ny disappointment Stanford fans felt after the Card’s unimpressive Week 1 victory over San Jose State pales in comparison to the huge letdown experienced by the Duke faithful after the Blue Devils’ season opener. For the third time in 6 games, Duke fell to Richmond. Add in that the game took place on Duke’s campus in Wallace Wade Stadium and that Duke only put 21 points on the board against an FCS opponent in what was supposed to be Duke’s best football season in years and a 57-3 victory in Stanford Stadium starts looking a lot better.
That’s not to say that Stanford and Duke ought to be considered analogous football entities. While Duke notched a total of 3 wins last year and 1 in the ACC, Stanford dropped just one contest–to the eventual national runner-up–and won the first BCS bowl game in program history. So although a television production team would have no problem writing up a flashy introduction video playing up the similarities between Durham and the Farm (i.e. excellent academic schools with unusually successful athletics programs that are situated on virtually identical North-South coordinates on separate coasts) it’s best not to get too carried away with the similarities. Strange as it might seem to Stanford fans who’ve braved years of mediocrity with the Card, Saturday’s match-up pits a national power against a team in the midst of a dramatic rebuilding process.
In order for Stanford to lose, the Card would have to play well below their potential–or just play down to the level of a struggling Blue Devil team. If Stanford unravels, an ineffective run game will likely be the first symptom of difficulty; Stanford averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in Week 1 against San Jose State and top two backs Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson averaged 2.9 yards per carry in their 26 attempts.
Another week has given the offensive line additional time to practice together and a game of experience upon which to improve. Fortunately for Stanford, the Duke defensive line isn’t exactly striking fear into the hearts of opponents. As Duke expert Tom Gieryn pointed out yesterday on the site, the Blue Devil defensive line doesn’t have the size to match up with elite offensive lines. Although the Stanford o-line is one of the team’s biggest concerns, it still features potential All-Americans David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin and should be able to have its way with Duke’s front four.
The rest of the Duke defense falls into the new 4-2-5 scheme, which remains something of an unknown. Nothing Richmond did on offense will go down as particularly impressive: 23 points on 288 total yards (193 passing, 95 rushing), 13 first downs and a 40% third-down conversion rate. But Duke’s defensive statistics are no better. The Blue Devils never sacked Richmond quarterback Aaron Corp, forced only 1 turnover (an interception) and recorded 3 tackles for a loss, which cumulatively pushed Richmond back 5 yards. A similar defensive performance on Saturday will spell a lopsided defeat for Duke.
On the other side of the ball, expect Stanford to shut down most productive drives when Duke has the ball. Junior quarterback Sean Renfree has talent and was a fairly sought-after recruit coming out of Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale in 2008 (he received a scholarship offer from Jim Harbaugh as well as Nebraska, Arizona State, Georgia Tech and other power programs). His collegiate career thus far has been solid but not spectacular; he’s thrown 18 touchdowns to 19 interceptions while completing about 63% of his passing attempts. He now has a full season as the starter under his belt and excellent targets on his side. Top upperclassmen wide receivers Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner led the team in receiving last year, and are on pace to do so again. Renfree’s junior year should be his best yet.
This game, though, likely will not be his best 60 minutes. With linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas likely on the hunt for the quarterback many times over the course of the afternoon, Renfree should be sacked several times and pressured many times more. Last week Stanford showed off a highly opportunistic defense that transformed SJSU mistakes and turnovers into points. Duke should put up a stronger fight than the Spartans did, but the Cardinal defense should have another excellent outing. With pressure coming from the Stephens-Gardner-Masifilo front three and a typically outstanding day from the linebacking corps, Renfree likely will not get many chances to test the young Stanford secondary.
For the second straight week, the key for Stanford will be working out kinks and staying healthy. Barring incredible misfortune or a substantially subpar performance from the Card, Duke won’t come close to winning. The priority for Stanford, then, becomes balancing giving starters enough time to click and stay fresh with making sure they don’t limp off the field. The game could also give true freshmen like linebacker James Vaughters and wide receiver Ty Montgomery another chance to get significant game experience without forcing them into crucial win-loss situations.
Verdict: Stanford beats Duke, 45-10
HOW TO FOLLOW THE GAME
12:30 pm PST, Saturday, September 10
Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, North Carolina
Live: Tickets at TiqIq
TV: ESPN U
Radio: KZSU (90.1 FM or streaming online); KNBR (1050 AM)