Justin Blackmon's athletic ability falls somewhere between brilliant and baffling. You know it. I know it. Stanford head coach David Shaw knows it. The Cardinal secondary knows it. Every NFL scout knows it.
So how do you stop Oklahoma State's prolific wide receiver? Ah ... a simple question with a nearly impossible answer.
That's the challenge facing the Stanford secondary when the Cowboys and Cardinal clash on Jan. 2 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Consider Blackmon's résumé this season:
Six times he went over 100 yards in a game.
Six times he had double-digit receptions in a game (113 on the year).
Five times he went for more than 120 yards -- including a 205-yard performance against then-No. 14 Kansas State.
Five times he had multi-touchdown games.
He scored at least one touchdown in 10 of 12 games.
Pretty daunting stuff.
Stanford's secondary gives up a lot of yards, about 241 per game. Blackmon gets a lot of yards, about 111 per game. He also finds the end zone, with 15 touchdown receptions this year. However, this is where Stanford's pass defense takes a significant turn for the better. The Cardinal have only allowed 15 passing touchdowns all year. Break that down even further and you'll see that of those 15, only eight touchdowns were caught by wide receivers.
Still, Stanford's secondary gets a bad rap for the yards it yields (the most overblown stat in football, by the way) and its lack of interceptions. Safety Michael Thomas said he and his teammates don't deserve the reputation of being the weak link in Stanford's defense.
"We're not OK with that at all," Thomas said. "At the same time, besides going out and playing, what more can you do? You can't change anybody's opinion unless you go out and play. We get one last shot going against a talented group of receivers -- especially Justin Blackmon -- and we're going to try to make a statement this game to show we can play with the best receivers out there."
If you were paying attention this season, they've already shown it. Stanford has already faced six of the top 20 statistical wide receivers in the country this year: Robert Woods (USC), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), Keenan Allen (Cal), Marquess Wilson (Washington State), Juron Criner (Arizona) and Noel Grigsby (San Jose State). Against the Cardinal, five of those six performed below their season average. Only Floyd matched (but did not exceed) his season average. Wilson and Grigsby failed to score and Woods, Floyd, Allen and Criner were held to one touchdown each.
Stanford's secondary is also yet to allow a 100-yard receiver this season. That's a major accomplishment the Cardinal defenders are hoping to complete.
"If we stop No. 81, we wouldn't have allowed a 100-yard receiver this season, and I don't know how many other secondaries can say that," Thomas said.
"What's different about him is while he plays physical, he plays bigger than his size and he plays faster than his speed. We've played some very dynamic athletes. This cat brings a whole new dimension. We feel like he plays as fast as he needs to play. There is no flaw in his game whereas other guys we could find something. This guy doesn't have any flaws. But all we can do is prepare for him like we did the rest of them."
Preparation, therein lies another problem. The Cardinal have no one on their roster who can simulate the way Blackmon plays.
"We’ve got about four guys wearing the No. 81 jersey," Shaw said. "It’s hard because we’re trying to practice at game tempo for our team, but there are not many guys in college football that can run full speed eight plays in a row, deep routes, and still come back and not even be out of breath. We’ve been rotating guys in and out because that’s so hard to emulate."
The closest offense Stanford has seen this season to Oklahoma State is Arizona. That's the game the players are going back and watching.
"That's really the only thing we can compare it to," Thomas said. "It's high-tempo, but not like Oregon. But they are like Arizona in terms of depth at the wide receiver position, one stud quarterback who can sit in the pocket and make throws. We're treating them like we did Arizona, but making some tweaks."
Just as Stanford's offense isn't all about Andrew Luck, OSU's receiving game isn't all about Blackmon. Quarterback Brandon Weeden commands the spread offense with precision and efficiency. Tracy Moore has a pair of 100-yard receiving games and four touchdowns. Josh Cooper has gone for more than 100 yards three times.
"They have a bunch of guys who can make plays," Thomas said. "And we'll have packages in place for all of them. But no matter what, you always have to keep your eye on No. 81."