There are a number of words that can be used to describe the mindset of Stanford football players throughout this week’s practices: focused, awakened and perhaps dissatisfied. But “panicking” isn’t one of them.
After a lackluster 20-17 victory over San Jose State in the season opener, Stanford (1-0) looks to convincingly redeem itself against Duke (1-0) tonight and show that there’s no reason to be hitting the panic button. Execution is the one word that head coach David Shaw has been stressing over and over again since the conclusion of last week’s game.
“We have to play better,” Shaw said. “We have to convert third downs. We have to get the ball past the line of scrimmage. It’s about execution. It’s about us making sure we’re doing the right things off our lead plays, that we’re not just running the same plays over and over again. We have to make sure we’re attacking where we should be attacking.”
When Stanford met Duke last season at the Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils defense roughed up former quarterback Andrew Luck in the early going before the Cardinal regrouped in the second half with four touchdown drives. The eventual 44-14 blowout was expected a year ago, but the Blue Devils won’t be going down that easily this time around.
Redshirt junior quarterback Josh Nunes hopes to build off his commendable first career start, in which he showed a great deal of composure in running the offense even if his 125 passing yards weren’t eye-popping.
“I did some good things, but there were things I need to improve on for this week,” Nunes said. “We got into all our checks for the most part, but I could make them faster and with a little more time on the play clock.”
Among the improvements that Nunes seeks to accomplish against the Blue Devils is finding tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz more often in the passing game, especially down in the red zone. The duo mustered only a total of five catches for 39 yards and no touchdowns against San Jose State, a meager stat line considering that the trio of Coby Fleener, Toilolo and Ertz accounted for 20 of the 38 Stanford touchdown receptions last season.
“Last week was a wakeup call to keep pressure on every team we play,” said senior receiver Drew Terrell. “We can’t rely on one person or two people to win a football game, like we did last year. It’s got be a group effort.”
The offense will have to contend with an experienced Blue Devils defensive line. Up front, redshirt junior nose guard Sydney Sarmiento has 24 games of starting experience under his belt while defensive ends Justin Foxx and Kenny Anunike have both played more than 600 career snaps. The Cardinal offensive line missed a few critical blocks to sustain drives last week, a sub-par result that, according to Shaw, made captain center Sam Schwartzstein “sick to his stomach.”
“We need to be on our A-game against with [Duke’s] blitzes,” said senior running back Stepfan Taylor. “They’re a team that’s kind of unorthodox. They go out there and play you man-up, so we have to be able to identify their defense and pick up the blitzes that they bring.”
The Duke secondary isn’t short of veterans either, as it is carried by three seniors and two juniors. Cornerbacks Lee Butler and Ross Cockrell have combined for 45 starts while safety Walt Canty anchors the defensive backfield, having amassed seven double-digit tackle games in his career.
“Defensively, they’re going to be aggressive,” Shaw said. “They have some long, rangy guys on the defensive side, and they try to make it as difficult on you as possible, based on their alignments.”
The Cardinal secondary went through a scary amount of bending last week against San Jose State quarterback David Fales, but eventually managed to clamp down with Ed Reynolds’ late fourth-quarter interception. However, the Blue Devils might not prove to be so generous.
Duke’s most dangerous offensive weapon is senior wide receiver Conner Vernon, who needs 25 more catches to set a new ACC career receptions record and also currently boasts the nation’s longest streak of hauling in at least one pass in consecutive games (36). In last year’s game against Stanford, he gave a glimpse of his commanding deep-threat role with six receptions for 98 yards. Fresh off a 10-catch, 108-yard performance against Florida International in game one, Vernon poses a threat to Cardinal corners Barry Browning and Terrence Brown and will force them to play physically.
“[Vernon] is a hard one to contain,” said defensive coordinator Derek Mason. “He plays hard all the time, so we’ve got our work cut out…We concentrate on what we do and from there, just play good team-concept football. Defense isn’t about one guy, it’s about 11 guys doing their jobs.”
Pacing the Duke offense will be redshirt senior quarterback Sean Renfree, entering his third season at the starting role. Safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards can be sure that while Vernon is Renfree’s favorite target, the veteran passer will have no problem spreading the ball among the other receivers or checking down to halfback Juwan Thompson. Mason is aware of Renfree’s leadership attributes and commented that he is a “well-versed quarterback” who knows “how to mange the offense.”
The Stanford front seven was not as dominant as it hoped to be in the season opener, but is thankfully boosted by the return of inside linebacker Shayne Skov. One of the team’s most vocal leaders, Skov was sidelined by a knee injury suffered in the Arizona game last September and also served a one-game suspension for a January DUI incident. In regards to his past mistake, the senior emphasized that he “won’t ever forget about that” and needs to be “more mature in how [he] carries himself.”
“I’m ready to jump out of my skin,” Skov said. “I love football. To be not able to do it for 12 months is tough, but it’s been a humbling experience and I’m incredibly excited to be back.”
Fellow inside linebacker James Vaughters managed to record five tackles against the Spartans, including three solo efforts, but didn’t quite live up to the “one-man wrecking crew” reputation that coach Shaw advertised during the preseason. Star outside linebacker Chase Thomas also looks to make a greater impact in game two, admitting that he “left some plays on the field” against San Jose State.
“You don’t know your team, you don’t know your individuals, until they’ve been hit in the mouth and had to fight for something,” Shaw said. “I don’t feel panic. [San Jose State] was a test of our character. The guys passed that test. There was no quit. Guys were disappointed, but they never stopped fighting.”
The Cardinal will clash against the Blue Devils at Stanford Stadium tonight. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., with television coverage on Pac-12 Networks Bay Area.