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Friday, September 16, 2011
Blog debate: Stanford at Arizona

By Ted Miller and Kevin Gemmell

No. 6 Stanford faces its first significant test of the season Saturday at Arizona, where the spirited 'Zona Zoo can be a challenge for opposing offenses.

The game has the potential to be highly entertaining, at least if you like A-list quarterbacks. Stanford's Andrew Luck is a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and likely will be the top over all pick in next spring's NFL draft, while Arizona's Nick Foles has put up huge numbers so far and could join Luck in the draft's first round.

Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell and Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller decided there was plenty to discuss.

Kevin Gemmell: Ted, I think it's commonly accepted that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is the Heisman front-runner and will be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But I couldn't help notice Arizona quarterback Nick Foles getting some love in last week's Heisman poll. Stanford's secondary has been its weakest cog through two weeks of the season. Foles will be, by far, the most accurate quarterback they have faced this season when they roll into Tucson on Saturday. That has me wondering. Do we have this all wrong? Is Foles the Pac-12 quarterback we should be focusing on and not Luck?

Andrew Luck
Stanford's Andrew Luck is expected to be the No. 1 NFL pick in April, but will he be the best QB on the field Saturday?
Ted Miller: Well, Luck is Luck, considered by many to be the best quarterback prospect in a decade. He’s the total package and almost certain top pick in the NFL draft this spring. More than a few folks believe, however, that Foles, if he turns in a good season, also could find his way into the first round of the NFL draft. He’s a big guy with a good arm and is very accurate. Further, as a third-year starter, he’s experienced. He’s not going to get surprised. And he will tax the Stanford pass defense, particularly if he gets receiver Juron Criner back. My guess is Luck will look longingly at Foles’ receivers.

The problem for Foles and Arizona, though, is five new offensive line starters. They’ve done OK pass blocking, but the Wildcats run game has been mostly nonexistent. Seems like the Stanford front seven has been stout thus far. We knew the linebackers would be good. Tell me about the defensive line.

Kevin Gemmell: You're right about the linebackers. They are good. And a significant reason they are good is because of that defensive line. As you know, linebackers rule in the 3-4 scheme, and the boys up front are there to occupy the blockers. But here's the catch. They are doing more than that. Matt Masifilo, Terrence Stephens and Ben Gardner have also been making tackles and getting to the quarterback. Those three have combined for 13 tackles, five tackles for losses of 25 yards, two sacks, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup in the first two games. First they occupy the block, then they shed it just as quickly. Where the Stanford defense has had some problems through the first couple of weeks has been in the secondary. It hasn't really been "burned" by any big plays, but the defenders have missed tackles which have led to a few big plays. They have created the big play on their own. Never a good thing. San Jose State and Duke completed 62 percent of their passes against the Cardinal. Not great numbers, but better than you'd expect from a couple of lower-tier teams. What's going to happen when an accurate passer like Foles gets in there?

Ted Miller: Well, the Stanford secondary then is going to need to buckle up because while there’s talk of trying for some balance in Tucson, it’s really going to be about Foles and the passing game. Of course, as good as Foles is and as deep as the Wildcats receivers are, the offense is not the same without Criner, who it’s fair to say is questionable after having an appendectomy last week. With Criner, Foles has a big target who’s a deep threat and has a knack for making big plays. Without him, the passing attack lacks that obvious go-to target. That Cardinal secondary, which only lost cornerback Richard Sherman from 2010, did a good job against Foles last year, holding him to 248 yards passing -- 5.2 yards per completion -- with a touchdown and an interception from Sherman. Foles has to win that battle, though, for the Wildcats to have a chance for the upset. He’ll need another 400-yard passing game.

Nick Foles
Arizona quarterback Nick Foles will have to be on his game for the Wildcats to upset Stanford.
What about the other side of the ball? While Luck is back and looking good, despite losing his top-two receivers from 2010, how has the personality of the offense changed after the departure of coach Jim Harbaugh and some key players? Arizona coach Mike Stoops said the Cardinal had been “vanilla” in the first two games. Are we going to see some new things this weekend?

Kevin Gemmell: The personality is a lot like David Shaw. Balanced. You haven't seen "Heisman-esque" numbers out of Luck, because he doesn't play in a five-wide spread offense. They want to establish the run, be physical, and then pick their moments to take the shots down the field. The running game has been hit-and-miss to this point. But that's to be expected with three new starters on the offensive line. Some readers have commented to me that they think Stanford has lost its "swagger" sans Harbaugh. I couldn't disagree more. There is plenty of swagger to go around, and 101 points in two games to back that up.

Shaw heard the "vanilla" comment, and he called it a fair assessment. But so far we've seen a flea-flicker and a nifty little shovel pass. Not entirely vanilla. There's nothing wrong with showing other teams on film that you have those clubs in your bag. And they've also shown a lot of their three tight-end formations. Talk about mismatch issues! Stanford has three tight ends -- two of them 6-foot-6 and another at 6-8 -- who would create matchup problems for any defense in this country. Those tight ends have more than made up for the missing wide receivers from last season. And speaking of the receivers, even though Chris Owusu hasn't had that "big play," he is coming off a 100-yard receiving game against Duke, and Griff Whalen has proven to be a nice presence underneath.

Let's call it vanilla with sprinkles, cookie dough and a drizzle of caramel sauce.

OK, Ted. Prediction time. You're the Pac-12 veteran. How do you see this one playing out?

Ted Miller: It would be a lot easier, Kevin, if we knew if Criner was going to play. My hunch is no. But I still wouldn’t pick the Wildcats in this one because they lack a running game to help Foles, and the young offensive line is going to struggle with the Cardinal front seven. Still, Arizona plays better in front of the ‘Zona Zoo, one of the best home crowds in the Pac-12. My pick is a competitive 35-24 victory for Stanford, with the Cardinal asserting itself in the fourth quarter.

What’s your take?

Kevin Gemmell: Truly, great minds think alike. I had Stanford pegged at 35-24 in my Thursday prediction. I'm looking for a lot more running out the of the Cardinal than people are probably expecting in a game with two marquee quarterbacks. I think the Cardinal are a little tired of hearing the folks say they haven't played anyone yet. Not that Arizona is Alabama or Oklahoma -- but a win against an above average Pac-12 team on the road would go a long way toward silencing some of their critics. Foles is going to get his stats, but Stanford will get the win.