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Golden Spotlight: Andrew Luck And His Stanford Cardinal Offense

Meet the future number one draft pick.
Meet the future number one draft pick.

So you might be getting a little cocky about the Cal defense after they defanged the mighty Oregon offense. As you should. I considered what the sturdy Golden Bears D did on that side of the ball as perhaps the best performance by any unit in college football all season. While I felt we had a good chance of holding them down, I never thought they were capable of shutting them down for almost the entire game.

Unfortunately, I doubt that game will have any bearing on our next opponent. We can't really extrapolate what we did against the number one team in the country and use that as a predictor for success, because what the Ducks offense runs is so unique and separate from every other team in the Pac-10. The Ducks players are smaller and speedier, but we matched up extremely well with the 3-3-5 personnel we placed out there. We might not have the same personnel advantages against our more conventional rivals.

The Stanford Cardinal are practically on the polar opposite of the spectrum from Oregon. The Cardinal have moved away from the run-heavy attack that featured Toby Gerhart to a more balanced pro-style attack that features a lot of Andrew Luck and a very effective running game. Jim Harbaugh might be intolerable, but he does a great job at tailoring the strengths of the offense to suit the skills of his players. Right now he has the Cardinal on the verge of their best record since Clark Shaughnessy led them to an undefeated 10-0 1940.

There's a lot more USC Trojans in the Cardinal than Ducks. Do you remember what the Trojans did to our defense last month?

Cardinal passing game

Matt Barkley torched the Golden Bears defense for five first half touchdowns. He used a variety of play action rollouts, half rollouts, bubble screens, lookoffs to his second read, pump-fakes, etc. etc. When Cal dared him with man coverage, Barkley exploited the height of his receivers. When Cal switched back to zone, Barkley either looked them off and the receivers ran a little feint before getting open by moving in the opposite direction. Barkley also rolled out and moved the pocket to find an open receiver in the zones. Just as key to that was the pass protection Barkley received from his offensive linemen, who kept him upright for most of the game.

This season, Andrew Luck is clearly better than Barkley, and he does almost all those things better.

Stanford Football : Andrew Luck #12 : 2010 Heisman Trophy Candidate (via stanfordathletics)

It disgusts me that the best quarterback in the Bay Area is residing in that half-empty stadium in the Farm, showing once again the sheer randomness of finding a stud quarterback (NO ONE in the national circles knew Luck would be THIS good this early coming out of college, take a look at the list of schools that offered him!). Luck showed flashes of brilliance last season (particularly in the demolition of USC), but this season he's been virtually unstoppable.

As you can see from the video above, Luck can hit his first read pretty quickly, and if he's well-covered he can move onto the second or third read. Sometimes he looks off his initial receiver, goes to another read, and comes back to the initial read. Stuff like that is unteachable, it's innate. Even Aaron Rodgers wasn't this skilled this early.

Luck has a decisive three step drop and quick release, and his five step drop isn't too shabby either. He throws pretty accurately from 5 to 25 yards (and he'll gladly pick a team apart if they give him that), but can throw as far as 45-50 yards on occasion, even if the accuracy drops off. Harbaugh and Kirk Herbstreit compare him to Peyton Manning; Luck has shown that he can audible at the line of scrimmage, change the play based on the coverage, tell the line where the blitz is coming from, etc. It's utterly surreal to see a quarterback be in such command of a pro-style offense at the tender age of 21.

He executes play-action well and can fake out a defense with misdirection, although a lot of that is dependent on his run game getting loose. His mechanics still need some work, but his arm strength has never been in doubt and his decision-making just continues to get better and better with each passing game. Most importantly for us, he struggled with the zone coverage that Cal threw out last year on passing downs, but he hasn't struggled with zone coverage that much this season (Hint: Expect a LOT of coverage packages). When I say this is "his offense", I mean it. The talent and ability of Luck has moved this Cardinal offensive machine to its 9-1 record.

Chris Owusu might be absent, which could limit the pass attack--the Cardinal struggled to move the ball with the playmaker out of the ASU game. However, that doesn't render them impotent, Luck's go-to receiver has been Doug Baldwin all season, and he's stepped in and filled in admirably as the number one guy. The senior has shown a great deal of versatility in running all sorts of routes. The ever dependable Ryan Whalen has also been coming on after struggling with an early-season injury, and tight end Coby Fleener also can break things open down the middle.

However, this attack becomes even more dangerous if #81 gets the start. If Owusu and Baldwin both play, they provide a deadly one-two combo of speed and skill that the Cal secondary hasn't had to deal with since they faced the talented Trojan receiving corps of Johnson, Ausberry and Woods (Whalen's dependable, just not as skilled as those two, more like a Robert Jordan type). They are guardable, but Luck's accuracy will really force them to play tightly.

If there's any weakness of Luck, it's that sometimes he tries to make TOO much happen.  We've gotten the Manning comparisons, but I see a streak of Brett Favre in him too. When the offense stops moving, he'll try and make a play, and he'll get picked off on a few occasions. Perhaps it's just his youth (it's only his second year running the offense), but he's still got some time to coach that out of him. But I guess a lot of college football programs would love that kind of trouble at quarterback (as opposed to, you know, not being able to make ANY plays).

Considering he's wrapping up his degree this spring, considering an NFL lockout is on its way, and considering what's happened to Jake Locker this season, he's probably ready to go to the pros. Is he heading that way this offseason? I know I wouldn't be sad to see him go.

Cardinal offensive line and run attack

The Cal rotating defensive line had a strong game last week, but they'll probably need to be even better against the beef up front by the men in red and white. The Ducks offensive linemen, while athletic, are pretty small and can be exploited by physical defensive play. Just take a look at the size comparisons.

Oregon starting linemen:  69 Bo Thran | 6-5, 295, Sr.; 3V, 68 C.E. Kaiser | 6-4, 290, Sr., 3V; 77 Carson York | 6-5, 285, So., RS;  79 Mark Asper | 6-7, 323, Jr.; 3V, 54 Jordan Holmes | 6-5, 285, Sr., 3V

Furd starting linemen: 55 Jonathan Martin | 6-6, 304, So., 1V; 53 Derek Hall | 6-5, 303, Sr., 2V;  71 Andrew Phillips | 6-5, 302, Sr., 3V; 52 David DeCastro | 6-5, 310, So., 1V; 72 Chase Beeler | 6-3, 285, Sr., 3V

While no offensive line will be as good as USC's (which manhandled Cal's front), the Cardinal should provide a vastly similar challenge in terms of their bruising power ability. Add in the extra lineman that the Furd always likes to bring in on blocking plays, and a future starting fullback on Sundays in Owen Marecic, and you have a great deal of additional weight for Derrick Hill, Cameron Jordan, Ernest Owusu and Mychal Kendricks to try and slip through, and even more trouble for Mike Mohamed and D.J. Holt to contain behind them.

(Even crazier, the Furd O-line have let Luck pretty much go untouched in the pocket--he's been sacked a grand total of FOUR times this season, first in the nation. For a Cal team that has been aggressive at the line of scrimmage, rush extra players at the quarterback at your own peril.)

The Cardinal rush attack still remains deadly effective with a five-back rotation. Stepfan Taylor is the feature back, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney back him up with ample support, and Alex Loukas and Usua Amanam getting a carry or two from game-to-game. But the real star of this attack is the offensive line, and has been the last two seasons. It unleashed Gerhart to his monster 2009 campaign, and it's kept this adequate but hardly overpowering group of running backs churning out the yards and made Luck all the harder to defend. Taylor might be a pesky tailback to deal with one day, but the O-line is happy to nurture him until that day comes.

If Cal is to have any hope of stopping their rivals, they have to control the line of scrimmage and force Luck to throw third and longs. ASU proved that if you have an effective run defense that can at least stay even with the opposing O-line, you can keep the Cardinal from the short down situations with which they wear down opposing units. It'll be critical to plug up the hole the Furd tries to punch open and not let anyone (Taylor, Wilkerson, Gaffney) escape the line of scrimmage. Just as critically, an effective run game opens up play action for Luck, and we might as well pray for gale-force winds to knock the ball around, because he's not going to throw many incompletions on those plays.

In short, this Stanford Cardinal power attack is the best we'll see for quite awhile, and the similarities between this 2010 offense and our 2004 offense are a little too sickening to ignore. Let's just hope that "anything goes in a rivalry game" holds true here, because if our defense struggles to hold the line of scrimmage, it could be a very long Saturday in Strawberry Canyon.