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Stanford Cardinal Report Card: Defense

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Stanford's defense featured some of the best linebackers in the country. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.
Stanford's defense featured some of the best linebackers in the country. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

Stanford’s defense entered the season with hopes of leading the team to a BCS Championship. It fell short of that goal, but not for lack of trying — or production. The defense boasted the 10th-best points allowed total.

It’s getting late for first-semester grades, but that’s only because Stanford was getting their extra credit at the 100th Rose Bowl. The offense got its grades first. Now it’s the defense's turn for evaluation.

Defensive Line: B+

I feared for the depth of this unit at the beginning of the season. I thought an injury could threaten the integrity of the defense. Both starting defensive ends Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner suffered injuries, but Josh Mauro stepped up. Mauro’s presence was enormous and took the pressure off the linebackers, who were incredibly productive as pass rushers — more on that in the section on linebackers. The line even aided in a strong run support effort, allowing opponents 2.9 yards per carry. The Cardinal tend to win in the trenches; it’s their M.O.

Linebackers: A

Trent Murphy stole the show. With 15 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss and 62 tackles, he was the best player on the Cardinal defense. He led the nation in sacks and finished fourth in tackles for loss. Shayne Skov would have been the best linebacker on most college football rosters and had 109 tackles with 5.5 sacks. He had a way of stripping opponents at the most important moments, like against Oregon in the second half. A.J. Tarpley was a leader and helped in the interior with sound tackling. James Vaughters entered the season with some uncertainty, but instilled confidence in the coaching staff and held a starting role all season long. The unit was seamless from top to bottom.

Defensive Backs: C+

The defensive backs bent and broke. Stanford’s defense allowed passing yardage in the middle of the field, which was intentional because they often held the lead and bled the clock. That strategy got out of hand against teams like USC, Utah and Michigan State. And in its first meeting verses Arizona State, Stanford allowed 269 yards and three passing touchdowns in the second half. Much of that responsibility falls upon the offense, which averaged 20.3 points in losses. Still, it’s no coincidence that quarterbacks like Travis Wilson, Cody Kessler and Connor Cook had some of their best games of the season against the Stanford secondary.

Perhaps the grading is a tad harsh for the defense as a whole. However, the high expectations were not unwarranted and the defense needed to meet those expectations if they wanted a ticket to the BCS Championship game. With many players I mentioned graduating and Derek Mason headed to Vanderbilt, Stanford will have a hard time filling shoes next season.