The Pac-12 is known in SEC territory as a relatively “soft” conference with potent offenses and weaker defenses. However, in 2012, the Stanford Cardinal proved to have an elite defense that led them to a victory over perennial powerhouse Oregon and a conference championship.
It is for this reason that I would argue that the biggest strength of the Cardinal is their impenetrable front seven.
A season ago, David Shaw’s Stanford team finished fifth nationally in rushing defense, allowing only 97 yards per game on the ground. However, before they faced the dominant rushing attacks of Oregon and UCLA, the Cardinal were only allowing 55 yards on the ground per game. Stanford’s front seven also led the nation in sacks with 57, six more than the teams with the next highest totals (Tulsa and Arizona State).
To go along with that statistic, the Cardinal led the nation in tackles for loss with 124, which is no surprise considering the dominant efforts of Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy. While Thomas has left Stanford to head to the NFL, the front seven does return most of its key pieces from last season.
Shayne Skov has been a rock in the middle for several seasons now, and will be looking to improve his own NFL stock throughout the 2013 season. Murphy returns alongside Skov, and they will be joined in the linebacker corps by the rising junior A.J. Tarpley.
The talent does not just lie on the second level, however, as Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson were as solid as any
tandem of 3-4 defensive ends last season.
Considering quarterback Kevin Hogan’s success on the other side of the ball towards the end of last season, the defense will likely not be forced to spend as much time on the field as it had spent in 2012. This means that, if anything, production should increase as the front seven should remain fresh throughout the games.
After allowing only 198 rushing yards and 14 points to the Ducks in 2012, one of the best offenses in recent history, the Cardinal proved themselves to be one of the elite defenses in the nation.
Because Thomas is the only key piece leaving after the 2012 season, expect to see Shaw’s front seven continue its dominance in 2013.