Dec. 29, 2011
PHOENIX, Ariz. - Despite the Arizona weather, serious-minded Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas does not carry himself with what you might call a `sunny' personality. And if he hears any more about how Monday's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State is going to be a high-scoring game, a gloom might just settle on the Valley of the Sun.
"We kind of feel disrespected as a defense," Thomas said. "I'm sure their defense does as well, saying it will be an offensive shootout. Every time they say that, our defense is always going to be mad."
In a matchup between two of the highest-scoring teams in the country, the offenses of Stanford and Oklahoma State combine to average 93 points per game. But the Cardinal has refused to concede anything.
To avoid the dreaded `shootout,' the success of the Stanford defense may could come down to these four factors:
Stop the run
Keep them guessing
Hit the quarterback
The following is a breakdown of each:
Stop the run
Beyond the flash of its passing attack, Oklahoma State has an underrated, yet effective running game. Sophomore Joseph Randle has rushed for 1,193 yards and scored 23 touchdowns on the way to earning first-team All-Big 12 honors.
"If you underrate what they do run-wise, you can be falling asleep at the wheel," said Stanford's associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason. "And it can be bad."
Randle's understudy, sophomore Jeremy Smith rushed for another 645 yards and scored nine touchdowns, helping the Cowboys average 170 yards on the ground. The run was the Cowboys' weapon of choice in their resounding 44-10 victory over Oklahoma in the regular-season finale as Randle ran for 151 yards.
"It always starts for us with stopping the run. We must stop the run," Mason said Thursday. "We stop the run and we defend the pass. I know it sounds funny because they've thrown for 4,000 yards.
"If you let a team like this stay two-dimensional, you're trying to stop everything and you can't stop anything. You have to concentrate on one area and make sure you do exactly what you are taught to do and what we game plan for."
Keep them guessing
Justin Blackmon is a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner as the best receiver in college football and the 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior broke school season records with 113 catches and 1,782 yards. He also has scored 35 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
"I had the opportunity to coach with the 49ers when Terrell Owens was a young man, and when you watched him move, he ran with that power and strength in his body," said co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "The power in Blackmon's body reminds me of that.
"You've got to get to him fast. You've got to be on the right angles and you've got to have help. And you've got to corral him and send him to your buddies."
Stanford's defenders have experience with high-quality receivers, having faced USC's Robert Woods and Cal's Keenan Allen, and the Cardinal won both games.
Though Tarver said it's too simple to suggest that stopping Blackmon will stifle the Cowboys' offense, limiting him will be vital. Rather than rely on a single plan, the Cardinal will constantly alter its schemes to confuse and perhaps slow the up-tempo OSU spread attack, led by 28-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden.
"It's the execution of coverages and the mix of coverages," Tarver said. "If we can slow down Weeden's decision-making when he picks a side to throw to - if we can make him say, `that's a little different than I thought' - then, hopefully, that gives us enough time to get there.
"But it all comes back to the players. You have to execute your defense, because he'll find the one guy who's out of place."
The Cowboys will set up quickly and run plays before the defense can substitute or gather its wits.
However, there usually is a window between advancing to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball. It's during those crucial seconds that the Stanford defenders must make their reads and relay that information to their teammates.
"It's all about communication," strong safety Delano Howell said. "You have to make sure everybody is on the same page."
When OSU gets into its "super hurry-up tempo," as Thomas called it, the Cowboys typically run three or four plays in those situations. Stanford defenders have set calls based on what they see. When the pace slows, the defense can move in some replacements.
"Their quarterback is older, he's smart, he understands their offense and runs it the way the coaching staff wants him to run it," Mason said. "Any time you face those kind of quarterbacks, it's dangerous because they look for weaknesses in your defense and they can exploit you. We have to be smart and make sure we talk."
Hit the quarterback
Like Stanford, Oklahoma State allows few sacks - only 11 this season (Stanford has allowed nine).
Given the time, Weeden, the former minor-league pitcher with the 94-mph fastball, has thrown for a school season record 4,328 yards and completed 73 percent of his passes.
What's been most impressive about Weeden's play?
"Just his poise in the pocket," Thomas said. "He makes all the right throws, he rarely gets touched. He has all these wide receivers to throw to and he rarely misses his target."
Weeden is not the most mobile, "but the ball comes out so fast that it isn't that important," Tarver said.
To prevent Weeden from spraying passes around the field, the Cardinal must bring pressure. However, that doesn't have to mean sacks, as Mason explained.
"We didn't do much in terms of sacking Barkley," said Mason, of USC's Matt Barkley in Stanford's triple-overtime victory. "But we hit Barkley.
"We have to get to him. At times we will get to him. When we do, we need to make sure that we make those hits count, and we will. We cannot let him sit there and have target practice at our secondary. Won't do it, can't do it."
Facing the nation's top passing combination is formidable, but the challenge is what Howell and his teammates have been looking forward to since the team's last game, back in November.
Said Howell, "It's a defensive dream to have an opportunity to show what we have against an offense like that."
* * *
Stanford will honor defensive assistant Chester McGlockton with a helmet decal with the initials `CMC." McGlockton, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle during a 12-year NFL career, was a second-year member of the Cardinal staff and died on Nov. 30.
"He's one of those people that you automatically respect when he walked in the room," senior defensive tackle Matt Masifilo said.
"The best part about Chester was just how much he loved his family. He always made me realize that, at the end of the day, there was more to life than just the X's and O's of football.
"It kind of took the pressure off a little bit because you get so engulfed in football, and then seeing him sprint off the field to run home before his daughters fell asleep kind of put a different perspective on it. There is your family, and it's the rest of your life. We miss him dearly."
* * *
It's easy to make comparisons between the offenses of Oklahoma State and Oregon, which handed Stanford (11-1) its only loss, because they both were fast high-scoring units that played out of the spread formation.
However, Stanford players and coaches said the Cowboys' offense was more closely related to Arizona, a team both Stanford and Oklahoma State beat handily this season. Mason called OSU's offense, "Arizona 2.0."
"This offense is a little different than Oregon's because with Oregon, the quarterback is a running threat and the offense is a spread option," Tarver said. "(OSU) is a spread pass-and-run attack. So, the concept of the offense is slightly different in that it's a little bit more balanced.
"Oregon will run it every down if you let them and then they'll throw it over your head. It's a little bit different type of defending."
Stanford has been preparing for the spread since the spring because of opponents like Oregon and Arizona and players and coaches say the pace will be nothing new.
* * *
Tarver, the first-year Stanford assistant, took a moment to reflect on his unusual route to get to this point. After all, he graduated with a chemistry degree from a school (Santa Clara) that did not have football, his playing career ended at a community college (West Valley), and he aspired to be an orthopedic surgeon.
"I tell young people all the time, do as good as you can and you can do whatever the heck you want," Tarver said.
Tarver, now 37, began coaching at West Valley in Saratoga, Calif., while still a student at Santa Clara and approaches coaching like the teacher he once was. While a graduate assistant at UCLA while pursuing his master's in biochemistry and molecular biology, Tarver served as a teacher's assistant.
"I got to teach lecture classes, I got to teach lab classes, and coach at the same time," said Tarver, who received the department's prize for distinguished teaching in 1998 and 2000. "I was the youngest guy in the room teaching a lot of fifth-year students who all were going to be doctors.
"They would ask really good questions. I learned that If you don't know something, say you don't know and figure it out. You can't B.S. because they'll figure it out, and this applies to students and student-athletes."
Tarver caught on in 2001 as an offensive quality control coach with the San Francisco 49ers, where he remained for 10 years, most recently as the team's outside linebackers coach.
Tarver ended with a small bit of advice -- "pick your passion," he said - and has followed it to the Fiesta Bowl.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics