Thursday, September 15, 2011
What to watch: Stanford vs. Arizona
By Kevin Gemmell
Five things to watch as the Stanford Cardinal travel to Tucson to take on Arizona in the Pac-12 opener.
One dimension is better than two: Arizona has an extremely talented quarterback in Nick Foles. If you haven't heard, he's one of the most accurate passers in the country through two games. Arizona wants to run the ball better, but they are a passing team at heart. Stop the running attack early, and you force Foles to do it all by himself. That's a big chore, especially if his top receiver isn't playing. Keep an eye on his first-down passing. When Foles goes down the field for 20 yards or more on first down, he's completing 53.1 percent of his passes since the start of the 2010 season. That number drops to 24.1 percent on second and third down.
Keep them guessing: Stanford coach David Shaw wants, and has received to date, balance out of his offense. The Cardinal are a better team when they aren't married to one ideology. They want to control the tempo through power running, then pick the right time for a play-action shot down the field. Since the start of last year, quarterback Andrew Luck is completing 71.8 percent of his passes following play-action for 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Don't stop what works: When Luck does throw, especially for the end zone, chances are one of his tight ends will be in the mix. Five of his seven touchdown passes have been to either Coby Fleener or Zach Ertz. Their massive height differential gives Luck a bigger target and more room for error, not that he needs it.
Watch out, secondary: Stanford's problem in the secondary isn't that they are giving up the big play. It's that they are creating the big play by missing tackles. It's been a point of emphasis the past two weeks, and co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason said the players are paying extra attention to tackling. Foles has six touchdowns and no interceptions, and he's only been sacked twice. Stanford's pass rush should get to him once or twice -- or at least make him uncomfortable. But he doesn't make many mistakes, so the secondary will have to play better than it has in the first two weeks.
Stepfan, and plenty of him: Don't be shocked if running back Stepfan Taylor gets at least 20 carries this game. The Cardinal like to rotate their backs, but Taylor is the back that makes this team tick. Arizona ranks in the bottom half (67th) in rush defense, so they can be exploited on the ground. Shaw said he keeps waiting for his back to break a big one. Could happen Saturday.