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Picking On Stanford's Cornerbacks

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Alex Carter, left, and Wayne Lyons could do a better job of keeping opposing wide receivers from racking up yards and getting past the pylon. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.
Alex Carter, left, and Wayne Lyons could do a better job of keeping opposing wide receivers from racking up yards and getting past the pylon. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

Stanford’s defense is 15th in yards allowed per game. Considering they have stymied six ranked opponents, the ranking is prestigious. However, for a team that considers itself part of the nation's elite, there is an expectation that it would crack the Top 10 or even Top Five. 

Let’s play a game; let’s find the Stanford defense’s weakest link. It will be much easier than you might think. What position group is leaking yardage? 

Despite elite performances defending the run game, Stanford’s defense has the 48th-ranked pass efficiency defense in the nation. The defense is ranked 96th in yards allowed per game. Worse, it allows opposing offenses to convert almost 50 percent when facing third-and-4 or more. The Cardinal let up yards, then allow opponents to convert when they pass, which lets up more yards. Sometimes, those yards become points.

It’s hard to blame one position group for these poor statistics. A good pass rush makes the secondary’s job easier and vice versa. Defending the pass requires contributions from a team defense.

On this defensive unit, I cannot go after the linebacker corps I have touted all year long. I cannot go after the defensive line that — despite bouts of injury — has been effective and consistent. I cannot go after the safeties, as I think Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards are ball hawks and excellent run supporters.

Through elimination, there’s only one position left to blame: cornerback.

Wayne Lyons generated a great two-interception performance against Notre Dame, but those were his only two all year. Alex Carter has one, the same number of interceptions as Cardinal linebacker Blake Martinez — ever heard of him? Of course, interceptions don’t tell the whole story. Lyons and Carter are fifth and sixth in total tackles for Stanford. The old adage is that tackles for cornerbacks are always bad. Tackles often mean receptions for opposing receivers. Stanford has allowed 305 completions, second-most in the FBS.

There is a method to this madness, and it is making the cornerbacks look bad. Incompletions do not chew up clock. Receptions in bounds do. Stanford has always had a bend-but-don’t-break mentality. It gets up early and forces short passes to speed up the game. The offenses uses Tyler Gaffney's Herculean legs to end the game. It provides excitement to opposing fans, as shown in games like Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon and even Notre Dame. The opponent scores easily, but Stanford can concede the points so long as it gets the ball back. In turn, the game ends quickly.

In two games this season, Stanford has not had the luxury of a first-half lead. It lost both games. Bend, don't break is great when Stanford is ahead, but they have to be able to stop opponents first. Lyons and Carter could not. The opposing quarterbacks Travis Wilson and Cody Kessler threw for a combined 522 yards, three touchdowns and one interception by linebacker Joe Hemschoot. Stanford’s pass defense was powerless to stop both offenses, particularly when they saw elite receivers like Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor. The bend, don't break method gives the corners a buffer on poor stats but not an exemption.

Kevin Hogan’s interceptions, Gaffney's fumbles and missed kicks by backup Conrad Ukropina contributed to the losses. However, Stanford’s defense is held to a higher standard than the offense, especially after producing premier defensive backs like Richard Sherman. The cornerbacks should be out on an island; instead the pair is at the center of Stanford’s issues.

Follow Henry on Twitter @McKennAnalysis