Run-stoppers emerging as Stanford's stars

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Stanford is about as well-known for being a hard-nosed, defensive team as Berkeley is for being a right-wing, conservative town. But if you haven't noticed, there is a culture change taking place on The Farm that is putting the Cardinal defense center stage.

"We're going to be blue collar and people don't truly believe that can happen at a place like this," said co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason. "But let me tell you. We're not the crème de la crème. We get between the white lines and we go to work. ... We might not have the highest-recruited guys in the country. But we've tried to establish a mentality and a style of play that is going to be indicative of a Stanford man."

This might be the perfect situation for the Stanford Cardinal defense and the perfect storm for opposing offenses. The Cardinal have recruited athletes hoping they fit comfortably into their defensive scheme. Not only do they fit, but they are playing like they were made for it.

All the pieces are in place for the Cardinal to have one of the best-run defenses in the country -- and if things continue at this rate -- one of the best seasons in school history. The No. 6 Cardinal (2-0) head into Tucson Saturday to face Arizona (1-1) in the Pac-12 opener.

"The best thing is we've got guys that are defeating blocks," said head coach David Shaw. "It's partially scheme ... but they are penetrating and doing a good job."

Through two games, the Cardinal are allowing 28.5 rushing yards per game, including a microscopic .9 yards per carry. Starting running backs are faring even worse, averaging 27.5 yards per game. The starting unit has yet to allow a touchdown.

"We're going to use our hands, we're going to shed blocks and we're going to make tackles," said co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who also coaches the outside linebackers. "Everything needs to be fast and not staying blocked and running our lines the way we're supposed to."

The Cardinal's 3-4 defensive scheme is similar to the front they used last season with a few tweaks and wrinkles. Tarver, who is in his first season with the Cardinal, comes from the NFL where he spent the past 10 seasons learning all the different strains of the 3-4 from coaches like Greg Manusky, Billy Davis, Wade Phillips and Mike Nolan.

"That's what we emphasize with our front seven, is how everything fits," Tarver said. "That's why we can look like so many different things, but it's still the same to us. These guys are all taking what we emphasize and making it work. But now we need to continue that because it ramps up into the Pac-12 season."

It's too early to make any predictions on how good they'll be over the course of the season. But for perspective, the 1969 team allowed 1,102 yards for the season and 1986 team allowed an average of 101.1 yards per game.

So far, this Cardinal team's style of play has been pretty straight-forward: Run at us; we dare you.

"Our highest priority is to stop the run as a defense," said linebacker Shayne Skov. "That forces an offense into awkward passing situations and throws the rhythm out of an offense. We're preaching that mentality and making sure everyone is focused on it and so far we've had some success."

There were some questions going into the season about the defensive line, which lost three key players -- including defensive end Brian Bulcke, Sione Fua and Thomas Keiser. But returning starter Matt Masifilo has been solid, and new starters Ben Gardner and Terrence Stephens have performed magnificently through the first two games.

Plus, Stanford is deep enough in the front seven that it can rotate every series and not have a drop-off in production.

"First, whenever someone gets tired, we have someone else to jump in there," said linebacker Chase Thomas. "It's paid off to always have a guy going full speed. When they are tired up front, we have fresh bodies every four and five plays."

Added Skov: "Last year, the ones would come out and the twos would come in and the level of play would drop off a bit. This year, coach has really preached that we need to have 22 guys on defense, or more, that can step up and play. It's been exciting to see some of those younger guys come in and dominate and play the way we expect."

Thomas, along with Skov, have been the marquee players through the two games. Skov has been a beast, recording 18 tackles on the season. Thomas has been pitching tents in the opponents' backfield, leading the Cardinal with 4.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks.

As a unit, the defense already has 21 tackles for a loss (second nationally), accounting for minus-104 yards, eight sacks (T14th nationally), accounting for minus-74 yards and four fumble recoveries.