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Friday, December 9, 2011
Regular-season report card: Secondary

By Kevin Gemmell

The regular season is over, which means grades are due. Here's part nine of the ongoing regular-season report card for Stanford.

SECONDARY

Grade: C+

Summary: This was the toughest of all the grades to assign – and therefore deserves the most analysis and scrutiny.

On the surface, when you look at just receiving yards against, the Cardinal secondary was not very good. In passing defense, the Cardinal ranked 78th nationally, allowing 241 yards per game in the air. If that’s your only criteria for grading, then a "D" is justified.

Maybe you look at the interception total – just six. Only 10 teams out of 120 had fewer interceptions than the Cardinal. If that’s your main criteria, than a "D-, F" is justified.

But you have to look deeper. I don’t put much stock in the total receiving yards stat. I think it’s one of the most overblown numbers because it doesn’t take into account the flow of the game – or the fact that most teams were playing catch-up against Stanford and were more likely to throw the ball.

So let’s really break it down. Teams passed for an average of 48.8 yards in the first quarter, 83 yards in the second quarter, 41.9 in the third and 63.3 in the fourth. Most teams fell behind early in the first quarter, so they went airborne in the second quarter. They tried to re-establish the running game in the third, then went back to the air in the fourth – so it stands to reason that the Cardinal gave up the bulk of the yards in the air in the second and fourth quarters.

Stanford faced six of the top 20 statistical wide receivers in the country this season: Robert Woods (USC), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), Keenan Allen (Cal), Marquess Wilson (Washington State), Juron Criner (Arizona) and Noel Grigsby (San Jose State). Five of those six performed below their season average against Stanford. Only Floyd matched (but did not exceed) his season average. Wilson and Grigsby were kept out of the end zone and Woods, Floyd, Allen and Criner were held to one touchdown each.

The Cardinal did not allow an individual 100-yard receiving game this year, and they had one of the best third-down conversion defenses in the country – traditionally a passing down.

Of the 15 passing touchdowns they yielded (that’s top 30 nationally, by the way), only eight went to wide receivers. The remaining seven went to tight ends (5) and running backs (2) which can fall on either the safeties or the linebackers.

A good friend and colleague suggested looking at the total quarterback numbers as a way to gauge the secondary: 249-of-409 (60 percent completion percentage), 2893 yards, 15 touchdowns, six interceptions. If your quarterback put up those numbers, you’d consider that sub-par production.

That’s a lot of information to digest. So what do we make of all of this?

Essentially, they bent, but didn’t break. The tackling in the secondary was suspect all year – and it got worse when safety Delano Howell missed some time with a hand injury. It was clear Stanford was a better secondary when he’s healthy.

Safety Michael Thomas was the glue that held the secondary together. He accounted for half of the team’s interceptions and provided stability and leadership.

Johnson Bademosi is a very good athlete and the best tackler of the cornerbacks. He also led the team with seven pass breakups. But he was flagged quite a bit for pass interference. Corey Gatewood and Terrence Brown rounded out the rotation at cornerback by the end of the season. Gatewood, who moved over from wide receiver, added some much needed depth and athleticism.

In summation, the secondary didn’t win any beauty contests or show much flash or panache. But, for the most part, the defensive backs made the plays when it counted most – in the red zone, on third down and against the toughest wide receivers in the country. They get knocked for the missed tackles and lack of turnovers. But when you really break down their performance, it’s better than most people probably give them credit for.

Backups: Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards both have very bright futures at the safety position. But it was clear they were a downgrade from Howell. That’s not a knock on them, but rather a compliment to how good Howell is. The playing experience they had (Richards appeared in all 12, Carrington in 11) will pay off immensely when they move into more prominent roles next season. The return of Wayne Lyons from a foot injury will also help with depth next season.