Last week's win clinched a bowl game, so we know the Cardinal will play at least thirteen games this season. The Pac-12 Championship game is also still a strong possibility, but with six games down I still consider this the midway point of the season. So rather than issuing grades based solely on last Saturday's performance, this week I'll be grading each unit on how they've done over the first half of the season. If you disagree with any of my grades, please let me know. Anyway, here we go...
When you start with a player who's universally viewed as the best player at his position, the best player in the game, and the best pro prospect in the past twenty years, you might think there's a lot of room for disappointment. The thing about Andrew Luck, though, is that in many ways he's been better than expected. As great as he was statistically in 2010, he's on pace to be even better this year. Take a look at his numbers through six games: 1,719 yards, a completion percentage of 71.3, 18 touchdowns, three interceptions. He'll be facing stiffer defenses on the back nine of Stanford's schedule so it doesn't make sense to double those numbers, but I'm sure they'll be Heisman-worthy in the end.
But with Luck, it's not just about the numbers. Even though the offense isn't built around him, he is still the architect of everything that happens on the field. Each week he looks more and more like Peyton Manning as he reads defenses, checks out of plays at the line of scrimmage, changes formations, and directs traffic until he has his offense in the best position to attack the defense in front of him. In the last few weeks he's begun calling his own plays as the Cardinal has gone to a no-huddle offense for large chunks of each game. As you might expect, Luck has downplayed this, but the fact is that there are probably two or three quarterbacks in the world who can do this, and all of those guys play on Sundays.
The bottom line is this: Andrew Luck has no more than eight games remaining at quarterback for the Stanford Cardinal, and you should watch them all. He's the best you'll ever see.
Running Backs: B
It's been interesting to watch the development of the running backs this season. The expectation at the outset was that we'd see a rotation similar to last year's, with Stepfan Taylor as the feature back and Anthony Wilkerson a close second. Instead Taylor's carries have gone up as Wilkerson has faded and even fallen behind Tyler Gaffney. There was concern about who might replace Owen Marecic at fullback, but Ryan Hewitt and Geoff Meinken have been more than capable.
Looking at the production as a whole, it's hard to say if it's the new offensive line or Luck's increased passing numbers, but the overall rushing numbers are down as compared to last year. I don't think we'll know if we should be worried about that until after the team gets through the next few weeks, but it's definitely something to keep an eye on.
We should also mention the running game's new Sequoia formation which features Tyler Gaffney in a wildcat look. We saw it three times against Colorado but only once last week against Washington State. I'd like to see it at least three times a game from here on out -- or at least until someone figures out how to stop it.
Offensive Line: B
As it difficult as it might be to believe now, there were whispers out there in August saying that Andrew Luck might suffer a huge drop off because of the young offensive line that would be playing in front of him. David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin were known quantities -- and All-Pac-10 selections in 2010 -- but the other three positions were question marks. In fact, it wasn't until late in training camp that Coach Shaw named Sam Schwartzstein, Cameron Fleming, and David Yankey the starters.
There were legitimate concerns early on, as Luck felt pressure and absorbed hits against Duke and then again against Arizona. Each week, though, the unit has gotten better, and in recent games Luck has enjoyed the time and space in the pocket that he was afforded last season. As evidence, he's only been sacked twice. The running game has also been consistent, if a bit less prolific than last season. Overall, I think this group has exceeded expectations and could potentially continue to improve in the second half of the season.
Wide Receivers: C
Chris Owusu leads the team in receptions with 25 and is second in yardage with 309, but injuries and inconsistency have kept him from meeting expectations thus far. He's long been seen as the one player on the roster who would be able to stretch a defense, but his 12.4 yards per catch average certainly isn't scaring anyone. The coaching staff hasn't given up on him yet, however. Luck has recently started throwing screen passes to him in an effort to get him the ball in space. I used to believe that this team could not be successful in the long term without huge contributions from Owusu, but I don't think that anymore. More on that later.
As Owusu has struggled, Griff Whalen has stepped in and embraced his role as a possession receiver. He has twenty receptions on the year, but seven of them (for seventy-six yards) came last week against Washington State. Look for his numbers to trend upwards a bit during the second half.
Tight Ends: A+
Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo have been simply amazing all season long. When I issued my season preview of the offense back in August, I predicted that the tight ends would combine for sixty receptions, 900 yards, and twelve touchdowns. They'll coast by the reception total in early November, and they've already met or exceeded my predictions in the other two categories. Right now they've got 44 catches, 837 yards, and twelve TDs.
These three have been so good that -- and so versatile -- that the disappearance of the wide receivers hasn't really mattered. Fleener has been the best (16 for 383, 6 TDs) of the three, but there isn't much dropoff behind him. Ertz has been consistent all season long, and Toilolo has been surging recently as evidenced by his two touchdowns last week.
The biggest mystery behind these three players is how defenses miss people this large (6'6", 6'6", and 6'8") and allow them to be so wide open so often. It will be interesting to see how the better defenses coming up on the schedule approach the tight ends.
Listen to any coach or player on the team and they'll tell you the same thing. Six and oh is nice, but this season will be defined by how the next six games turn out. I can't wait to see how it all shakes out.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]