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Andy Furillo: Stanford gets defensive in Pac-12 title run

Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez, right, tackles Arizona running back Nick Wilson on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Stanford, Calif.
Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez, right, tackles Arizona running back Nick Wilson on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Stanford, Calif. The Associated Press

Nobody worried about the offense. With that line? It would give quarterback Kevin Hogan plenty of time to get his game back in order. The only question about the tailback, Christian McCaffrey, was, how good? The answer, of course, is “Heisman Trophy candidate.” No, there was no problem with the “O.”

If coach David Shaw stressed about anything coming into the season, it was the inexperience of his defense. Only two starters returned from last year. He knew he had talent; he just hadn’t seen it perform yet.

Now he has, and now he knows. Seven games into the season, the defense has emerged as the best in the Pacific-12 Conference, giving up a conference-low 339.3 yards per game. Also, it has the conference’s top tackler. Linebacker Blake Martinez smacks ’em down at a clip of 11.4 tackles per game – so many that ESPN listed him as a midseason, first-team All-American.

“Actually, my parents sent that to me,” Martinez said after practice Tuesday, of his status as a halfway ESPN All-American. “They keep up on all that stuff. It really was a cool thing, but our coach talks about how they don’t give awards out at midseason. You’ve got to keep going until the end. It was great to see a bunch of hard work paying off like this, but I know I wouldn’t be in this position if I didn’t have the guys around me that get me into the right spots at the right time to make those crucial plays in games.”

Win this one, win the next, win them all and Stanford, now ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press poll, would be deserving of a position in college football’s Final Four.

Stanford, like everybody else, approaches each game as an event. It’s true that each contest stands as its own mini-drama, but in any midseason assessment of the Cardinal as a team, you find it to be in the middle of a playoff run. Since its hiccup in the season opener at Northwestern, Stanford has won six in a row by an average score of 43-21. Each win makes the next game bigger than the last. Win this one, win the next, win them all and Stanford, now ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press poll, would be deserving of a position in college football’s Final Four.

This Saturday, Stanford will either advance or be eliminated. It is one thing to have Heidi Klum tell you on “Project Runway” to pack up your sewing machine and get out of town. It’s another to be forced out by Washington State. Stanford plays the Cougars this weekend in Pullman, where the weather is expected to be wet but not cold – sort of a light, Palouse-style El Niño. A raucous full-house is expected in Martin Stadium to root on a surprising Washington State team that is 5-2 overall and only one game behind Stanford in the loss column of the Pac-12 North Division standings.

Cougars coach Mike Leach said in this week’s Pac-12 teleconference that the atmosphere in Pullman is “probably on a scale with Woodstock, as far as being a historic event where people gather.”

“It’s a statement for our generation, I think,” said Leach, a promising humorist in crimson and gray.

Washington State spits out NFL quarterbacks at a rate of about a dozen per generation, and this year’s sensation worthy of a crowd of 500,000 in the dairy lands of New York is Luke Falk, a 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore. Falk, a walk-on from Logan, Utah, had initially committed to play for Cornell, so you know he’s as smart as the boys from Stanford. Of all the major-college quarterbacks, Falk ranks third in passing yards with 2,885, or about one yard for each person standing in a bathroom line at Woodstock. He throws the ball 55 times a game, on average. His pitch count hit 74 against Oregon, but Leach never thought of going to the bullpen. Falk went the route with 505 yards in a 45-38 double-overtime victory over the Ducks.

Stanford has this trait of not giving the ball back until they’ve held it for about eight minutes and scored from point-blank range.

“He’s tall, he’s got great vision, he’s got a quick release,” Shaw said. “He’s very accurate. He’s more athletic than I thought when I got a chance to watch him. He moves well in the pocket. He can take off and scramble for first downs. He keeps his eyes down the field. He’s tough – he gets hit and he pops right back up.”

The feeling here is that Stanford somehow will be prepared for Falk, whose biggest problem will be getting on the field. Stanford has this trait of not giving the ball back until they’ve held it for about eight minutes and scored from point-blank range. McCaffrey’s explosiveness sometimes upsets the ball-control component of the Cardinal game plan. When it does, the defense gets tagged in.

It would be a lie to say Shaw didn’t expect his “D” to be good. He knew he had a terrific leader in Capt. Martinez, and it was no surprise to him that cornerback Ronnie Harris became one of the best in the conference, with nine pass break-ups so far. He also cited defensive end Brennan Scarlett, the transfer from Cal, and a sophomore lineman, Solomon Thomas, with stepping into leadership roles along with Martinez.

A 6-2, 245-pound senior from Tucson, Ariz., Martinez watched from afar during offseason and fall-camp workouts while the defensive newbies put in extra work without his having to prod them. He watched them study film and learn the playbook. He knew they had talent. Now they had his trust.

“When we put the pads on and did a scrimmage, that’s when I could tell we had something special,” Martinez said.

Playoffs, anybody?

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

Editor’s note: This story was changed Oct. 29 to correct Solomon Thomas’ first name.

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