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The Cardinal defense coordinated by Lance Anderson faces a tough make-up test Saturday against San Diego State. Stanford allowed more than 300 rushing yards to USC and has a chance for redemption against powerful running back Rashaad Penny.
In a 30-20 win Aztec last week over Arizona State, Penny had 216 yards on 18 carries, including a 95-yard touchdown.
It's an opportunity against a physical opponent to show improvement from a performance at the LA Coliseum that left Anderson and players feeling disappointed.
"I think we gave effort, but we did not execute the way we needed to, especially just physically," Anderson said. "There were times they physically beat us and knocked us off the ball. What was even more disappointing was the number of mistakes. (There was) some alignment mistakes, fit mistakes and we were pretty basic in what we ran -- things that we have been practicing a lot of and are core calls for us. The number of mistakes was disappointing. You have to give them (USC) credit. They played well and executed well and we did not. I hope we're capable of more."
Maybe not since Michigan State in the 2014 Rose Bowl, according to head coach David Shaw, has Stanford played a team that so closely mirrors what Stanford aims to do with tight ends, a fullback and a smash-mouth approach on offense.
"They’re going to run right at us," Shaw said. "They’re going to be physical and play hard. They’re going to play fast. They’re a very aggressive team on both sides of the ball. We have to make sure we’re the same."
There's no mystery about what San Diego State's offense will look to do against Stanford. The Aztecs will lean on the broad shoulders of the 220-pound Penny. The Sun Devils struggled to bring him down or keep pace with him.
— SDSU Football (@Aztec_Football) September 10, 2017
Shaw reflected after a Stanford practice that Penny jumps off the screen as a future NFL player.
"Every game you look at he finds a way to make plays," Shaw said. "He has a combination of size, speed and strength that is impressive."
— Judson Richards (@Judson1360) September 10, 2017
Penny had to wait his turn last season behind record-breaking running back Donnel Pumphrey, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards and is now with the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, Penny rushed for 1,018 yards last year and averaged 7.5 yards a carry.
After two games this season he's nearly halfway to that total with 416 yards at 10.6 yards per carry.
San Diego State's offensive identity has been years in the making and is now a well established badge of honor: "There’s a mentality that your program starts to have that you take a lot of pride in, because it can’t just be the runner," Shaw said. "It has to be all the guys up front, the fullbacks, the tight ends and the receivers blocking downfield. You take pride in helping a guy make big plays."
USC was able to run very effectively against Stanford's nickel defense. USC head coach Clay Helton was able to lean on a dominant night from the line to beat Stanford up front. Combined with the special quarterback talent of Sam Darnold, USC seemed to have unlimited choices to gain yards.
That is not the case with San Diego State's run first and second approach.
"It is a little different (than USC) because they'll run bigger personnel groups," Anderson said. "You're going to see a lot of tight ends fullbacks on the field. It's going to be a physical challenge and we have to respond. The good thing is we do see similar things from our offense ... so hopefully that will help in our preparation."
Aztec quarterback Christian Chapman passed for fewer than 2,000 yards last season and had only 73 against Arizona State. San Diego State didn't need to pass the ball more than that because of their run game and special teams.
Given the clear preference by the San Diego State coaches to run the ball, and Stanford's struggles last week, the Cardinal may load the box to challenge the Aztecs.
Expect the Aztecs to be ready to meet the Cardinal head on in a game that is getting a lot of hype in San Diego.