Eye On The Prize
By Brian Silvey
Amidst change, Stanford senior linebacker Chase Thomas continues to thrive. He has already tallied up 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble through the first two games of the season in helping the No. 6-ranked Cardinal to a 2-0 record.
Stanford boasts a powerful 3-4 defense that held Duke to 14 points last week and San Jose State to a single field goal in the season opener. One of Duke's touchdowns came on an interception return so the Cardinal defense has allowed just one touchdown and one field goal in 2011, and the touchdown came with 57 seconds left in the game at Duke.
Stanford's most challenging test thus far will come this Saturday when the they travel to Tucson to take on Nick Foles and the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona is off to a 1-1 start and features the experienced arm of Foles and a potent offense. Disruption will be the name of the game for Thomas and the Stanford defense.
"We need to create pressure on Foles," Thomas said. "He is not as accurate when he is under pressure. We can't allow him to be comfortable in the pocket."
Stanford handled Arizona at home last year, cruising to a 42-17 victory over the Wildcats who were ranked No. 15 at the time. This year, Stanford must travel to the Zona Zoo, a hot and hostile environment, to play a team that certainly remembers every second of the loss in Palo Alto last year.
The last time the two teams met in Tucson, Foles and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, then a freshman, combined for 838 passing yards and six touchdowns in a 43-38 shootout won by the Wildcats. Both defenses will be challenged in this year's rematch.
There have been changes in Palo Alto, most notably with new head coach David Shaw taking the reigns of the program, but the team has picked up where it left off a year ago when it hammered Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl to cap a magical 12-1 season. With Luck, the Heisman Trophy front-runner, returning along with a strong core of 23 seniors from both sides of the ball, many experts have picked Stanford to dethrone the Oregon Ducks as the Pac-12 champions this year. However, the pressure has not seemed to catch up or get in the heads of the Stanford players.
"The coaching change hasn't affected us at all. We kept the same staff on, so we still have the same plays," Thomas said. "We are a lot more athletic. We have more team speed and depth this year than we did last year. There is not a big drop from our first to the second string guys in each position. It will help us when playing against Oregon with their fast tempo and when playing against Arizona in the heat."
This is the first Pac-12 Conference game for both Stanford and Arizona and could prove to be especially valuable with a Pac-12 Championship Game berth at stake this season.
"I enjoyed playing in the Pac-10 the last few years. I liked being able to play each team, but I like the championship game that we now have in the Pac-12 this year," Thomas said. "I just want to help the team win the Pac-12 championship and try to improve in every category statistically from last season."
So far so good. Thomas is averaging 2.0 sacks per game and leads the Pac-12 with 4.5 tackles for loss. He ranks sixth and 13th nationally in sacks and tackles for loss respectively.
As for the winning, Stanford is off to a 2-0 start and has now won 10 straight games dating back to last season, the program's longest winning streak since winning 13 in a row from 1939-41. They have been ranked in the top 10 in the country for nine consecutive weeks, the longest streak in school history.
Luck has been a significant part of the team's success, but without a stout defense and leaders like Thomas wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, Stanford would not be enjoying the record-breaking success they are currently racking up. Winning has become an attitude on the Farm.
"We just focus on each game as it comes," Thomas said. "Going to a BCS bowl game last year was just another stepping stone on the path to hopefully going to another BCS game this year."