Party In The Opposing Backfield For Stanford
It is rare for a college football player, positional group or team to meet expectations all of the time.
While top-ranked Alabama has remained constant, the rest of the BCS math problem is filled with variables. Such is the case with Stanford, whose solid 9-2 record has nonetheless not met all media preseason expectations this year.
Sports Illustrated deemed Stanford as the school most likely to defeat Alabama in this season's BCS Championship Game. The college football analysts at ESPN, on the other hand, expected Stanford to lose to Oregon. The Cardinal will fall short of SI's prediction, but did prove ESPN's experts wrong.
While Stanford has not gone unbeaten in 2013, its touted linebacking corps has certainly played better than projected. Cardinal linebackers have done exactly what they said they would do this season — throw a party in the backfield.
The phrase was even coined by Stanford's linebackers, whose parties in opponents' backfields have been cause for Stanford celebrations and a demonstration of just how effective they have been in bringing down the walls of opposing offenses.
When Stanford's starting defensive ends Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner went down to injuries this season, the pressure was on for other members of the defense to pick up the slack. Linebackers Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley and Trent Murphy have led the charge in filling in for Anderson and Gardner, with help from defensive end Josh Mauro.
Skov, Tarpley and Murphy have combined for 201 tackles and 17.5 sacks — representing one quarter of Stanford's total tackles and 51 percent of its sacks this season. Murphy’s 13 sacks alone account for 38 percent of Stanford's quarterback takedowns.
Stanford's fourth starting linebacker, sophomore James Vaughters, has had an impressive season as well in reaching the high expectations that surrounded him as a high school recruit.
But this season has been about Standord's senior leaders on defense.
Early on, the linebacking corps often kept Stanford in games. Against Southern Cal, Tarpley helped force a fumble in the third quarter that Skov recovered with the score tied, although Tyler Gaffney later fumbled that opportunity away.
Against Oregon, Tarpley sacked Marcus Mariota, who coughed up another third-quarter fumble with the Ducks driving. Skov forced Mariota to fumble twice more in the fourth quarter, but Stanford failed to recover either one. Still, the Trojans linebackers had thrown yet another party in Oregon's backfield.
Stanford has limited opposing offenses to converting only 32 percent on third down this season, including just 24 percent for the month of November. Stanford's defensive success on third down has been due in large part to the fact that the Cardinal are allowing opposing rushers only 2.97 yards per carry.
Stanford’s linebackers have penetrated opponents' backfields in both the passing and running games this season, with Murphy leading the nation in sacks among FBS defenders and ranking fifth in tackles for loss. If this were a real Stanford party, Murphy would be doing keg stands all night long, as he has helped the Cardinal collect 84 tackles for loss, totaling 376 yards in negative yardage,
The Stanford trio of Skov, Tarpley and Murphy has indeed been something special, performing consistently even when their younger teammates have failed to make plays.
While the Cardinal linebackers hope to keep the party going in NFL backfields next season, they have undoubtedly shown Stanford's underclassmen on the defense just how it's done.
Follow Henry on Twitter @McKennAnalysis