With two weeks of college football now complete and the air beginning to collect an autumn crispness, Stanford stands exactly where all but the most radical of football observers guessed the Card would be: 2-0, with the non-conference schedule now on hold until Notre Dame comes into town on November 26. No one expected Stanford to lose either of its first two games this year, but few people expected some of the troubles the team has encountered against the least intimidating pair of games on the 2011 schedule.
Unlike Week 1 at home against San Jose State, Week 2 posed the legitimate possibility of a loss for Stanford, even though that possibility only lasted from roughly midway through the second quarter to a few minutes after play resumed in the second half. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe’s decision to attempt a disguised onside kickoff in the closing minutes of the second quarter didn’t produce any points for the Blue Devils, but did come on the heels of a pick-6 that invigorated Duke and the crowd while drawing the underdog to within 3 points of Stanford. When Duke came down with the kick with a chance to score and head into halftime with a lead over the 20.5-point favorite, the team had justified the previously irrational hope that they could knock off Stanford. Ask Appalachian State, James Madison or now even Sacramento State about how important chutzpah is in beating a better team. Furthermore, that the momentum catalyst was an onside kick will only reopen Cardinal Nation’s scars from last season’s Oregon game.
The Stanford diagnosis begins with the offensive line, which could not stop Duke from getting to Andrew Luck consistently and hitting him on numerous first-half passing attempts. Between the unfamiliar pressure (Luck was sacked a total of 6 times in 2010 and 2 times in Durham on Saturday) and an offense that is still working its way toward midseason rhythm, the Card’s attack slowed and was forced to punt twice before halftime. Duke deserves credit for using a new 4-2-5 defensive scheme effectively enough to get into the Stanford backfield and play a surprisingly effective first half. But the offensive line is now a problem in consecutive weeks, and not just any consecutive weeks: the two games in which Stanford faces the worst pass rushes and overall defenses it will see all year.
It’s not panic time quite yet–replacing 3 starters along the offensive line takes time regardless of the incoming talent–but a similarly unimpressive performance against Arizona in Tucson could lead to a loss. Lest we forget, the blocking schemes and overall gameplans ought to get more aggressive and plain old interesting as the year progresses, and more intricate assignments could help the offensive line do better in the pass and run blocking.
There’s no reason to worry about Andrew Luck–who tied Jim Plunkett for the second-most wins in school history and tied his own career record with 4 touchdowns in the game–or the running backs or the tight ends. As usual, they have it together. So, too, does the Stanford front 7, which recorded 6 sacks and had series when Duke had no chance to run the ball or drop back to pass. The Duke drive right after the onside recovery, when the Blue Devils took 3 plays to move back 15 yards before punting back to Stanford, is an excellent example. Linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov played characteristically excellent games, but it was the collective effort of the men up front that kept Duke to fewer yards on the ground than Stanford’s third-leading rusher (Jeremy Stewart) gained for the afternoon. Even Stewart’s 33 yards bested Duke’s 30, and his 16.5 yards per carry blew Duke’s 0.9 YPC out of the (fairly empty) bowl.
There are more problems to fret about–the secondary allowed a very high 305 passing yards (more than Stanford netted) against an ACC doormat, the offense looked uncoordinated for extended stretches, the special teams play needs to improve substantially if Stanford wants to win close games–but obsession over a tune-up tilt with Duke hardly seems worthwhile, especially considering the significance of the weekend outside of football. One of sport’s best attributes is how much discussion it can inspire. But thinking too much about the games can be a curse, too, especially when the good guys win by 30 points. The brightest lesson to be learned from Saturday is that Stanford can dial up its play when the opponent shoves the Card against a wall, and David Shaw didn’t buckle under the threat of losing a game that could have severely damaged his reputation and his young head coaching career. Stanford re-grouped in the locker room and played a solid 3rd quarter that let everyone watching know that Duke had no shot to pull an upset.
Considering that, with Oregon’s loss to LSU last week, Stanford could be the favorite in every game from here on out, that’s a good skill for the team to have.