Questioning the Cardinal

BearTerritory caught up with publisher Rick Jones this week for a brief Q&A on Stanford.
BearTerritory: How crucial has it been to the success of the Stanford offense to have the same starting five in the same spots on the offensive line every game this season?
Rick Jones: I don't think you could overstate how crucial an experienced line has meant to Stanford, both this season and 2009. Not only do they make the offense go - the power running game, protecting Andrew Luck - their experience allows the Cardinal staff to make week to week adjustments in the scheme, and I am talking above and beyond what you see a typical college offense do in a specific weekly game plan. You would be hard pressed to find a team anywhere with as many offensive sets as Stanford. Their experience gives the offensive staff the confidence to call any play in the playbook. They are a smart, tough group that personifies the brand of football Harbaugh strives for.
BT: A year removed from Toby Gerhart, who has stepped up to fill the void, and has the Cardinal's approach to the running game changed at all?
RJ: I think most all Stanford observers are surprised at how the running game has stayed so effective for the Cardinal. Most in the preseason expected Jim Harbaugh to open up the offense a little more, and not rely as much on the ground game but that is not the case. Stanford's passing game relies heavily on play-action passing, which is set up by the Cardinal ground attack.
Stepfan Taylor has stepped up and taken hold of the running back spot, and he was given the main role due to injuries to Jeremy Stewart and Tyler Gaffney. What was supposed to be a running-back-by-committee was turned into the leading role for Taylor, and he has responded very nicely. Even though Stewart and Gaffney have returned, Taylor remains the Cardinal's lead back with nearly 850 rushing yards. In the last two games, true freshman Anthony Wilkerson has flashed some of the skill that has Stanford coaches very excited about his future.
The spot where Gerhart is missed the most is in the red zone. Few backs in college football last year had a nose for the end zone as Gerhart did and no one expected Stanford to replace that. But the maturation of Luck has allowed Stanford to remain one of the nation's top red zone offenses.
BT: Given that Stanford runs a pro-set offense, how crucial has it been to have a bruiser like Owen Marecic line up at fullback?
RJ: Harbaugh will tell you that Owen is what makes the running game go. It is amazing to watch a replay of the game and just focus on him during the offensive plays. He almost never misses his block, in fact he has gone entire games where his man was completely blocked every time.
Combined with the experienced line, Marecic is the perfect lead blocker out of the backfield, the dude seeks contact like very few I've seen. He will be very hard to replace next season for Stanford.
BT: What changes has new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio made on defense that has this group playing at such a higher level than in years past?
RJ: Fangio has done a great job of putting the defense in situations where they can succeed. It is easier said than done, and he does not ask the defense to do more than they are capable of doing. The entire new defensive staff has emphasized tackling since spring practice and it has paid off.
Nicknamed 'Lord Fangio' by the players, Fangio brought a wealth of blitz packages and schemes from his NFL experience. Much like the offense, the Cardinal defense has shown multiple looks in every game and tries to keep the offense off-balance.
BT: How central has nose tackle Sione Fua been to the success of Fangio's 3-4 scheme? Who has stood out as his supporting cast?
RJ: Fua has had an excellent season and in many ways has been the key to the defense. His presence inside has allowed linebackers such a Shayne Skov to make plays. Fua's dominating play has also helped end Matthew Masifilo have a standout year.
Along with Fua, another key for Stanford this season has been the play of safety Michael Thomas. Moved from cornerback late last spring, Thomas is the best athlete in the Cardinal secondary and his versatility in being able to cover wideouts as well as being a tough tackler allows Stanford to use a variety of coverages.
BT: Who has taken on the role of favored receiving target for Luck? Does he look for anyone in particular, or is he pretty adept at spreading the ball around?
RJ: Luck has not had the luxury of having a favorite target. With injuries to WR's Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu, his supporting cast changes every week. The emergence of Doug Baldwin has given the Cardinal passing game much needed stability. Baldwin is having a career best season, and, while not the game-breaker Owusu is, has become the Stanford wideout that will make the tough catch and has enough speed to stretch opposing defenses.
Luck has used the Cardinal tight ends very effectively near the goal line.