually healthy along the defensive front this time around.

Decimated in 2013

Coach David Shaw understands the fundamental importance of a sturdy line within the 3-4 defensive scheme.

"My dad (Willie Shaw) always used to tell me, 'if you give me a choice between a great cornerback and a great defensive lineman, I'll take the great defensive lineman,'" he said. "Because a great defensive lineman can make an average corner look great."

At this point last season, the decimation of Stanford's defensive line was well underway, so there was a severe shortage of those desired game-changers on the Farm.

End Henry Anderson had suffered a significant knee injury which would sideline him until November, tackle David Parry was straining through a lower abdominal issue that had him nowhere near full capacity, and Ikenna Nwafor -- Parry's backup at tackle -- was about to succumb to a foot injury that would force his medical retirement.

The misery didn't end there. Just a week later against Washington, stalwart defensive end Ben Gardner began battling searing pain in his arm. He fought through the issue for three weeks, but eventually saw his college career end when he tore his pectoral muscle while trying to corral Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion with that arm.

Outside of Josh Mauro, the Cardinal didn't have a defensive lineman in the regular rotation that was playing at close to 100 percent last season. Shaw's staff reacted by converting outside linebacker Blake Lueders and tight end Luke Kaumatule to the line, but Lueders was still significantly underweight for his new position, and Kaumatule didn't yet know the playbook.

The leaks in the dam were apparent. In a particularly brutal two-week stretch, players labored in the second half versus Washington and then scuffled to find any real footing in first half of the team's loss at Utah, during which the Utes easily racked up over six yards per carry. Stanford eventually patched up the leakiest of its defensive problems, but players and coaches both admit that was a smoke-and-mirrors solution that placed tremendous pressure on the team's linebackers and secondary.

An offseason of rest pays dividends

The Stanford defense is built on a fully healthy foundation now. Parry is finally at 100 percent and somersaulting his way to backfield tackles in WWE-wrestler style, and Anderson has considerable bounce back in his step after spending the offseason shedding about eight pounds and regaining his original explosiveness. Gardner and Mauro are gone, but Lueders has had a chance to put on the 20 pounds of extra strength needed for the defensive end position, and Aziz Shittu and Kaumatule have both earned spots in the line's rotation.

All of these developments have allowed Stanford to assuage the losses of Murphy and Skov on the second level.

"Henry Anderson and David Parry are playing at the best levels of their career," Shaw said. "You see all those tackles for loss, and then you see the linebackers making a lot of plays as a result."

Stanford is averaging a sack on 12.5 percent of opponents' passing attempts. That's the best figure in the Pac-12, and it's more than three points higher than the one Stanford's sack-happy 2012 team, the national leader in tackles for loss, posted.

"You see David Parry getting whammed and getting double-teamed because [the opponent] has to account for him," Shaw said. "Then Henry's up in the quarterback's face pushing the pocket."

Washington makes a case

This Saturday's showdown at Washington presents an intriguing matchup. Though Stanford leads the Pac-12 in the aforementioned sack rate, the Huskies lead the nation in total sacks. They have registered 19 in four games. Behind six-foot-two, 339-pound wrecking ball Danny Shelton, Washington will try to make a claim that it features the best front seven in the Pac-12.

Stanford offensive lineman Josh Garnett, whose father played for the Huskies, thinks that working against his own team's finally healthy unit has prepared the Cardinal well for this trip to Seattle.

"Our guys are definitely healthy now," Garnett said. "And if we can run our plays on those guys [in practice], we can run our plays against anybody. You see their pass-rush moves, and then you see them stoning people in the run game on the next play, and it's very impressive."

So keep an eye on the battle up front this Saturday. If Stanford proves that it can pack up and travel with the same eye-popping pass-rush fury and run-stopping proficiency it's shown early in this season, the raging battle in the Pac-12 North will have become that much more fascinating.