Football: Cardinal looking to light up shorthanded Colorado defense

Oct. 7, 2011, 3:05 a.m.
Senior left tackle Jonathan Martin, likely a first-round pick in next year's NFL Draft, will have his hands full on Saturday to protect quarterback Andrew Luck's blindside. Colorado's pass rush is one of the best in the nation, and will present the toughest challenge yet for a Stanford offensive line that has allowed only two sacks this season. (MICHAEL KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

After extending its win streak to 12 games last week, the Stanford football team hosts Colorado this Saturday with a chance to stretch the streak to lucky number 13.

With a win, the No. 7 Cardinal (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) would tie the school record for consecutive wins and redshirt junior quarterback Andrew Luck would become the school’s all-time leader in career wins as a starter, as he and Steve Stenstrom are currently tied for first with 24 career victories.

The Buffaloes (1-4, 0-1) don’t appear to pose much of a threat to the Cardinal’s win streak after struggling through the first five games of the season, with their only win coming against rival Colorado State. Additionally, head coach Jon Embree suspended five defensive players earlier this week for an unspecified violation of team rules — more unfortunate trouble for a team that already allows 30.4 points per game.

But the Buffaloes do present a distinct challenge that the Cardinal has yet to tangle with so far this season: a devastating pass rush. Colorado averages more than 3.5 sacks per game, registering 18 total sacks already, a stat that puts the Buffaloes at sixth overall in the nation.
Linebackers Josh Hartigan (four sacks), Douglas Rippy (three) and Jon Major (two) have the bulk of the tackles for loss in the Buffs’ 3-4 defensive scheme, and defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe has also contributed 3.5 sacks, presenting a new challenge for the Cardinal offensive line, which has only allowed two sacks so far this season.

Of course, one of the best ways to prevent your superstar quarterback from being hit is not to pass at all — something the Cardinal has done very well lately, and will most likely lean on heavily against Colorado, which gives up the second-fewest yards through the air in the Pac-12.
For the past two games, the Cardinal has leaned on a quartet of runners to pile up 444 yards on the ground, mostly behind junior Stepfan Taylor, who head coach David Shaw called “one of the most underrated backs in the nation” after he ran for 112 yards against UCLA.

For a team that scores 45.3 points per game and boasts Luck’s superstar passing ability, Shaw gave credit to the offensive line, saying that “90 percent” of the running backs’ success was due to the outstanding play of the guys up front.

“Running backs are good if they can get to the line. If they get hit behind the line, outside of Barry Sanders, every back is going to struggle,” Shaw said. “So when our line can block the line and get our guys to the line of scrimmage, [the running backs] get a chance to do what they do best.”

Junior running back Tyler Gaffney also pointed out how the offensive line — which was forced to replace three starters from last season — has been instrumental to the dominant running game.

“It’s a great morale booster because when each back comes in, the line can feel the tendencies of each back,” Gaffney said. “It’s just an awesome competition to bring out everybody’s best.”

Shaw says that the various talents of his backfield foursome also give him options as a play caller that many teams would be envious of.

“[Taylor] is a ‘Steady Eddie.’ He just does everything right, he has uncanny balance and quickness and vision, and he’s a guy that’s our leader,” Shaw said. “Gaffney can be a bit more physical because he’s a bigger guy, but he’s got speed in space also, he runs through arm tackles and has great hands to catch the ball out of the backfield. [Sophomore Anthony Wilkerson] is the fastest of the group…and then [senior] Jeremy Stewart is probably our most physical back between the tackles.”

However, Shaw did mention that there are some challenges that come with having four backs as solid as Mount Rushmore.

“I tell these guys all the time, every week somebody’s going to get slighted and it’s not intentional, it’s just kind of happens with the flow of the game,” Shaw said.

“Like against Arizona, Wilkerson didn’t get any touches at all, and this past week he had seven. It’s something that we battle through and we try to keep those guys into the game, not because we just like them, but because they’ve earned it and they’re good players,” he added.

Conversely, Colorado cannot brag much about its offense, as the team’s first campaign in the Pac-12 has been a tough one so far. The Buffs rank second-to-last in both scoring offense and total offense in the conference, and their task does not get much easier this week against a Stanford defense that is first in both scoring defense and total defense.

The Buffaloes’ lone bright spot on offense is wide receiver Paul Richardson, who has 474 yards receiving and five touchdowns, and absolutely torched the Cal defense for 284 yards and two touchdowns four weeks ago in a 36-33 overtime loss to the Bears.

Richardson poses a challenge mostly because the Cardinal defensive backs were in a shuffle last weekend against UCLA after starting sophomore cornerback Barry Browning was held out with back spasms. Junior corner Terrence Brown filled in admirably in Browning’s absence, but all indications are that Browning will play this Saturday.

The Cardinal and Buffaloes will kick off at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 8.

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