In praise of the linebackers

As we've gone over before, there were a lot of bright spots to come out of Saturday's game. But in my mind, one of the brightest was the play of the linebackers.

Andy Mattingly, Louis Bland and Jason Stripling showed that, without question, they are one of two units on this team that are legitimately Pac-10 caliber. (Running back being the other.) In the face of what figures to be one of the better rushing attacks the team will face all year, the trio combined for 18 of the Cougs' 59 tackles.

That's what linebackers are supposed to do, and it's something that was missing all too often last season.

We've mentioned in the past that their effectiveness this season would likely be predicated on improved play by the line in front of them. While the defensive line didn't rack up a lot of tackles against Stanford, they did do their job most of the time against the run, occupying gaps and allowing the linebackers to slice in and make the play after only a few yards or less gained.

That's a far cry from last year, when three of the team's top four tacklers were guys in the secondary because the linebackers were routinely getting engaged and dominated by offensive linemen. Saturday was an incredibly welcome sight.

Mattingly only had three tackles -- this might be more perception than reality, but it seemed like Stanford was running away from Mattingly more often than not -- but it took just one play to restore our hope that he can indeed be the playmaker on defense we've been lusting after. Chasing down a fleet-footed quarterback from behind on a fourth-down play that kept the game from spiraling out of control? That's what game-changers do.

Stripling looks like he's on the verge of living up to the promise he's shown at times over the past four years, repeatedly sticking his nose in the mix and showing an ability to move laterally and chase down runners. Yes, he got fooled a few times on misdirection, but that can be corrected.

And Bland? Let's just say that I'm starting to feel like this is a guy whom I've too often overlooked. He showed on Saturday that opponents will do the same at their own peril. A safety who converted to outside linebacker partway through last year, only to be asked to convert to middle linebacker during game week ... and then leads the team in tackles with 10 -- eight solo?

Did we mention he hasn't played in the middle "since Pop Warner?"

Are you serious?

I'll be the first to admit that I was incredibly skeptical when I heard that Bland was moving inside. The guy tipped the scales at just a hair over two bills last season (when he really did look like a safety playing linebacker), and was facing one of the more physical lines the team will face this year. Yet, he showed that he's strong enough -- the team upped its weight listing of him this week to 221, which makes sense to me, because watching him on Saturday I kept thinking, "No way that guy is still 202!" -- and smart enough to get off blocks and smack one of the strongest runners in the conference in the mouth. 

Don't underestimate how big of a move it is from outside to inside. The guys are asked to do very different things. If Bland isn't the smartest football player in the conference, he's in the top five. And he's ours. I can't help but think I'm going to spend a heck of a lot of time over the next three seasons writing extensively about what an incredible player he is. Major kudos to the coaching staff for thinking outside the box and finding a way to get the best three linebackers on the field.

Now, Bland apparently is questionable for this weekend with that balky knee, but I'd be shocked if he wasn't on the field -- he's proven that he's as tough as they come. So, I can't wait to watch these guys again on Saturday. The Cougs blitzed very little against the Cardinal, presumably in an effort to keep big plays to a minimum (of course, Stanford found a way to get them anyway), and one has to wonder if that's going to change a bit this weekend against a run-and-shoot offense that can be vulnerable to blitzing linebackers. Unless our defensive line can generate some pressure with the front four, you have to believe that blitzing is going to be necessary, lest our secondary get picked apart.

And I gotta admit -- the prospect excites me. If we're going to go down, might as well go down swinging with our best guys.

Of course, there's always the possibility we don't go down. And that's infinitely more exciting.

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