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Leland Stanford Junior University Defensive Preview

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A bonus analysis because it’s the Big Game.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 Cal at Stanford
Stanford players warming up before the Big Game.
Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” ―Obi-Wan Kenobi, describing to Luke Skywalker what it was like to play at Stanford.


Be sure to check out the Offensive Preview here.

Introduction

David Shaw has built the Stanford football program around the concept of what he calls, “Intellectual Brutality.” The idea is being savagely physical or “brutal” on the football field, but they add the word “intellectual” so that you know that they’re, like, totally in control of this “brutality.” In this article, we’re going to take a look at just how physical this Stanford defense can be.

TIME TO HIT THE BOOKS FOR SOME INTELLECTUAL BRUTALITY™

It’s tough psychologically maintaining such a high level of Intellectual Brutality™, and so you tend to see Stanfurdians unwind in a lovably eccentric and totally not obnoxious manner. This is best epitomized by the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSDUMB):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Utah at Stanford
They only look like this when they’re not BRUTALIZING THE BOOKS.
Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I don’t have time to document all of the totally hilarious and not at all stupid shenanigans of the band, but I can give a few examples. The Stanford band was banned from Iowa for some sort of botched “FarmersOnly” joke about Iowa in the 2016 Rose Bowl, banned from Oregon for some sort of pot/endangered owl joke, and banned from Notre Dame (twice) for conducting the band with a cross while dressed as a nun and some sort of hare-brained drunk Irish/potato famine skit. The Stanford band is resoundingly booed and banned pretty much everywhere they go, but to be fair, you need to have a really high IQ to understand the Stanford band. The humor is extremely subtle and without a solid grasp of existential nihilism most of the jokes will go over a typical viewer’s head.

It’s not just the Stanford band that’s affably quirky: check out these zaaaaaany fans:

Way to subvert your own gag, you anachronistic coot.

We can see here the Stanford fans hearken back to the glory years of Stanford, a time when this upstart junior university was well-respected academically across the globe. Just kidding, that last part never happened. They’re probably just nostalgic for the years before women could vote.

[Side note: I actually wrote that joke before I researched what era they were attempting to emulate. I figured I should check before some snot-nosed Stanford brat wrote in the comments about how I was wrong because this pennant was from 1922 or something. I’m no scholar of Stanford History nor would I ever care to be, but as best as I can tell, the pennant design he copied is this one from 1910. At least there isn’t some awful Native American caricature on it.]

Anyway, on to football. The Cardinal rank in the bottom quarter of the Pac-12 in most defensive statistics (typically between 7th and 9th in most stats, e.g. #8 in sacks, #8 in interceptions, #10 in fumble recoveries, #10 in tackles for loss, etc). Stanford has the 9th ranked passing defense and 7th ranked rushing defense in the Pac-12. Let’s take a more in-depth look at the defensive units.

Defensive Line

Stanford runs a 3-4 defense, and the defensive line is book-ended by a pair of solid defensive ends in Jovan Swann and Thomas Booker. Booker has the most sacks (4.0) and tackles for loss (7.5) of any player on the defensive line, which means they’re not really a Utah-like team that’s going to force the quarterback to get the ball out early.

What the defensive line does have, though, is a high Stanford IQ, which means they have great quickness and anticipation skills. Take this play, for instance, where DT Dalyn Wade-Perry’s reaction time is so quick that he actually knows the ball is about to be snapped before the center even moves it:

DT Dalyn Wade-Perry jumps offsides.

What the defensive line does do well, though, is occupy blockers and open gaps for delayed blitzes or stunts, typically by outside linebacker Casey Toohill.

Linebackers

Casey Toohill is Stanford’s best pass rusher, and the team leader in sacks (7.0, 3rd in the Pac-12) and TFLs (9.5). He’s also the only player on the defense with a shot at the NFL outside of CB Paulson Adebo.

LB Casey Poohill limps off the field after first assaulting a quarterback, and then assaulting his pants.
LB Casey Poohill limps off the field after first assaulting a quarterback, and then assaulting his pants.

Most of the pressure generated on the quarterback comes from the linebacker position (the other starting outside linebacker, Gabe Reid, is third on the team with 2.0 sacks). Like Cal, Stanford likes to funnel runs to the inside linebackers, and so the team’s leading tacklers are ILB Andrew Pryts (57 tackles) and ILB Curtis Robinson (52 tackles). Of course, this pales in comparison to Cal’s inside linebackers, ILB Evan Weaver (150 tackles) and ILB Kuony Deng (100 tackles). This is likely because Cal players take illegal performance-enhancing Intellectual Brutality™ supplements, such as reading books and going to class.

Let’s watch as LB Andrew Pryts defeats a block by the Colorado running back Alex Fontenot. This is just smart football: the best way to defeat a block is to wait until the play is blown dead, because that’s when the other player least expects you to try and beat his block.

LB Andrew Pryts kicks RB Alex Fontenot when he’s down, long after the play is over. “What do you mean you’re not allowed to do that?”

If you study the play, you can see that they practice their football fundamentals at Stanford; that was just a flawless kick, so Pryts’ confusion is understandable when the ref rushes over to criticize Pryts’ kicking technique. Don’t worry about the flag though, it was for a false start on Colorado. It’s not a penalty to kick a player when he’s down if you don’t know it’s illegal to kick a player when he’s down— I believe this is referred to in learned circles as, “The Trump Jr. Legal Defense.”

Defensive Backs

One of the reasons that Stanford is content with not rushing the quarterback too much is that they have have some very solid defensive backs on the team, most notable their two lengthy/rangy cornerbacks, redshirt sophomore Paulson Adebo and true freshman Kyu Blu Kelly.

[Author’s note: Paulson Adebo missed the Washington State game with an injury, and it seems unlikely that Paulson Adebo will return for the Big Game— Shaw has ruled him out in the press conference shortly before this article was submitted. As a surefire future NFL player, Adebo is the defensive player that I have been watching the most closely throughout the year. As a likely first round draft pick eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft, Coach Shaw thinks there is “no chance” Adebo doesn’t declare. We have seen in recent years that top draft picks, like Nick Bosa, are reluctant to risk injury in college games once their high draft status is assured.]

Paulson Adebo is tied for first in the Pac-12 with 4 interceptions, and he’s known for his aggressive style of play, which is very reminiscent of NFL CB Marcus Peters. It’s always a gamble to leave your man to try and jump a route and go for an interception, because if you miss (guess the wrong route, make a poor play on the ball, etc), you’re giving up a big play.

But this is Stanford we’re talking about, of course we’ve done our homework here. Wait a minute, what do you mean we’re going to be tested on the material? What do you mean this was on the course syllabus at the start of the year and that I received daily reminders from my professor, assistants, private tutors, and personal handmaidens?

CB Paulson Adebo too aggressive, falls for the double move.

Alright well, anyone can get lucky once. Good luck pulling a fast one on Stanford again.

CB Paulson Adebo too aggressive, falls for double move again.

It’s inevitable that receivers will sometimes make catches, so it’s also important for members of the secondary to be able to wrap up and tackle, or at the very least, land a big punishing blow on the ball carrier. Let’s watch as Adebo lays the lumber against Big Ten bottom-feeder Northwestern, who is currently tied for last place in the Big Ten with Rutgers:

CB Paulson Adebo gets trucked, followed by S Kendall Williamson.

We can also watch as Adebo shows off his stellar tackling form:

CB Paulson Adebo whiffs on a tackle.
CB Paulson Adebo whiffs on a tackle.
CB Paulson Adebo whiffs on a tackle again.

Next to Adebo is the most experienced member of the Stanford secondary, free safety Malik Antoine. Antoine is known for his ability to blanket a receiver, assuming you’re talking about the kind of blanket that falls off the bed and onto the ground in the middle of the night:

S Malik Antoine burned on simple go route.
S Malik Antoine burned on simple go route.

On the other side of the field is the strong safety, Kendall Williamson. Watch as he correctly diagnoses the play and almost prevents the touchdown here. Wow, that was close!

QB Justin Herbert fakes the wide receiver screen to hit TE Jacob Breeland in the end zone for the touchdown.
QB Justin Herbert fakes the wide receiver screen to hit TE Jacob Breeland in the end zone for the touchdown.

Here’s the exact same play later in the same game.

Play fake on the fake WR screen. Busted coverage.
Play fake on the fake WR screen. Busted coverage.

As you can see, this time all three defenders fell for the fake screen pass. As they say at Stanford, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on you again, because *I* go to Stanford and my butler, parents, and lawyers will be hearing about this. Shame. Shame on you.”

With a recent injury to Malik Antoine, safety Stuart Head has seen a lot more playing time in recent weeks. Stuart “Really knows how to use his” Head has a natural instinct for the ball. Watch as he correctly reads this critical 4th and 1 play with the game on the line:

S Stuart Head in the perfect position to stop a critical run by WR Laviska Shenault.

Okay, so we know the individual players are talented, but how well does the secondary function as a unit? It’s important that defensive backs communicate with each other and know who is responsible for who, that they correctly pass off assignments in zone coverage, and so on.

Busted coverage.
Busted coverage.

At a certain point, it’s not even funny watching these clips any more. I’ve run out of ways to poke fun at all this awful play.

In David Shaw’s latest press conference before this article was submitted, CB Paulson Adebo and S Malik Antoine were ruled out for the Big Game, and CB Obi Eboh left the Wazzu game with an injury and is currently questionable (I was impressed by the play of Obi Eboh in the Stanford Spring Game prior to the season, although he ultimately lost the starting role opposite of Adebo to the freshman Kyu Blu Kelly, who is a very solid albeit inexperienced young corner). This ultimately means that Stanford’s secondary is currently in shambles. There’s the freshman CB Kyu Blu Kelly, and if Obi Eboh is hurt, some unknown freshman corner (Zahran Manley?) will be starting opposite of him. The safeties Kendall Williamson and Stuart Head are young, inexperienced, and questionable at best. The safeties are backed up by even less experienced players: freshman Jonathan McGill (whose only notably play was in the Wazzu game where he hit Max Borghi on a late hit way out of bounds, likely too hyped for his first meaningful college playing time) and senior J.J. Parson (who you can see in the previous busted coverage clip making the tackle).

Conclusion

Just the facts here. Stanford has the 11th ranked offense in the Pac-12, averaging just 21.6 points per game, just 2.7 points more than whatever sad sack offense is ranked last in the Pac-12. Against common opponents (Washington, USC, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State), Stanford averages just 1.6 points per game more than Cal’s offense. However, Stanford’s defense is significantly worse than Cal’s, as Stanford ranks 8th in total defense in the Pac-12, and looks to do even worse given their recent string of defensive injuries. Stanford’s pass defense and run defense are roughly equal, but their pass defense will likely be worse given the aforementioned string of injuries to the secondary. The Cal defense will likely look much more poised than their Stanford counterparts, and the Cal offense will be facing a defense that just barely edges out Washington State’s defense statistically. Stoppable force, meet movable object. It’s a rivalry game, and anything can happen, but Stanford hasn’t been this beatable since 2008.

GO BEARS!