The indelible image of Stepfan Taylor’s triumphant leap after scoring the tying touchdown in the Cardinal’s unexpected win over the USC Trojans will become an icon of the 2012 Stanford football season. The victory against USC altered the public’s perception of Stanford’s prospects. While a national ranking initially seemed like an unrealistic goal, the USC win proves the Cardinal is a serious contender.
The Andrew Luck era of Stanford football is over. Tackle Jonathan Martin, guard David DeCastro, and Luck’s favorite target, tight end Coby Fleener, are also off to the NFL. The Luck-Fleener combo continues to be as potent as ever—Fleener had 82 receiving yards for the Colts in his NFL debut against the Bears. Last year’s Fiesta Bowl runner-up showcased 11 players now on NFL game day or practice rosters, bolstering an astounding 28 professionals who played for the Cardinal.
Regardless, Stanford continues to attempt to capture the Pac-12 crown that eluded them in the Luck era. Most analysts predicted the Cardinal to drop down from their 2010 (12-1) and 2011 (11-2) seasons, but not too far. Stanford finished at No. 7 in the AP poll last season, and placed at No. 21 in the preseason AP poll for the start of this year. Sports Illustrated placed them at No. 17 in its Aug. 20 College Football Preview. Due to recent victories, the Cardinal now sits at No. 9 in the Week 3 AP poll.
Stanford’s underrated strength is attributed to its running game, which amassed 211 yards per game last season. The running back corps, led by running back Stepfan Taylor, remains intact with a supporting cast of Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney. After rushing for 153 yards, receiving 60, and scoring two touchdowns, Taylor propelled himself into the running for the Heisman, though the likelihood of a Heisman for Taylor remains a long shot.
Head coach David Shaw attributes Stanford players’ professional success to its recruiting success, which has continued this year. “We’ve done a great job recruiting players who are Stanford-caliber academically, and professional-caliber athletically. We want players who are explosive, but who don’t make mistakes,” Shaw said at this past week’s press conference.
ESPN ranked the Cardinal’s 2012 recruiting class 12th in the nation. Freshmen offensive linemen Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy attempt to refortify an offensive line that lost Martin and DeCastro to the pros. Shaw mentioned that junior tackle/guard David Yankey has played a major role in helping them adjust to the collegiate level. Running back Barry Sanders, Jr. also is a member of this strong freshman class.
Stanford’s front seven will be its strength, especially with linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov; Skov spent most of last season injured.
For the 2012 season, Stanford’s big questions are their passing game and secondary. Senior quarterback Josh Nunes spent three years backing up Luck, and he beating out sophomore Brett Nottingham for the quarterback position in camp. Until this season, Nunes had not started a game since high school. In keeping with Cardinal tradition, Nunes has a pair of talented senior tight ends to target, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.
“As weird as it sounds, it’s fun getting hit,” said Nunes. “It’s a good feeling to throw touchdowns in a game and see six points go up on the board.”
Nunes has played well and understands his role in running an offense that is heavily running-oriented. Through three games, he is averaging 205 passing yards per game, and has thrown 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He is mobile in the pocket and a savvy runner. In the fourth quarter against USC, facing a 3rd and 10 and the 50-yard line, Nunes had nowhere to throw so tried running for the first down. He was stopped five yards short, but bounced off and spun for another seven yards and the first down. The next play was the game-winning 37-yard touchdown pass to Ertz.
The secondary has played well, amassing six interceptions in the first three games, including two against USC quarterback Matt Barkley. After struggling for a three-point win in its season opener against San Jose St., the Cardinal trounced Duke behind their energized running game and stifling defense. Despite missing three field goals and allowing USC to convert on three fourth downs, the Cardinal was able to beat USC by exercising a strong running game, relying on its powerful tight ends for big plays, and attacking a USC offensive line weakened by its starting center’s injury. Barkley was sacked four times, in addition to being hurried and hit many other times. This did not allow him to find the Trojans’ receiving tandem of Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, which Shaw described as the best he has ever seen in college football for many big plays.
Stanford is currently on the national radar as a marginal contender for the national championship. However, the rest of the schedule is far from a cakewalk. The Pac-12 is widely considered to be the best conference in college football after the SEC. The Cardinal only has three home games remaining, against offensive powerhouse No. 22 Arizona (3-0), rejuvenated Washington State (2-1), and Oregon State, which opened its season by beating Wisconsin, the 2010 and 2011 Big Ten champion. Beginning its road schedule Sept. 27 against Washington, the Cardinal will also have to travel to face No. 11 Notre Dame’s (3-0) stifling defense, Berkeley (1-2)—which almost beat No. 16 Ohio St. on the road—for Big Game, a horrible Colorado (0-3) team.
The Cardinal ends the season with back-to-back games in Eugene and Pasadena. Pac-12 crème de la crop, No. 3 Oregon (3-0)—which ruined Luck’s national title hopes two consecutive years—faces the Card on Nov. 17, and upstart No. 19 UCLA hosts Stanford on Thanksgiving weekend.
After the USC game, however, all are hesitant to underestimate Stanford football, especially given the resilience of the team’s fundamentals.