The past few years you knew what you were going to get with Stanford’s defense. Coordinated by Derek Mason and passed along to Lance Anderson, the Cardinal built one of the most rugged front sevens in the country, capable of dominating at the point of attack in a multiple, 3-4 system.
The Cardinal were one of the toughest statistical defenses in the country, dominant at the point of attack and constantly near the top of the statistical heap in tackles for loss nationally. Since 2011, Stanford hasn’t finished out of the Top 30 in TFLs. In 2012, they led the country. In 2013 they were No. 5. Last season—even during an off year where they finished 8-5—the Cardinal were No. 17.
That dominance was expected to change in 2015. Gone were pillars like Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Henry Anderson and Chase Thomas. Nine new starters were being asked to fill holes by Nelson and head coach David Shaw.
But the Cardinal are doing it. They’re allowing just 22 points a game. They’re playing excellent run defense, holding opponents to just over 130 yards per game and slightly more than 4.1 yards per carry. But Stanford has also morphed from the team that consistently terrorized opponents behind the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal are a very ordinary No. 76 in the country when it comes to TFLs, with personnel no longer capable of dominating both on the edge and in the trenches.
So the Cardinal have adapted. They’ve patched holes, utilizing graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett at defensive end while calling on a reserve outside linebacker like Mike Tyler for a pass rush. As we saw last weekend against Cal, Stanford has been willing to concede yardage to eliminate the big play— something Notre Dame fans wish Brian VanGorder and company would consider.
Shaw talked about the evolution of his unit, in light of their performance against Cal. The Bears gained 495 yards last weekend, converted 10 of 18 third downs, dominated the time of possession battle and didn’t turn the football over yet still lost by two touchdowns.
Why? Because Stanford got tough in the red zone. Cal scored just one touchdown in five red zone attempts, with Stanford’s defense stiffening when it needed to do so. And while it went against everything in the Cardinal’s defensive DNA, Shaw talked about the changes made and how they helped Stanford win their rivalry game.
“I hate the phrase ‘bend but don’t break’ because it sounds very passive. We’re not a passive football team,” Shaw said on Sunday. “But we want to keep the ball in front of us and not give up the touchdown passes. By trying to keep the ball in front of us and get them to 3rd-and-6 in the red zone, get them to 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. And not give up the touchdown to make them check the ball down and make them kick field goals.”
With Notre Dame’s red zone offense spurting the past two weeks as DeShone Kizer‘s decision-making has gone sideways, the Irish’s big play offense will be facing a defense that’s now set up to not allow touchdowns. Can the Irish find the solution like they did against Pitt? Or will they implode like this did last weekend against the Eagles? That answer will likely dictate who goes home a winner.
Saturday’s battle in the trenches won’t be the uphill fight that it was the past four years. But Stanford’s schematic change feels like a tweak almost made because of, well—logic.
“It’s math,” Shaw offered. “If we can go down and score touchdowns and make them kick field goals, eventually, we’re going to win.”