By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Even the offensive players were gushing over how well the Stanford defense played in Saturday's 35-0 Pac-10 football victory over UCLA. They have plenty of experience working against them in practice, so they aren't just guessing.
The defense will be put to the test this week, when Wake Forest's explosive triple-option offense makes the scene at Stanford Stadium on Saturday in an 8:15 p.m. scheduled kickoff.
"Our defense has really grown a lot and the whole nation saw that Saturday," Cardinal senior wide receiver Ryan Whalen said.
The Stanford defense ranks among the country's top 10 in four defensive categories, including seventh in total defense and pass defense and eighth in efficiency defense.
Wake Forest, though, ranks fourth in rushing offense (322.0), third in scoring offense (53.50) and 11th in overall offense (504.4).
"You look at that offense and they are expert at it," Harbaugh said. "That coaching staff has been together for 10 years and the players are good at executing it. It's really impressive how good they are at it."
The Demon Deacons have carved their 2-0 record from the carcasses of Presbyterian College (currently on a 16-game losing streak) and Duke (losers of five of its last six games), who were a combined 5-18 last season.
Stanford (2-0) has elicited its mark out of Sacramento State and UCLA, a combined 12-12 and one bowl game appearance in 2009.
Yet Wake Forest owns the bragging rights over Stanford, scoring in the final seconds of their meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C. last year to secure a 24-17 victory.
"That was a tough loss on the road," Whalen said. "It's one of the games marked on our calendar."
It was one of the rare games in which Toby Gerhart did not reach 100 rushing yards. But Whalen and quarterback Andrew Luck each had big games. Luck was 23-of-34 for 276 yards and two touchdowns, both to Whalen, who caught nine passes for 123 yards.
"We remember that loss," Luck said. "We take that as extra motivation. Hopefully we can turn the tables on them."
Luck's passing statistics against UCLA were a little mundane but he made up for it with his legs, rushing for 63 yards on seven carries, including a 16-yard gain. He raced for a first down four times during an 18-play scoring drive in the third quarter that put the Cardinal in the driver's seat.
"We were a little off timing-wise, nothing huge," Whalen said. "We keep working to refine some of those things."
Luck, as usual, took the blame for completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes for the first time since last year's Big Game.
"I missed some throws I know I can make," he said. "The offense did a good job of slugging it out. At halftime I was thinking if the throwing thing is not working out, maybe my third option would be to run the ball. It bailed me out."
Luck is Stanford's leading returning rusher from last season, though it appears that sophomore Stepfan Taylor, with senior Jeremy Stewart sidelined with an undisclosed injury, started against the Bruins and is currently the team's leading rusher. He was third behind Gerhart and Luck last season.
While Luck is urged to run the ball when needed, it still doesn't make it any easier for Harbaugh whenever he tucks the ball down and goes; especially when he was looking to score and lowered his head to meet his assailants helmet to helmet.
"There's more a part of me that cringes," Harbaugh said. "He has this thing about the first hit and the first game. Now he's got to slide more often."
Luck understands his coaches' concern, but with the end zone so close he couldn't help it.
"I wanted to score," he said.
As for the 'first hit' thing, Luck said he doesn't feel like a football player until he absorbs his first contact. In a game last year, instead of running out of bounds untouched, Luck tried to turn it upfield and put a shoulder into his tackler.
"The quarterback doesn't get hit all spring or in fall training camp," Luck said. "It's nice to get hit. I need to get hit to feel like it's a football game."
The offensive line has allowed one sack this season, so his contact usually comes when he's trying to make a play with his legs.
NOTES: A Wake Forest sports forum has compiled "Stanford look-alikes" using mugshots to compare players to other characters. Brian Bulcke is compared to Mr. Incredible, for example, while Owen Marecic's double is Michael Bolton. Athletic trainer Rob Dalnoki bears a likeness with Wayne Knight's 'Neumann." The best, of course, was reserved for Harbaugh. Check it out . . . Demon Deacon injuries include backup quarterback Ted Stachitas (bone chip in left hand) and junior safety Josh Bush (hamstring). In addition to true freshman Tanner Price at quarterback, freshman A.J. Marshall may see his first start . . . Stanford is 4-8 all-time against teams currently in the ACC.