After last night’s smack down of No. 24 Stanford, you might be asking yourself a question like, “Who are those guys in the Cardinal and Gold? They can’t be the same team from last week we saw against Fresno State, can they?” Well, newsflash, same guys, different outcome on both defense and offense. Special teams were a mixed bag with a fumble lost and inconsistent coverage, but a crucial deflected Stanford field goal attempt.
So, what changed? Like you, I watched a young freshman QB who, just six months ago got to attend his high school prom, dismantle a pretty good but ultimately over-matched Stanford defense. The positive impact that performance had on the entire team and this game was jaw-dropping. The impact on the season remains to be seen but my Hope-O-Meter is starting to twitch a bit. Shutting out Stanford in the second half was impressive and not easily done.
So, let’s talk about the defense…
- Our base defense was our 4-2-5 but with lots of variations and multiple pressure packages. We did adjust our 3-tech DT inside shade of the guard to get better control of the A-gap.
- Defensive adjustments were needed as Stanford started the game doing what they are so good at: ball control, smash mouth and play action passing game with slip screens and uber-tall and talented tight ends. What Clancy did was a bit subtle at first by bringing down one safety with a run responsibility. This created single high safety with a nickel back and two corners in man. The TV analyst said this was a cover 3 but it really isn’t a pure cover 3 (or thirds) as the assignments are different. Regardless, the improvement in run support was necessary especially on first downs against a backup Stanford QB.
- Our run defense against Stanford’s 13 Jumbo package (three tight ends and one running back) improved after the first quarter. This was critical since Stanford built a 14-3 lead and things were looking bleak, especially after the kickoff return fumble by Velus Jones. Pendergast moved Talanoa Hufanga down near the box area giving the safety a run support or pass coverage option. Hufanga ended up with 10 tackles including a TFL. Nice job and a marked improvement over last week.
- Speaking of improvement, Palaie Gaoteote (EA) made his presence felt this week. While improved, he has much to learn about not getting caught up inside. He added physical force and pursuit to the defense, unlike last week. Overall linebacker play was net ok…just ok.
- Secondary play was markedly improved over last week. Olaijah Griffin had an excellent game and I enjoyed his high-rev engine and tough play. Man cover is a tough assignment with nowhere to hide but his PBUs (4) were timely and critical. Nickel play was mixed with some blown coverages but also a magnificent interception by Greg Johnson. Chase Williams seems to be a better cover nickel back. As I’ve said before, the nickel position is the toughest position on the field to recognize the offense and react properly.
- The D-line was pretty good. Jay Tufele had a good game with a pretty nice upfield push, middle screen recognition and one sack. I thought that Marlon Tuipulotu had the best performance. There were no twists along the line of scrimmage, but Clancy attacked the LOS with slants and safety or linebacker blitzes. Stopping the run on first down was crucial for this defense. Rector played a more complete game and Jackson continues to improve and is a force.
- I liked the defensive rotation and we saw real playing time for many players including: Kana’i Mauga, Connor Murphy, Hunter Echols, Juliano Falaniko, and Caleb Tremblay. This rotation allowed for better line pressure later in the game. We are going to need this level of rotation and support.
- Fourth down defense was 100% with Stanford not producing a single 4th down conversion (0-2). Pretty ironic given the bulldozer nature of their O-line and tendencies.
- Closely related to above #7, our RedZone defense was good holding Stanford to 4 out of 5 (not great), but only two touchdowns, both in the first half.
- Team energy level was really excellent. The team had fun! And why not?
What Didn’t Work:
- Third down conversions were still not well controlled with 4 of 11. A couple of bad throws really helped us here otherwise the game would have been much closer.
- Eight penalties leading to six Stanford first downs is clearly unacceptable. Most of these penalties were on the defense and were major penalties. Hands to the helmet is a tough call when a big tackle or tight end is standing you up, but you have to be careful and let go of the blocker especially when you’re on the perimeter of the LOS.
- Punting is still pretty darn curious. 51 yarder and a 33 yarder. Improved I guess but not the consistent field flip I was hoping for.
- Defensive line pressure was anemic early and required additional personnel to get under control.
Overall, this game may well prove to be a watershed event. I was really thrilled with the second quarter on. Stanford is a tough opponent and we out hit them, out-quicked them and our offense dropped a hammer on them. They’ll remember this trip to LA.
A serious shout out to Clay Helton and Graham Harrell regarding the Slovis decision as backup QB. I was a doubter…no longer. He is something else and the perfect tonic this team and program needed.