Luck leads Cardinal in season opener against Spartans

The seventh-ranked Stanford Cardinal begin play under their 34th head coach, David Shaw, as the program welcomes familiar foe and nearby contender San Jose State on Saturday.

Shaw, who served as Stanford's offensive coordinator the last four seasons, was appointed as the newest head coach the second week of January after Jim Harbaugh left to assume the same position with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. Shaw, the fifth Stanford alum to hold the position of head coach, takes over a program that was a sensational 12-1 last season, the lone loss coming at Oregon in early October by a score of 52-31. After that the Cardinal rattled off eight consecutive wins, including a 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Not only does Stanford have the third-longest win streak in the nation heading into 2011, it also ranks as the program's longest run since 1951. The school record for consecutive wins stands at 13 and this version of the Cardinal will certainly challenge that number as it begins play in the reconstituted Pac-12 Conference which has added Colorado and Utah and sprouted into two divisions.

As for the Spartans, they are quickly moving in the wrong direction as they enter the new campaign with the longest losing streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 10 in a row. San Jose State won just one of its 13 outings a year ago, a narrow 16-11 win over Southern Utah at home. A member of the Western Athletic Conference, SJSU has dropped nine straight league tests and is winless in the last 14 road efforts as well, although head coach Mike MacIntyre doesn't necessarily see this matchup as a road game.

"Saturday we kick off against Stanford which is an exciting game for our young men, they love playing in the area and it's like a home game for us, we get to stay in the same hotel and don't have to travel thousands of miles to play our opening game...We're looking forward to the game and to all our fans and friends being in the stands."

The relationship between these two teams dates back more than a century, with Stanford in complete control with a record of 49-14-1. The Cardinal has taken seven of the last eight encounters, including a lopsided 42-17 win at Stanford Stadium two seasons ago. The last win for SJSU came in 2006 when the Spartans captured a narrow 35-34 victory in this same venue. For Stanford, the series with the Spartans far out-numbers that of any other non-conference foe, the schools getting together for their 65th meeting this weekend.

Four times last season the Spartans were held to single digits in scoring and with a new starting quarterback in Matt Faulkner there might be more of those sorts of days yet to come still. Faulkner appeared in 10 games last season as a reserve behind Jordan La Secla, his lone TD pass coming against UC Davis. A transfer from Mount San Antonio College where he led his squad to a perfect 13-0 campaign in 2009, Faulkner threw for more than 3,300 yards and 30 TDs the last time he was a starter.

Hopefully, players like wideouts Kyle Nunn and Noel Grigsby will make the transition to Faulkner as smooth as possible. Grigsby was a Second Team Freshman All-American after setting a SJSU freshman mark with 56 receptions for 822 yards. Nunn has also been installed as a starter on the outside after posting 24 catches for 250 yards in 2010.

Now in his fourth season with the Spartans, running back Brandon Rutley will be asked to take some of the pressure off Faulkner after he gained 461 yards on the ground a year ago for one of the weakest rushing attacks (78.5 ypg) in the country.

When it comes to defense, the Spartans have far too many holes to fill all at once and can't be expected to rebound so quickly after such an awful display a year ago when they ranked 104th in the country against the run (203.2 ypg) and were 105th in scoring defense with 34.7 ppg allowed. Having safety Duke Ihenacho back is certainly a step in the right direction, the two-time, First Team All-WAC performer being named to the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List for the second time in the last three campaigns.

But as good as Ihenacho might be, trying to slow down Stanford quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner Andrew Luck will be a burden that no one man can take on alone.

Luck, who could have easily left for the NFL after last season when he was third in the nation in pass efficiency with a rating of 170.16 and threw for more than 3,300 yards and 32 touchdowns, has all the makings of a pro signal- caller but delayed his move to the next level because he wanted to earn his degree in architectural design. The runner-up for the Heisman a year ago, Luck is on the initial watch list for the Davey O'Brien Award after being named the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year last season.

"One thing people don't talk about, aside from arm strength, mobility, football mind, and checks and audibles is that we put a lot on his plate," coach Shaw recently told Mark Soltau on the eve of the season opener. "But everything he does he wants to do it all out and better than he did it the last time. That's the way he plays. That's the best part."

Although they don't get top billing, the running backs for the Cardinal are also crucial pieces of the puzzle, especially after they combined to record the second-highest rushing total in school history in 2010 as they averaged 213.8 ypg. Stepfan Taylor highlights a list of players coming out of the backfield after being named honorable mention All-Pac-10 a year ago for his 1,137 yards on 223 carries.

Because Stanford was such a high-scoring team last year (40.3 ppg to rank ninth nationally) the run defense probably wasn't tested as much as it should have been and that's why the squad looked so good on paper with just 120.9 ypg allowed. More importantly, the 2011 version of the Cardinal pass defense has to live up to 2010's group which was second in the conference and 16th in the country with an efficiency rating of 112.8. Luckily, the secondary for Stanford is the most experienced group on that side of the ball, sporting four starters with a combined 50 starts between them.