STANFORD, Calif. — David Shaw calls it “stealing second.”
Similar to a baserunner who reads a pitcher’s motion, the second-year Stanford coach has tried to teach his safeties the art of when to break against a quarterback by using baseball principles. The analogy comes from his father, Willie, who spent more than 30 years coaching defensive backs and linebackers at every level and still barks out the phrase when he attends practices.
Never has the approach seemed more pertinent to Shaw than this week.
With Andrew Luck no longer around to match Matt Barkley, the No. 21 Cardinal (2-0) must find a way to slow second-ranked Southern California’s passing game Saturday night in a rematch of last season’s triple-overtime thriller at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Barkley leads the nation with 10 touchdown passes, tossing six last week alone to power the Trojans (2-0) past Syracuse 46-29 and heighten his Heisman Trophy resume.
“It’s all about reading a quarterback and anticipating his hand coming off the ball,” Shaw said. “We need every healthy defensive back this week.”
Any chance Stanford has at home will hinge largely on its passing defense — and maybe even “stealing second” once or twice — in what appears to be a lop-sided matchup.
At least on paper.
The Robert Woods-Marqise Lee receiver combo gave the Cardinal constant problems last season before Luck led four straight touchdown drives to end the game and let Stanford escape with a 56-48 victory. Shaw, a former Stanford wide receiver, called Lee and Woods the best college tandem he’s ever seen and it’s “not even close.”
“I don’t know if there ever has been in the modern era,” he said.
While the Cardinal have won three straight against USC and Barkley, making it four in a row — a streak that has never happened in a series that dates back to 1905 between the schools — will perhaps be the most difficult.
Stanford has two new starting safeties, Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, and has combined to play 22 true freshmen and redshirt freshmen already this season. In all, 24 players have made their collegiate debut.
The running game has struggled to break free in wins over San Jose State and Duke with defenses stacking nine men near the line of scrimmage and putting pressure on new quarterback Josh Nunes to throw more than Shaw would prefer. The result has caused the Cardinal to depend on a defensive front seven that might be the Pac-12 Conference’s best but also, at times, has been nullified by opponents with constant bubble screens and three-step drops to receivers on the outside.
Especially in losses to Oregon and Oklahoma State last season.
“We see people trying to challenge us and see if we can tackle in space,” said Reynolds, who has three interceptions already after the team totaled four all of last year. “We’ve had a strong emphasis on that since camp, even going back to spring ball. We kind of pride ourselves right now as far as making tackles in the open field and not having any breakdowns.”
Stanford’s secondary credits the coaches for the sudden shift.
In particular, Reynolds praised defensive assistant Tavita Pritchard for offering tips about quarterbacks’ tendencies and mannerisms. Pritchard, coincidentally, was the quarterback who led Stanford to a stunning 24-23 win over second-ranked USC at the Coliseum in 2007, considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history and a launching point for the program. Stanford was a 41-point underdog (the Trojans opened as nine-point favorites this week).
Every day in practice the Cardinal run a pursuit drill where all 11 defenders swarm to the ball, and going against Luck — the No. 1 overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts and two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up — for four years also helped. But simulating the Trojans’ speed is almost impossible, so Stanford has tried to preach patience and assignments, counting on each player to stay within the system and not overpursue on any play.
The scheme has come with mixed success. While the Cardinal made BCS bowls the last two years, Oregon gained 387 yards, Oklahoma State racked up 412 yards and USC totaled 432 yards in Stanford’s biggest games last season.
“As long as I keep stressing on doing my job, not trying to do too much, not trying to play outside of my frame, as well as my other teammates, we’ll be fine,” said cornerback Terrence Brown, who is actually 5-0 in his career against Barkley, with Brown’s Orange Lutheran High School beating Barkley’s Mater Dei High School in Southern California twice.
Keeping pressure on Barkley will be the other challenge.
In more than 60 minutes and three overtimes of play, Stanford never sacked Barkley once last year. The return of middle linebacker Shayne Skov, who injured his left knee in the third game against Arizona and didn’t return until Stanford routed Duke 50-13 last week, should help but so will coverage on the outside to keep the quarterback in the pocket.
The burst off the ball, into the cut and after the catch for Woods is something Shaw said he’s never seen in college, with each phase getting faster instead of slowing down, as with most players at this stage. He called Lee a “bigger version” of Woods who manhandles defensive backs for yards.
Stopping the duo, Shaw said, will take mistake-free football.
“It’s all about gang tackling and knowing where your help is,” Shaw said. “You think you’re by yourself and you take a shot and you miss and they get up the sideline, you can’t catch them.”