Stanford ended the Andrew Luck era and the 2011 season with a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl on Monday night.
Luck, the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up, will now head to the NFL where he may be the league’s next transformative quarterback, in the footsteps of Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers.
How will Luck-less Stanford maintain its prominence as one of CFB’s top programs?
To begin with, there are several areas for improvement. Read on for five vital fixes.
A Fiesta Bowl to forget for PK Jordan Williamson
All too familiar Fiesta bowl sight: Weeden unpressured
In 2011, Stanford surrendered an average of over 241 passing yards per game—78th in FBS.
The Fiesta Bowl was no different, as the Cowboys rolled up nearly 400 yards passing. Brandon Weeden was rarely hurried or pressured and was sacked just once.
The Cardinal will need an improved pass rush in 2012.
Senior LB Chase Thomas was second in the Pac-12 in sacks, with 8.5. He’s graduating. The only returnee with more than five sacks is LB Trent Murphy, who registered the Cardinal's only sack of Weeden.
The Cardinal will welcome the return of LB Shayne Skov—one of the nation’s most dynamic and disruptive defenders.
He had 12 tackles, including three sacks, in the 2011 Orange Bowl, but played in only three 2011 regular season games before blowing out his left knee at Arizona.
Skov’s return could mean more pressure on opposing Pac-12 quarterbacks like Matt Barkley, Keith Price and Zack Maynard.
Hard to cover
In addition to the pass rush, Stanford will need better secondary play in 2012. The Cardinal had only six interceptions in 2011—last in the Pac-12.
The Fiesta Bowl looked like a rerun of the USC and Oregon games for Stanford.
Cowboys QB Brandon Weeden threw for 399 yards, and two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon ran amok all night long, with eight catches for 186 yards and three TDs.
Four of the top six Cardinal DBs will depart via graduation. The key returnees will be Terrence Brown, Barry Browning and Wayne Lyons. All saw significant action in 2011, and all missed time due to injuries as well.
The Pac-12 in 2012 will again be a pass-happy league. USC, Oregon, Washington and Cal all return their starting quarterbacks from high-octane passing attacks.
Stanford’s secondary will need to cover better, tackle surely and be opportunistic in 2012.
Ty Montgomery: a star is born
Andrew Luck’s gaudy statistics are all the more impressive because he lacked a consistent deep threat for much of 2011. Senior WR Chris Owusu missed most of the team’s crucial November games dues to a series of concussions, and former walk-on Griff Whalen became Luck’s favorite target.
Whalen was largely a possession receiver, with four touchdowns on 49 catches. At the Fiesta Bowl, Whalen did his usual deluxe impression of Wes Welker, with seven catches for 85 yards.
In 2012, whoever replaces Luck will benefit greatly if Ty Montgomery or one of Stanford’s several other recent 3-star and 4-star wideout recruits step up and make plays, week in and week out.
Montgomery had a breakout game in the Fiesta Bowl, with career bests of seven receptions for 120 yards and the game's first touchdown.
Among the best college QBs ever
Just kidding. Stanford led the nation during the regular season in 2011 with 63 scores on 64 trips to the red zone. There’s not much room for improvement there.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Stanford succeeded on all of its red-zone visits—except the last one, as Jordan Williamson's potential game-winning field goal sailed wide left.
Whoever replaces Andrew Luck will have to play nearly perfect football to match Luck’s nearly flawless red-zone leadership. But there's lots to be optimistic about as Stanford now looks to the 2012 season.