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Golden Spotlight: Stanford Cardinal Defense & Special Teams

The Cardinal defensive success begins with nose tackle Sione Fua.
The Cardinal defensive success begins with nose tackle Sione Fua.

(For a look at Andrew Luck and the Cardinal offense, go here.)

The Cardinal defense has improved a lot from last year's abominable stretch, which cost them several victories and a chance at a Pac-10 title. Not so the case this year. Vic Fangio has come in from the NFL (somewhat like Clancy Pendergast did for the Bears) and has instilled a pretty effective system in his own version of the 3-4, placing the personnel in the right places.

This defense is holding it together with OLBs converted from defensive ends, a fullback playing two-ways, and a makeup secondary, but they've had some banner performances. They held Nick Polk and the Washington Huskies to only 19 rushing yards, Jake Locker to 88 passing yards in a 41-0 blowout in Seattle. They held Arizona to 17 points and a pedestrian 5.2 yards per play and Arizona State to only 13 points and 49 plays (the Sun Devils going only 1 for 9 on 3rd down conversions). The past three weeks, the Cardinal defense has stiffened up against credible offenses, allowing only 10 points per game.

The numbers back them up.

Any discussion of the Cardinal defense starts with Fangio

Rick Eymer of the Palo Alto Online with more.

Fangio, who spent the past 24 years coaching defense in the NFL, may not appear to be good-natured, but he's likely been called a lot worse in his day. Besides, Skov and Keiser gave him the nickname ["Lord Fangio"] with the best possible intentions in mind.

"It was almost like he's an evil genius," Skov said. "He has the maniacal voice. It seemed fitting at the time. It fits his personality with all the havoc he was wreaking during camp."

Fangio has engineered a defense that swarms to the ball, takes the game to the opponent and can be darn right nasty (in a good way) if they see a fraction of an opening.

With the 3-4, everything starts with the man in the middle. All respect to Derrick Hill, who has done his best converting from a 4-3 conventional defensive tackle and works his ass off against every center in the league, but the most physically talented nose tackle in the conference is Sione Fua, who has helped the Cardinal become respectable against the run with his size and motor. Fua occupies space, holds his gap well, and allows the inside linebackers to filter in and stuff the run game. Chris Guarnero is going to need a lot of help in guarding Fua, who has at least 30 pounds on him.

Defensive end Matt Masofilo has also provided some good edge pressure this season, which could cause problems depending on who he lines up against (I think it's Schwartz, not Edwards, but I'm not sure), but Fua is the key to stopping Shane Vereen and the Cal rush attack.

Stanford Fooball : 11/2/2010 : Weekly Interview with Sione Fua (via stanfordathletics)

The second most important position (actually, some would argue it's the first) is outside linebacker. People wonder why Cal's 3-4 has struggled to stay consistent the past two seasons; the answer is the lack of a strong weakside outside linebacker since the departure of Zack Follett to line opposite Mychal Kendricks, because it provides that extra pass-rush kick and run defense support to stuff all angles. Cal has gone to their nickel defense recently to get their best personnel on the field, which is pretty good for a team like Oregon but less so against a power team like the Furd.

No such problem at the Farm. Fangio made a bold but impressive move at converting Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser from the defensive end to the outside linebacker spots, and it's paid off huge dividends with a combined nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss to give the Cardinal the pass rush they've needed. Shayne Skov stuffs the middle with 61 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks. For all the hype Owen Marecic gets for playing both ways, he's unsurprisingly the weakest of the linebacking corps--serviceable, but really plugged in here because the Cardinal have no one else.

Here's more on Thomas and on Skov:

C. Thomas: When he arrived on the Farm in the summer of 2008, Thomas weighed just 199 pounds. Last year he was up to 230 and this year to 239, still light but very quick afoot. Since eighth grade, he has done grueling offseason workouts with noted Atlanta trainer Tony Villani, alongside a host of NFL players like the Steelers' Hines Ward and the 49ers' Takeo Spikes.

According to Tom Thomas, wrestling gave his son many of the moves that have enabled him to shoot past blockers.

"He's lethal with his hands," linebacker Shayne Skov said. "I heard stories about when he was 210 (as a freshman) and was embarrassing our starting tackles. He's always got something up his sleeve. He'll find a way to get a sack."


Skov: Skov is at his best when he's on the move, be it blitzing or roaming sideline to sideline. Stanford converted to a 3-4 defensive alignment this year under Fangio and Skov has flourished as an inside backer.

"I love Fangio's system," Skov said. "It's aggressive. He's a genius the way he schemes things up. I'm trying to soak in everything I can while I'm here with him. He has a lot of expertise, and I'm trying to learn from him."

That leaves the secondary, which is still up and down.Richard Sherman is their best cover corner, Delano Howell provides the hard-hitting safety moniker, and Michael Thomas, Taylor Skaufel and Johnson Bademosi all support the front seven well (they're the third thru seventh leading tacklers on the team). They got torched by the Cougars and Trojans but shut down the Huskies, Wildcats and the Sun Devils.

First, it went into Seattle and forced Locker, once a potential first-overall pick in the NFL Draft whose value was upwards of $50 million, into a 7-14 passing performance for just 64 yards and two interceptions. It held Husky receiver Jermaine Kearse, who came into the game with 10 touchdowns on the year, to just four receptions for 53 yards. Although the defensive line deserves credit for making the quarterback literally run for his life, Stanford’s secondary blanketed the UW receivers and elicited one of the worst performances of Locker’s career.

Then Arizona, a top-15 team with a top-10 defense and a potent passing attack, came into town looking to make a statement and vault itself into BCS contention. Foles, who many pegged during the preseason as a better quarterback than Andrew Luck, was expected to pick the secondary apart. We thought the damage was inevitable, the question was just how severe.

Foles threw 20 incompletions, one interception and was held to just 248 yards. This same guy annihilated Oregon State to the tune of 440 yards and three touchdowns. Suffice it to say, the Stanford secondary was up to the task.

So they're coming into the Big Game on a hot streak. Thanks to the improved play of the front seven, they haven't been as atrocious as last season, but they're not exactly a reliable commodity depending on the quarterback. However, they might not get challenged much by Brock Mansion this week; considering how anemic Cal's offense has been since Kevin Riley has gone down, this could be the perfect game for them to unload. The Cardinal have been known to give receivers plenty of cushion to prevent the deep ball and work on blanketing the intermediate routes. Will they do similar things on Saturday?

Oregon State Special Teams