FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 file photo, Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy (93) rushes the quarterback against San Jose State offensive tackle Wes Schweitzer (72) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Stanford, Calif. Murphy, the versatile linebacker, has grown into Stanfords most sought-after defensive prospect, possible first-round pick in Aprils NFL draft, who has made up for any shortcomings in his weight with his willpower. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Updated: September 19, 2013 11:10PM
Todd Graham rubbed some salt in Wisconsin’s wounds earlier this week. Two days removed from his team’s highly controversial victory over the Badgers, the Arizona State coach called their passing offense “primitive.”
One wouldn’t expect an opposing coach to say such a thing, though it’s not surprising that Graham feels that way. In his evolution as a head coach, Graham, whose background is on defense, has developed quite a taste for wide-open, ultra-fast-paced football. He’s like a lot of current coaches in that way, especially within the Pac-12, where Oregon has all but perfected the spread attack Graham’s Sun Devils are emulating.
But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or, in Wisconsin’s case, to hit someone over the head with a caveman’s club. Some of the best teams still consider angry fullbacks, two-tight-end sets and snaps from under center beautiful things.
Alabama, for one.
LSU, for another.
And then there’s Stanford. If there’s a team that most closely resembles college football’s top two superpowers, it’s the Cardinal. Even when Andrew Luck was still in Palo Alto, the aim was to man up and pummel opponents. Jim Harbaugh instilled toughness in the program. In two-plus seasons as coach, David Shaw, formerly Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator, has raised the talent level — especially on the defensive side of the ball — without compromising an ounce of that toughness.
“[Stanford] knows [its] identity,” Graham said during his weekly press conference in Tempe. “So did the team last week, they understood their identity. That’s what championship teams have: an identity.”
A week ago, Texas A&M coaches were looking at Alabama’s roster, marveling at the Crimson Tide’s sheer size and hoping they could combat it in ways that didn’t involve many head-on collisions. Around the Big Ten, that’s how opponents generally view Wisconsin.
In Pac-12 country, everyone knows you don’t mess with Stanford unless you’re ready for a bloody brawl. Graham didn’t have to face Stanford last season, his first at ASU. He’s about to get a close-up look at one of the largest teams in college football history.
Stanford’s four starting linebackers go 261 pounds, 254, 245 and 238. The really big one, Trent Murphy, is 6-6. Watching Murphy, Shayne Skov, 6-6 end Josh Mauro and the rest of the massive Cardinal defense get after Taylor Kelly and the ASU offense will be a spectacle, to say the least.
Shaw is an exceptionally bright game-planner who has complemented a tough-guy offensive mind-set with NFL-style sophistication.
“As far as the overall offense and what we want to do, we’re more diverse than we’ve been in years,” Shaw told reporters this week. “We want to be able to change personnel groupings and have the diversity to be good in everything we do.”
But what he wants most, deep down, is for Stanford to stare down the string of speed-first teams on its schedule — starting with the Pac-12 opener against the Sun Devils and peaking in November against Oregon — and pound them all into dust.
That’s how Alabama and LSU think. And it’s why Stanford has as good a chance as any team out there to end the SEC’s national title streak.