Part four of the ongoing report card for the Stanford Cardinal during the bye week.
Summary: WHAT! B-plus! Before the angry emails start flowing (as if I could stop them), realize, this is a complete evaluation of the linebackers -- not just the run defense, which would clearly get an A-plus.
Let's start with the positive, the aforementioned run defense. In this regard, the linebackers have been as good as any unit in the country. With a 3-4 scheme that is equal parts simple and complex, the linebackers have thrived at stopping opponents from moving the ball on the ground. And in a lot of cases, even moving the ball out of their own backfield.
Opponents have tried to run the ball 88 times against the Cardinal and have managed just 1.23 yards per carry and 36 yards per game. They are tied with LSU for most tackles for a loss in the country (31) and have accounted for 161 lost yards.
Outside linebacker Chase Thomas has elevated himself as one of the best pass rushers in the country -- tallying five tackles for a loss and he's the team leader with 3.5 sacks. On the other side, Trent Murphy doesn't get as much ink as Thomas, but he has been outstanding with three tackles for a loss and two sacks.
In the middle, well, they might have had the best duo in the country with Shayne Skov and Max Bergen. But Skov is gone for the season with a knee injury. The responsibility falls on Bergen to carry the load and A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster, who will platoon in Skov's absence, to elevate their game to a level neither has played at before.
And now, the reason for the downgrade. While the Cardinal as a whole have been great at stopping the run, they are 98th nationally in pass defense out of 120 schools. Some of that burden has to fall on the linebackers on the short and intermediate routes. I'm not in the booth, so I don't know if the coaches are dedicating all seven to stop the run. If they are, then my apologies to the linebackers for the downgrade, because the secondary could use a little help on the short routes in the middle (we'll get to their grade later).
The backups: Lancaster and Tarpley have been thrust into starter status, but through the first three games played very well in their reserve roles-- combining for 25 tackles and a tackle for a loss. Alex Debniak, with four tackles, one for a loss, has played well behind Murphy. True freshman James Vaughters continues his education at the middle linebacker spot -- but he's such a talented athlete that the coaching staff will keep using him some at defensive end in nickel situations because of his ability to rush the passer.
Previous report cards: