Stanford-Duke Preview

Stanford-Duke Preview

Published Sep. 7, 2011 4:34 p.m. ET

Stepfan Taylor's eyes light up every time he sees a safety dropping into coverage or a linebacker cheating back to play the pass.

It happens almost every play.

With Heisman Trophy favorite Andrew Luck piling up yards passing, sixth-ranked Stanford's stout running game can be easy to overlook. Defenses rarely play the run, if ever, because most of the schemes revolve around stopping No. 12.

''People forget about the running game sometimes. Or a lot, actually,'' Taylor said, smiling. ''With Andrew at quarterback, you've got to play the pass.''


At least that's what Stanford wants everybody to believe.

While Luck has been toying with defenses in the air and at the line of scrimmage, the Cardinal have quietly put together one of the nation's best rushing attacks. All four tailbacks return from last season, and new coach David Shaw believes they could be scary good.

''We've got four guys who could start at most places,'' Shaw said. ''We're as deep there as anybody in the nation.''

Stanford started off slow rushing in a season-opening 57-3 victory over San Jose State, especially in short-yardage situations. Taylor finished with 18 carries for 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and the Cardinal had 141 yards rushing as a team.

One of the biggest goals in Saturday's first road test at Duke is getting the running game back to where it was a year ago. That mark would be a tough hurdle to clear for anybody.

Taylor ran for 1,137 yards last year and would have had far more if not for former coach Jim Harbaugh's insistence on spreading the ball around. Only five other Stanford players have reached 1,000 yards, most recently 2009 Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart (1,871), who eclipsed the milestone twice.

The Cardinal also finished just 58 yards shy of breaking the school's rushing record (2,837) set in 2009. Anthony Wilkerson, Jeremy Stewart and Tyler Gaffney all split time as Taylor's backup last season. And Luck finished second on the team with 453 yards rushing.

''They're just physical,'' said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, whose team lost 23-21 at home to Richmond in its opener last Saturday. ''They're going to line up in two and three tight end sets and do a lot of shifts and motion to try to create support problems for you.''

All four backs are similar in style but took opposite paths up the depth chart.

Taylor and Wilkerson had to shore up their blocking as freshmen. Stewart was all speed and no finesse. And Gaffney was a natural talent but had to balance being a two-sport player, juggling baseball and football - he has a .327 batting average in two years in the outfield.

The one thing they all have in common: each believes they're the fastest.

''I like to think I'd win the race,'' Wilkerson said, echoing his teammates.

Even though Luck grabs most of the headlines, gaining yards on the ground is at the heart of the style that Harbaugh - and now Shaw, the former offensive coordinator - have always espoused. The running backs all wear T-shirts that read: ''Focus and Finish.''

The motto has spread to become part of the team's slogan.

''Since I've been here, it's always been run first,'' said Luck, who was 17 of 26 for 171 yards and two touchdowns last weekend. ''It's sort of engrained and indoctrinated in us when we get here.''

When Harbaugh was at the helm, the rotation at running back was rampant.

Shaw signaled in the opener that Taylor would be more than just the starter in name, showing he might increase the running back's carries this season to allow him to find more of a rhythm. Shaw also wants to keep fresh legs on the field, and with four quality backs, it can be a tricky scenario plugging in the right player.

That's all part of the challenge.

About the only thing tougher for Shaw is selling everybody on the idea that Stanford - with Luck at quarterback - is a run-first team. He plans to give everybody a reminder this fall.

''All the offseason talk, everybody knows how good Andrew is,'' Shaw said. ''Which is fine, but we're a running football team. Our offensive football starts and ends with us running the football.''


AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham, N.C., contributed to this story.


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