Before every football game this year, The Blue Zone is going to sit down with a football writer from the opposing school's student newspaper to get the scoop on their team and season.
This week, The Chronicle's Bobby Colton spoke to The Stanford Daily's Football Editor, and the voice of Stanford Football for KZSU Sam Fisher about Saturday night's contest against No. 25 Stanford.
The Chronicle: Stanford dropped four spots in the AP Poll after squeaking out a three-point victory over San Jose State last week. What is the most important thing that you took from that game?
Sam Fisher: The biggest thing that jumped out at me in that game is how much Stanford missed one guy on both sides of the ball, fullback Ryan Hewitt and inside linebacker Shayne Skov. Hewitt has been a stalwart in the backfield helping out with short-yardage carries, lead blocking and short receptions out of the backfield. Stanford's fullbacks seemed to be a bit off throughout the game, and in turn, Stanford struggled mightily on third down, even in short-yardage situations.
On the other side of the ball, the defense really missed Shayne Skov's mental, emotional and physical leadership. Skov is a terror on the inside, playing about as fast and as physically as anyone in the nation. He also makes most of the defensive calls based on offensive formations, and Stanford didn't really seem comfortable on the defensive side of the ball for most of the game. Skov will be back on Saturday against Duke, but Hewitt is still TBD with an ankle injury. Coach Shaw said he's leaning towards not playing him, but Hewitt thinks he can play.
TC: Skov missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. What sort of impact do you think he can make Saturday playing for the first time since last September?
SF: That's a good question. Everyone says that Shayne is 100% healthy, and he certainly looks it. He got himself in even better shape by working out harder and eating smarter in the offseason, dropping a few pounds to take some of the load off of that knee. However, it's never easy to really get used to game speed. From all accounts, Shayne has been amazing in practice recently, so it could come back quickly. I expect him to make a few mistakes, but bring a lot of intensity back to the lineup in limited action. Coach Shaw isn't going to play him the whole game, as Stanford has at least four inside linebackers who will consistently see significant playing time. However, when Shayne's on the field, his impact will be felt.
TC: Let’s move to the other side of the ball. What changes will be made to the Cardinal offense for 2012 with Andrew Luck now an Indianapolis Colt?
SF: People forget that under Andrew Luck, Stanford still ran the ball well over 50% of the time. Stanford's identity is a ground and pound team, who over the past three years happened to have a great quarterback. I don't think Stanford's identity will change at all. Coach Shaw wants the Cardinal to dominate the game in the trenches and let two-time 1000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor carry the load.
Shaw picked Josh Nunes over Brett Nottingham to replace Luck because Nunes manages the game well and doesn't make many mistakes. Where Stanford will need to make its biggest adjustments is on third down. Over the past three years, Andrew Luck could be counted on to deliver a perfect pass under pressure on pretty much any third down. That's a lot to ask for out of first year starter Josh Nunes. Stanford had a rough time converting on third down in last Friday's opener, so they need to find an alternative to the running game to deliver in some of those key situations. Nunes has weapons in the passing game to use, most notably big tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, and star wide receiver Ty Montgomery, but the passing game rhythm isn't 100% there just yet.
TC: Stepfan Taylor is obviously an accomplished running back, totaling over 1300 yards in 2011. What affect will the loss of offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro, drafted in the top two rounds of the NFL Draft this year, have on Taylor in 2012?
SF: You can't just replace guys like DeCastro and Martin. Stanford has a tremendous wealth of young offensive-line talent, but they aren't top 40 NFL draft picks just yet. 2012 ESPNU 150 recruits Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy, and Joshua Garnett all saw time in week one on the O-line. The unit struggled against San Jose State, but that's to be expected with all of the change going on. I expect a much better effort this week from the Tunnel Workers Union (their preferred name), as guys begin to settle into their roles.
Stepfan Taylor will struggle to replicate his success from 2010 and 2011 until his line gels, but it shouldn't affect him too greatly. Taylor did rush for over 100 yards in week one, even with the offensive line playing well below their standards.
TC: What is your prediction for Saturday night’s game?
SF: Duke is a talented football team. Coach Cutcliffe has done a tremendous job bringing in more talent to Durham, and I think that began to show last year with how well the Blue Devils played in the first half against a very good Stanford team. Additionally, I know Duke's kicking game is much improved, which should help mightily compared to last year's special teams fiasco.
At the end of the day though, I think Stanford is too good and too motivated to lose this game. The team is angry at their performance against San Jose State, and Duke has the misfortune of being next on the schedule. Shayne Skov's fire will ignite the Cardinal, and though the Blue Devils have the talent to keep it close, injuries prevent them from having the depth that is needed to upset Stanford. The Cardinal pull away in the second half to improve to 2-0.