On September 3, 2011, a week before last season’s road matchup with Duke, Stanford hosted San Jose State in the opening game of its season. Behind three touchdowns from junior quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal trounced the Spartans 57-3. They then beat Duke 44-14 and rolled through seven straight more wins en route to an 11-2 season and a heartbreaking overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.
This is not that team. Luck left early to take his place as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Gone also are offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, who were first- and second-round choices, respectively. Tight end Coby Fleener, who caught ten touchdown passes, rounded out the quartet of Stanford players to be taken in the first two rounds.
This year, behind inexperienced senior quarterback Josh Nunes, the No. 25 Cardinal needed a late interception and a 46-yard field goal from oft-maligned kicker Jordan Williamson to hold off San Jose State 20-17 in the season’s first game. After Luck converted a remarkable 52.6 percent of third downs last season, Stanford went just 2-of-13 on third down last week.
“[It was] the ugliest game that we’ve played since I’ve been at Stanford,” senior defensive end Ben Gardner tweeted.
The close call left Stanford hanging just inside the top 25, with many experts in doubt about the Cardinal’s post-Luck future. But the losses have not left Stanford completely bereft of talent. Senior running back Stepfan Taylor, who ran for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, could emerge as a dark-horse Heisman candidate. He was one of the bright spots for head coach David Shaw last week, rushing for 116 yards at 4.5 yards per carry.
But Taylor and his fellow backs managed just 37 yards on 20 carries in the second half against the Spartans. In his post-game press conference, Shaw was asked what happened to the rushing game after halftime.
“That’s what I want to know,” he said. “Next question.”
The running game figures to improve, though, as the offensive line adjusts to the losses of Martin and DeCastro, since tackle David Yankey and center Sam Schwartzstein are both NFL prospects. Nunes’ maturation will be crucial as well. He battled inconsistency in his first start of the season but showed potential during a 16-of-26 performance for 125 yards and a touchdown.
Nunes will need his vaunted pair of tight ends to step up if the offense is to be dangerous. Six-foot-8 Levine Toilolo and 6-foot-6 Zach Ertz provide a pair of massive targets, but they were largely invisible against San Jose State. Toilolo caught only one pass, and Ertz had four catches for just 26 yards.
Offense was only half the problem for the Cardinal last week, though. The defense looked porous, especially up front. Stanford had to rely on nickel back Usua Amanam as its best pass rusher. Amanam registered two sacks, four tackles for loss and a fumble recovery as the Stanford defense struggled to get to the Spartan quarterback.
“Should we have gotten to the quarterback more?” Shaw said in his press conference. “Doggone right we should have.”
The pass rush should benefit next week from the return of top linebacker Shayne Skov, who missed most of last season due to a torn ACL and was suspended for the first game of this season following a DUI arrest in February. Skov will pair up with Chase Thomas, who passed up the NFL draft to return as a redshirt senior, to form one of the most talented pairs of rush linebackers in the nation.
After a long time off the field, Skov is eager to get back on the field.
“I’m ready to jump out of my skin,” he said. “It’s easier [to watch games] when you’re team is doing well. When you’re losing or not performing to the capacity that you know your team can, it’s very difficult, knowing there is nothing you can do about it.”
Shaw and his staff will hope that another week of practice and Skov’s return will help get Stanford performing to its capacity. Otherwise, its place in the top 25 could be on the line during this weekend’s contest against Duke.