There hasn’t been a turnaround like this since the Second Punic War

Posted by at 4:28PM

With the Stanford Cardinal ranked # 9 in the AP Poll going into this weekend’s showdown with Oregon, a lot of people might be wondering, what has gotten into this team?  How has Stanford become so much despite the loss of Toby?  If you focused on the loss of Toby going into this year, you were looking at the wrong side of the ball.  Lets take a quick look comparing last year’s defense to this year’s:

Year

2009

2010

Opponent Yards/Rush

4.2

3.2

Opponent Yards/Pass

7.6

5.1

Opponent Yards/Play

6.0

4.1

Opponent 3rd Down Conversion %

42.9

30.2

Pretty impressive gains eh? Kinda like Rome’s recovery against Hannibal in the Second Punic War right?  But what has caused such a rapid turnaround?

Folks, meet Vic Fangio and the 3-4 defense, the two parties chiefly responsible for the remarkable improvement of the Stanford football team’s defense.  Coming into this year, most analysts saw Stanford as a team with a talented offense that would lose games due to a terrible defense (see the Sun Bowl, 2009).  But so far, that has been far from the case.  Stanford’s defense has been nothing short of incredible this year and has pitched a shutout against UCLA at home (a team that then went on to defeat Texas) and held Notre Dame to under 20 points (something every other opponent Notre Dame has faced has failed to do, and in case you’re wondering, all of those opponents are from the Big Ten).

So what has Vic Fangio done to the Stanford defense?  Simply put, he has installed a 3-4 scheme, whereas last year, Stanford used a 4-3 scheme.  Some of you might be wondering, what the hell is difference between the two aside from the order of the numbers?  To answer that question, I’ve appropriated two diagrams from Wikipedia (thanks GNU license!) that show the chief difference between the two setups.  In a 3-4 defense, the team plays with 3 linemen and 4 linebackers, whereas in a 4-3, the team will utilize 4 linemen and 3 linebackers.

(4-3 on the right, 3-4 on the left)

How has this subtle change of 1 lineman for a linebacker completely revolutionized Stanford’s defense?  Part of it is unfamiliarity.  Opponents that scouted Stanford based off their video from last year (when Stanford played a 4-3) will learn very little about the coverage schemes and blitz patterns of a 3-4 defense.  Another part is that the 3-4 is a defense much more suited to defending the pass (think what you’re able to do when you take a hulking, powerful 320 lbs player that plays on the line of scrimmage and replace him with a quicker player who is positioned a little deeper).  College football these days is much more dependent on the pass to move the ball then the run (for those of you familiar with football tactics, see the rise of the Spread offense, if you’re not that familiar, you’ll have to take my word for it).

But the other part is that a 3-4 defense uses the available resources that the Stanford football team has far better.  Stanford has little depth, but great size on their defensive line.  They have players like Sione Fua, a nose tackle (the player in the middle of the defensive line in a 3-4 scheme) who is 6’2” and 306 pounds (this is pretty big for a college lineman) yet capable of explosive acceleration and uncanny strength.  While players like him occupy the central blockers of the offensive line, space is created on the edge and up the middle for blitzing linebackers, which Stanford has plenty of.  Players like Shanye Skov (0 sacks in 2009, 2 in 2010) and Chase Thomas (4 sacks in 2009, 3.5 in 2010) are reaping the benefits of Fua’s improved play.  As a team, Stanford recorded 21 sacks in 13 games in 2009; so far through 4 games in 2010, Stanford has 14 sacks!  The more pressure you put on an opponent’s QB, the less successful the opponent’s passing game.  This improvement along with the extra coverage provided by the 4th linebacker, has allowed Stanford’s pass defense become dramatically better.  At the same time, the shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 has allowed Stanford to hide the lack of depth of the defensive line and fully utilize the depth and speed of the linebacking corps.

It remains to be seen whether the improved Stanford defense will be able to shut down an incredibly potent Oregon offense (57.8 ppg).  The task will be made doubly hard by the fact that Stanford will be without starting safety Michael Thomas.  Stanford represents the best defense that Oregon has faced this year and if nothing else, Saturday’s game will be a great battle between the nation’s #1 offense (in terms of points per game) against the nation’s (remarkably improved) 12th best defense (in terms of points against).

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