STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — David Shaw calls it "stealing second."
Similar to a baserunner who reads a pitcher's motion, the second-year Stanford coach has tried to teach his safeties the art of when to break against a quarterback by using baseball principles. The analogy comes from his father, Willie, who spent more than 30 years coaching defensive backs and linebackers at every level and still barks out the phrase when he attends practices.
Never has the approach seemed more pertinent to Shaw than this week.
With Andrew Luck no longer around to match Matt Barkley, the No. 21 Cardinal (2-0) must find a way to slow second-ranked Southern California's passing game Saturday night in a rematch of last season's triple-overtime thriller at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Barkley leads the nation with 10 touchdown passes, tossing six last week alone to power the Trojans (2-0) past Syracuse 42-29 and heighten his Heisman Trophy resume.
"It's all about reading a quarterback and anticipating his hand coming off the ball," Shaw said. "We need every healthy defensive back this week."
Any chance Stanford has at home will hinge largely on its passing defense — and maybe even "stealing second" once or twice — in what appears to be a lop-sided matchup.
At least on paper.
The Robert Woods-Marqise Lee receiver combo gave the Cardinal constant problems last season before Luck led four straight touchdown drives to end the game and let Stanford escape with a 56-48 victory. Shaw, a former Stanford wide receiver, called Lee and Woods the best college tandem he's ever seen and it's "not even close."
"I don't know if there ever has been in the modern era," he said.
While the Cardinal have won three straight against USC and Barkley, making it four in a row — a streak that has never happened in a series that dates back to 1905 between the schools — will perhaps be the most difficult.
Stanford has two new starting safeties, Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, and has combined to play 22 true freshmen and redshirt freshmen already this season. In all, 24 players have made their collegiate debut.
The running game has struggled to break free in wins over San Jose State and Duke with defenses stacking nine men near the line of scrimmage and putting pressure on new quarterback Josh Nunes to throw more than Shaw would prefer. The result has caused the Cardinal to depend on a defensive front seven that might be the Pac-12 Conference's best but also, at times, has been nullified by opponents with constant bubble screens and three-step drops to receivers on the outside.
Especially in losses to Oregon and Oklahoma State last season.
"We see people trying to challenge us and see if we can tackle in space," said Reynolds, who has three interceptions already after the team totaled seven all of last year. "We've had a strong emphasis on that since camp, even going back to spring ball. We kind of pride ourselves right now as far as making tackles in the open field and not having any breakdowns."