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Offensive line key to Stanford’s ‘Intellectual Brutality’

Stanford coach David Shaw, left, leads the Cardinal in a marquee Pacific-12 Conference matchup against USC on Saturday.
Stanford coach David Shaw, left, leads the Cardinal in a marquee Pacific-12 Conference matchup against USC on Saturday. The Associated Press

OK, so Stanford’s offensive line didn’t tear Kansas State limb from limb. The smart boys with a mean streak didn’t look much better in last year’s opener against Northwestern, either. In fact, they looked a lot worse – they lost the game.

But everything turned out all right when the Cardinal won the Pacific-12 Conference championship and crushed Iowa in the Rose Bowl. With the New Year’s Day victory, Stanford reaffirmed itself as one of the most physically dominant college football teams in the country.

One powerful offensive line after another has created the modern image of Stanford football as a physical force. Sometimes it just takes awhile for each to re-establish the identity.

Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey already is fairly well-known after the junior running back introduced himself last year when he broke Barry Sanders’ single-season, all-purpose yardage record.

The USC Trojans know him by the No. 5 on the back of his jersey, as they watched him pull away from them most of the night in last year’s conference championship game at Levi’s Stadium, running, catching passes and returning kicks for 461 yards.

If McCaffrey is the face of this year’s Cardinal, ranked seventh by The Associated Press, it is the bodies in the trenches who are most responsible for the slogan that has come to identify the team.

It says “Intellectual Brutality” on their Rose Bowl rings, and it is the concept embedded in the offensive lines that have improved the lives of Stanford’s offensive stars over the past decade, from Toby Gerhart to Andrew Luck to McCaffrey.

As in last year’s clunker against Northwestern, the Stanford brutes didn’t make much of a physical statement in their opener against Kansas State, though they had a few solid moments.

Casey Tucker, last year’s starting right tackle, moved to the left side and helped on both of McCaffrey’s touchdown runs in the 26-13 victory.

Center Jesse Burkett and right guard Johnny Caspers also wiped out their guys on McCaffrey’s 35-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. And reserve tackle Brandon Fanaika, a 314-pounder who subs in when Stanford wants to really go big, punched a hole through the Kansas State defense to let McCaffrey loose on his 41-yard score with eight seconds left that finished off the Wildcats.

Other than doing the dirty work on the two scoring runs, it was a fairly nondescript night for the blockers. They gave McCaffrey only enough room on his other 20 carries to gain 50 yards. They weren’t terrible protecting quarterback Ryan Burns in his first start, but they allowed two sacks over the 20 times he went back to pass.

Stanford had just 105 yards on the ground and 267 total – similar to last year against Northwestern (85 rushing yards, 240 total).

Going into the conference opener against USC – the 95th meeting in a 111-year rivalry – Stanford coach David Shaw is waiting to see what kind of unit his thinking men on the offensive line will become.

Shaw found it hard to get a read from the opener. The line had some early success but failed to create any space in the third quarter. Eventually it gouged a defeated opponent as the curtain dropped.

The team, he said, could use some improvement, and the timing of his bye week after the opener wasn’t all that great. Going into Saturday’s game at Stanford Stadium, Shaw said it almost feels like the season is just beginning, again.

In the Pac-12 coaches’ conference call this week, Shaw singled out Tucker and A.T. Hall, the tackle who replaced him on the right side, for playing well. But he said there’s plenty of room for growth, for them and the rest of the line, with the key element being time.

“I don’t think it ever happens Week 1 or Week 2,” Shaw said. “You get to Week 3, game four, and now you see those guys start to jell. Their communication becomes quicker, and some of it is even non-verbal. They know each other so well after being in so many different, tough, physical environments that they really start to jell together as one unit.

“I think we’re on the path of that, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”

Can Shaw forge himself another offensive line in the image of the ones of the recent past? We’ll see in October what comes out of the furnace.

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