tanford begins its Pac-12 season with what could be one of the Card’s toughest conference opponents. Arizona has a record-breaking quarterback (Nick Foles), a big home field advantage (at Tucson’s Arizona Stadium) and frustrated players (following the team’s 37-14 loss at Oklahoma State last week). It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Foles gets hot, Stanford’s early-season hiccups continue and Saturday night’s nationally-televised game stays close until the very end.
Then again, the opposite isn’t hard to dream up, either. Stanford could tighten up its gameplan, snap into another gear and blow out the still-discombobulated Wildcats. The Card could have another week of superior run defense against an Arizona team that has struggled to gain yardage on the ground, forcing Foles to throw into double coverage and rack up a couple of picks by the final whistle. Stanford won’t get another 57-3 victory this week, but does 45-14 sound ridiculous?
With Foles and Andrew Luck sharing the field in Tucson on Saturday night, this game will feature one of the best quarterback combinations in the Pac-12 all season. Everyone who pays even the slightest attention to college football knows the lowdown on Luck, but Foles remains somewhat underrated. The senior and former Michigan State Spartan will likely leave college having set several school passing records–including career yards and career touchdowns–in head coach Mike Stoops’s quarterback-friendly scheme. The coach has told local media that he could give Foles the OK to throw as many as 50 times per game this season, and the 6′ 5″ Texan has thrown 93 times in the season’s first two weeks. (By comparison, Luck has thrown 54 times in 2011.) If Foles continues his current pace of 305 passing yards per game, he will have no problem breaking the UA career passing record.
But as is often true of teams that air it out as often as Arizona does, there’s a major problem in the Wildcat offense that the passing game has to hide. UA has been almost entirely incapable of running the ball. While the passing attack has staked an early position in the nation’s top 5, the run game has netted only 58 yards per game in 2011, making it one of the worst in America. Top running back Keola Antolin has received 19 total carries on the year and is good for just 3.3 yards per attempt. As Alex Williams mentioned in this week’s Campus Questions, true freshman and Tucson native Ka’Deem Carey has showed promise by taking 15 carries for 15 more yards than Antolin has produced in his 19 attempts. Foles in no threat to run, and only one other Wildcat–h-back/fullback Taimi Tutogi–has carried the ball this year for Arizona. Considering the exceptional talent in the Stanford linebacking corps and the job the defensive line has done so far in stopping the run, Arizona won’t and shouldn’t be looking for much production by handing the ball off.
That means that Stanford can bring all kinds of blitzes at Arizona and hope to get Foles thinking more about getting hit than about routes and the Cardinal secondary. As Go Mighty Card’s Week 2 Progress Report points out, Stanford’s defensive backs have struggled to take advantage of no threatening run game. Stanford can hope that the secondary play will improve for this week, but sending players like linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov to sack Foles in creative pressure packages will only make the job of the cornerbacks and safeties easier. As I told Williams in the Arizona Daily Wildcat today, Stanford’s starting secondary is full of upperclassmen but the bench is about as green as it possibly could be. Against a team as pass-reliant as UA, using the linebackers to pressure Foles will be crucial to slowing the Wildcat offense.
When the Stanford offense takes on the Arizona defense, expect points to go up quickly. Oklahoma State is a top-10 team, but Arizona allowed nearly 600 yards and just under 400 yards passing last week in Stillwater. Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden completed just shy of 80% of his passes while wide receiver Justin Blackmon caught 12 balls for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The lesson here? Arizona can give up lots of yards, points and big plays. But as importantly, Stanford has a decent foil for the Weeden-Blackmon duo in Luck and Chris Owusu. No receiver in college football has Blackmon-like talent, but Luck is a better quarterback than Weeden is and Owusu can stretch the field. Like Blackmon, Owusu is his quarterback’s favorite target and can pick up lots of yardage after making a catch. Stanford is built to rely on the run game and use a successful ground offense to set up the pass; Oklahoma State goes pass-first. But with the Cardinal running game’s recent inability to establish itself like it did in 2010, the Stanford coaching staff will be looking seriously at the Oklahoma State tape for clues of how to attack Arizona. David Shaw, a wide receiver in his Stanford playing days, might be aiming to take this program in a more pass-oriented direction, and Saturday night would be his first chance to test that philosophy out against a legitimate, BCS conference team.
Shaw, his staff and Stanford fans around the country will also be looking to see improvement from the Card, which won convincingly in Weeks 1 and 2 but only agitated preseason anxieties about weakness on the offensive line, the secondary and depth at wide receiver. Arizona will not compete for the national championship or even the Pac-12 South division title this year. But the Wildcats are significantly better than both San Jose State and Duke and have the benefit of what should be a packed stadium and hot weather. If Stanford plays a half similar to the one turned in before intermission in Durham last Saturday, Arizona will have an opportunity to begin conference play with a 1-0 record.
Don’t bet on a worst case scenario, though. Stanford should roll this week and continue knocking on the door of the top 5. Barring a series of mishaps, the Card should win handily and cover the spread.
Verdict: Stanford beats Arizona, 41-20
How to Follow the Game
7:45 pm PST, Saturday, September 17
Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Arizona
Live: Tickets at TiqIq
Radio: KZSU (90.1 FM or streaming online); KNBR (1050 AM)
(Headline image courtesy of ShuttrKing|KT on Flickr)