A year ago, the Cardinal met the Trojans with a lethal offense led by wunderkind Andrew Luck and his henchmen: Griff Whalen, Chris Owusu and Coby Fleener. Fast forward 12 months and the lone star of the offense is Stepfan Taylor, the only Stanford player somewhat capable of extending the school’s streak of finishing as the Heisman runner up three years in a row.
While it’s a new look offense for Stanford in terms of personnel, it’s the same smashmouth football being played by David Shaw’s team, as the Cardinal are going to predicate their offense on establishing the run, and they’re going to force defenses to eliminate the tight ends.
Despite a small sample size of just two games, the offense has been inconsistent, and the Cardinal have yet to establish the powerful downfield running attack that has become their signature. Averaging 3.7 yards per carry isn’t exactly a stat Stanford would like boast, especially after gaining just 92 yards on the ground last week against Duke, who gave up a horrid 4.9 yards per carry in 2011.
Taylor, who rushed for 1,330 yards in 2011, came into the season with an argument for being the conference’s best back. While his 192 yards two through games keep him in the conversation, they pale in comparison to what players like Johnathan Franklin have done against better defenses than San Jose State and Duke. Alongside Taylor in the backfield is fullback Ryan Hewitt, who is expected to make his season debut against USC, after an ankle injury cost him the first two games of 2012.
At the helm of the offense is Josh Nunes, who has the dubious task of replacing arguably the greatest passer in Pac-12 history. Following up Luck isn’t exactly easy, and as expected, Nunes has struggled at times. The junior showed signs of being a rookie in the opener against San Jose State, somehow escaping without an interception. Late fourth quarter, Nunes could have sealed a victory for the Cardinal, but he threw the ball into heavily defended areas to no avail. If the Cardinal are going to compete for the Pac-12 North crown, Nunes will have to mature quickly, and given his success against Duke in Week 2, he just might be capable. Yes, it was Duke, but Nunes turned in his first three touchdown performance, and threw for 275 yards as he broke in his new receivers.
Ty Montgomery is the go-to receiver for the Cardinal this year, as sophomore looks to improve on his very respectable freshman season in the Luck era. Through two games, Montgomery leads the team in receiving, and senior Drew Terrell isn’t far behind.
Stanford’s offensive attack thus far as been strongly conservative, but just as expected, the tight ends have played a big part of the aerial attack. The Card came into the season with what some considered to be the best tight end duo in the conference along with USC, as the tandem of Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz is about as solid as you can find. The pair has hauled in 10 passes including a touchdown, and look for plenty of heavy sets on Saturday, with both Toilolo and Ertz on the field, much to the same effect that Lane Kiffin deploys Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.
On the offense line, Stanford has had to replace All-American guard David DeCastro and left tackle Jonathan Martin, and to do so, they brought in a world-class recruiting effort with Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy, both of whom chose the Cardinal over USC. Peat and Murphy have both dabbled with playing time in the first two weeks, but they’ve yet to crack the starting lineup. Sophomore David Yankey might be one of the best linemen in the country as he’s moved from guard to tackle, and fifth-year senior Sam Schwartzen out of Southlake Carroll in Texas, is in his second full season as the starting center, giving Nunes plenty of talent in front of him.
The Stanford offense has a recent history of being heavy and swift at the same time, and while this current team lacks the experience of past teams at the skill positions, having one of the best backs in the country with an offensive system that is nearly fool-proof given the mental capacity of the Stanford offensive line, there’s pieces of a puzzle to keep the Cardinal scoring. To beat USC though, they’ll need to find a way to be consistent and have more than 18 first downs, the number they’ve put up in both of their first two games.
Projected Starters vs. USC:
WR Drew Terrell #4
LT David Yankey #54
LG Khalil Wilkes #65
C Sam Schwartzstein #64
RG Kevin Danser #76
RT Cameron Fleming #73
TE Levine Toilolo #11 OR Zach Ertz #86
WR Ty Montgomery #88
QB Josh Nunes #6
HB Stephan Taylor #33
FB Ryan Hewitt #85