Stanford’s defense emerging as team’s strength

(Eds: Updates with quotes. With AP Photos.)By ANTONIO GONZALEZAP Sports Writer

One linebacker spreads black paint all across his face. Another screams after every sack. The safeties regularly jar helmets loose, dancing and smiling in celebration.

Apparently Stanford’s defense is trying to get noticed.

On a team with Heisman Trophy favorite Andrew Luck anchoring a high-scoring offense, that isn’t always easy. Even Luck isn’t sure why there isn’t more fuss made about the performance of his defensive teammates.

”They’ve definitely outplayed us right now as a unit,” he said. ”It’s awesome to be on the same team as them.”

The defensive starters haven’t allowed anyone into the end zone yet, another sign of an emerging strength that is making Stanford twice as dangerous. The Cardinal rank second in the nation in run defense (28.5 yards) and 11th in scoring defense (8.5 points) per game this season, showing they can be every bit as dominant as their star quarterback.

Of course, blowout victories against inferior opponents such as San Jose State and Duke – outscoring both by a combined 101-17 – are hardly the measure of a strong defense.

The first major test for sixth-ranked Stanford (2-0) and its surging defense comes Saturday night under the lights in the desert, facing a fast-paced Arizona (1-1) team that prides itself on piling up points. The Pac-12 opener for both teams is a matchup that has typically been one determined by offense, a trend the Cardinal hope to break.

Easier said than done.

Wildcats quarterback Nick Foles has thrown for 810 yards and six touchdowns in two games this season. He also had 415 yards passing and three touchdowns in a 43-38 victory over Stanford the last time the two teams faced each other in Tucson.

Going a third straight game without allowing an offensive touchdown this season for Stanford’s first-team unit is an unlikely feat. Yet a veteran-stacked defense believes it’s within reach.

”That’s definitely our goal,” safety Michael Thomas said. ”That’s definitely something we talk about and we take pride in.”

There was no area that figured to be impacted more by the coaching turnover this offseason than the defense.

When Jim Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – known by players as ”Lord Fangio” – departed with him. The move figured to hand Stanford a catastrophic blow in the booth and on the field.

After all, the Cardinal ranked 110th nationally in pass defense and 90th nationally in overall defense in 2009. Now they’re among the nation’s best.

”The bottom line is we have better defensive players than we’ve had before,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. ”And they have a lot of pride on the performance that they put on film.”

The Cardinal appear to be on the same path that Fangio first carved out.

New co-defensive coordinators Derek Mason and Jason Tarver have split duties – Mason calls the plays from the booth, Tarver is on the sidelines and also gives input – and made the staff transition seamless. Unlike the slow starts the offense has had in the first two weeks, the defense has hardly had a hiccup.

That is, except for maybe the eye black on linebacker Shayne Skov’s face smearing in the North Carolina heat or teammate Chase Thomas vomiting at halftime because of a stomach bug.

”Might have been too much barbecue,” Thomas said.

Not that anybody noticed.

Thomas already has 3 1/2 of the team’s eight sacks. Stanford has recovered four fumbles and allowed just 57 yards rushing in two games, allowing only one defensive touchdown against Duke – and that came late against the second- and third-string units.

About the only thing Stanford’s defense doesn’t have yet is an interception, largely because opponents haven’t tried to throw the ball deep down the field. They’ll certainly have their chance in the pass-first Pac-12, starting in the dry air of the Arizona desert.

”You’ve got these guys getting all the stats these first two games,” safety Michael Thomas said. ”Now we finally get a chance to get our hands on the ball and make some plays. We definitely accept the challenge.”

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