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Stanford boasts nation’s top-ranked defense

| Thursday, October 2, 2014

oppObserver File Photo

When No. 14 Stanford runs into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, it brings arguably the best defense in the country with it.

The Cardinal ranks first in the FBS in total defense (198.0 yards per game), scoring defense (6.5 points per game) and passing yards allowed (74.0 yards per game).

For Irish head coach Brian Kelly, the Stanford cornerbacks — junior Alex Carter and senior Wayne Lyons — are the key to that lockdown defense.

“They have two outstanding corners,” he said Tuesday. “It starts at the cornerback position — they really have three — so play a lot of man coverage, you know, do a very good job mixing things up with their scheme, play some zone, play some man. … So fairly comprehensive in that I think you start on the perimeter with the cornerback play.”

The upstart Stanford passing defense is a turnaround from last season, when the Cardinal ranked 96th in the country in passing yards against, giving up 253.8 yards per game in a three-loss season.

However, the team’s rushing defense was third among FBS schools, allowing just 89.4 yards per game on the ground. In 2014, Stanford ranks 21st, giving up 124.0 yards.

Much of this transformation can be attributed to Cardinal first-year defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, who previously served as the program’s outside linebackers coach.

“They have great continuity,” Kelly said. “Hired within the staff, same philosophy. [Cardinal head coach] David Shaw obviously has maintained that kind of continuity in terms of scheme. They are playing with veteran players that know how to win. It’s a winning program. So a great deal of continuity within their program, even though there’s new people at the top of the leadership.”

In front of the secondary, the Cardinal present a strong group of defensive linemen and linebackers, led by junior linebacker Blake Martinez with 31 tackles on the season.

The Stanford defense has collected 11 sacks in four games so far, and 10 different players have contributed to those.

Sophomore linebacker Peter Kalambayi, who Kelly called, “one of the more athletic players that we have seen,” has accounted for four of those sacks himself, for a combined loss of 45 yards.

“He’s a little bit different from the prototypical, big, physical Stanford rush player,” Kelly said of Kalambayi. “But he causes all kinds of problems.”

In his pregame press conference Wednesday, Shaw recounted how former Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was surprised by Kalambayi when they traveled to watch him at a high school track meet during the recruiting process.

As opposed to typical linebacker prospects, Shaw said, Kalambayi was not competing in the throwing events — he was running the 100-meter dash and finished second.

“We saw a guy at the time who was 230 pounds — he’s bigger than that now,” Shaw said. “He’s fast, explosive, physical. He’s got a chance to be a great — not a good — but a great football player, and this is just the beginning, and I think he’s helped our other two starters [seniors Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters] by keeping them fresh and coming in and making great plays. There are times we’ll have all three of those guys on the field at the same type, and it’s a really, really good group.”

Stanford has posted two shutouts in its four games and has allowed two scores in just three opponent trips to the red zone. The Cardinal defense also has givne up only four offensive plays of 20 or more yards.

However, Shaw said it is too early to tell if this revamped defense is better than those of the last few seasons — especially since Cardinal opponents have included Army and UC Davis.

“I think you need a full season before you really make that assessment,” he said. “We’re playing at a really high level, but we played at a really high level last year. We haven’t given up that, you know, long touchdown run or that long touchdown pass. Our guys try to take away the big plays to make people go the long way down the field, and they haven’t been able to do it.”

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