The Ralphie Report was asked two do two different Stanford Q&A's this week so we decided to ask both the same questions to get comparative responses. Thanks to Scott from Rule of Tree and Hank from Go Mighty Card for helping us out.
Stanford is off to a hot start again this year and looks solid on the defensive side of the ball. After watching the first four games of the year, does this team run the table in the Pac-12 & against Notre Dame and go undefeated (i.e. does Stanford beat Oregon?)?
Before the season, I predicted Stanford would run the table. When Stanford lost its best defensive player, linebacker Shayne Skov, to a season-ending knee injury against Arizona, it forced me and a lot of Cardinal fans to reconsider Stanford's BCS hopes. The defense played pretty well in its first test sans-Skov, but the Ducks are on a different level offensively than any other team Stanford will face this season. The Cardinal is fortunate to have a backloaded schedule and my sense is that the defense will improve enough over the next month to keep the Ducks from running wild. Playing at home -- and more importantly, not playing at Autzen -- is certainly an advantage. I'll stick by my prediction and say Stanford runs the table.
Go Mighty Card: The short answer: Yes. The long answer: We learn a bit more about this team each week, and we'll know an awful lot more a month from now. The schedule is extremely backloaded, and that's worked out nicely for a team with a new head coach and three new offensive linemen. Beginning on October 29th, the last five weeks of the season see the Cardinal travelling to play at USC and Oregon State before closing out the season with three straight home games against Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame. The Trojan offense will offer a stiff test, but Andrew Luck and the Stanford offense should slice and dice the USC defense and score enough to come away with the win. Neither Oregon State nor Cal should offer any resistance, but Oregon will obviously be a challenge. I'm hoping the home field advantage will tip the scales in the Cardinal's favor. Notre Dame is a work in progress, so it's hard to say what type of team they'll bring out west on Thanksgiving weekend, but they will be decided underdogs.
Much more after the jump...
There is always room for improvement even when you have a high powered offense and a defense that has been solid so far. Where do you want to see the Cardinal continue to improve in preparation for that November 12th matchup with Oregon?
Echoing part of my last answer, the pass defense needs to improve a bit. Stanford hasn't given up a lot of big plays, which is one way that Oregon will kill you, but the defense also hasn't forced many turnovers. In fact, the Cardinal doesn't have a single interception to date. I'd also like to see the wide receivers become more involved in the offense. At some point, a team is going to figure out a way to slow down Stanford's tight ends, and the onus is going to fall on Chris Owusu, Griff Whalen, and the rest of the wide receiving corps to pick up the slack.
Go Mighty Card: It's been an awful lot of fun to watch the Stanford offense so far this year. The playbook has opened a little wider each game, and last week's game plan featured an array of creative formations, including several different wildcat looks and a pass to Andrew Luck that you might've heard about. It also might've been the most impressive game of Luck's career. Not only did he finish with an ultra efficient stat line (23 of 27 for 227 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions), Coach Shaw revealed this week that Luck was actually calling the plays during large chunks of the game. It wasn't a situation where he was given three or four options and made a choice at the line of scrimmage -- he does that on every single down. He was directing a no huddle offense and choosing plays from the entire playbook. I know of exactly one quarterback in football who does this, and he's currently walking the sidelines in Indianapolis with a sore neck. But since you asked about areas of improvement, the easy target is the wide receivers. Chris Owusu has had some good moments, but more was definitely expected from him. Beyond that, the Cardinal has gotten almost no production from the wideouts. We expect each week to see more, but so far it hasn't happened.
There are more questions on the other side of the ball. The front seven has done an incredible job against the run, and statistically speaking the Cardinal is the fourth-best run defense in the land. In all four games, though, teams have been able to move the ball through the air. Recently I've come to think that the defensive philosophy is to keep all the receivers in front of the defenders, allowing for short completions but tackling those receivers immediately. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. What's odd is that the defensive backfield is loaded. Safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell unquestionably form the best safety tandem in the conference, and even if cornerbacks Johnson Bademosi and Barry Browning can't honestly be classified as shutdown corners, they both man their positions well. I think it's fair to say that more was expected from this group. They took a hit recently when true freshman Wayne Lyons, a player who was already contributing regularly, suffered a fracture to his foot, an injury that might keep him out for the rest of the season.
After four games, how do you assess David Shaw's performance and are fans missing Jim Harbaugh?
David Shaw's been great so far. While he hasn't exactly been in any pressure-packed situations -- the Cardinal hasn't trailed all season -- he deserves a lot of credit for helping refocus the team at halftime of the Arizona game. The game was still close and Stanford had lost Skov in the second quarter. The defense came out in the second half and absolutely dominated. I think Stanford fans will always appreciate what Jim Harbaugh did for this program, but he seemingly left it in very capable hands, and to a man who could stick around for many, may years. I'm happy to see him doing well in the NFL, though.
Go Mighty Card: In my mind Jim Harbaugh will always be the one who rebuilt the program and instilled a belief in Stanford football, starting with the athletic department and filtering down to the players and fans. Before his arrival I never thought it possible that Stanford could compete consistently within the conference, and now I write regularly about Heisman Trophy and national championship possibilities. All that being said, I haven't heard from a single Cardinal fan who wishes he were still leading the program instead of David Shaw. Harbaugh was the ideal coach -- perhaps even the only coach -- to turn the program around, but Shaw might be the ideal coach to keep things heading in the right direction. Harbaugh's brash attitude was necessary to convince players, coaches, and fans around the conference -- and even on his own campus -- that Stanford football was relevant, but Shaw's quiet confidence fits well with a team that's already expected to win. As mentioned above, he's given Luck a great deal more responsibility, and he's demonstrated that he's an effective game coach, both with his leadership on the sidelines and willingness to make adjustments during halftime. There may have been some concern in certain corners of the fan base when he was hired, but all of those concerns have evaporated.
We know about Andrew Luck and Chris Owusu, who are a few of the other players we should be watching out for when the Cardinal have the ball?
Pick a tight end, any tight end. I've taken to calling them the TriumviratE. Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, and Levine Toilolo could all play in the NFL one day. Ertz and Fleener have been two of Luck's main targets thus far, while the 6-foot-8 Toilolo has proven to be a big play threat. Stepfan Taylor has carried the load on the ground, producing back-to-back 100-yard games. Fullback Ryan Hewitt, who replaces two-way standout Owen Marecic, is a solid receiver out of the backfield, and Luck could look to him often if Colorado is able to generate some pressure.
Go Mighty Card: Even though the quarterback is the Heisman candidate, the offense is built around the running game. Left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro are two of the best in the country, and they pave the way for a strong rushing attack led by junior Stepfan Taylor. Taylor's been warming up lately, totaling 265 yards in his last two games, and he's on pace for his second straight thousand yard season. A new wrinkle was introduced into the running game last week as senior running back Tyler Gaffney was featured a handful of times in the wildcat formation, so we can probably expect to see that again. Owusu is the leading receiver, but he hasn't been as productive as the tight ends. Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo form the best tight end group in college football, and you could even argue that the Cardinal has more talent playing tight end than any team in the NFL. In four games the three of them have combined for 25 receptions for 465 yards and nine touchdowns. Playing time is divided fairly equally amongst them, but it isn't uncommon to see all three on the field at once, not only in jumbo packages but also in standard sets with one or two of them split out wide or in the slot. They've been particularly effective in play action, so watch for that as well.
Looking at the stats, it looks like Stanford is having great success stopping the run. Who are a few of the players in the front seven that Buff fans will hear a lot from on Saturday? Who will cover Colorado WR Paul Richardson?
Outside linebacker Chase Thomas and defensive end Ben Gardner have been awesome thus far in the 3-4 scheme. Thomas has 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, while Gardner has 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Nose tackle Terrence Stephens has also played well. I'd imagine that Johnson Bademosi, the more experienced of Stanford's starting cornerbacks, will be matched up with Richardson. The strength of Stanford's secondary is at safety. Seniors Michael Thomas and Delano Howell are two of the best in the Pac-12.
Go Mighty Card: If you had asked me this question three weeks ago I'd have spent at least a paragraph raving about inside linebacker Shayne Skov, but he injured his knee against Arizona and has been lost for the season. Even without Skov, though, the unit has remained productive. You probably won't hear their names called too often, but Matt Masifilo, Terrence Stephens, and Ben Gardner have done a great job on the defensive line, absorbing blocks to allow outside linebacker Chase Thomas to wreck havoc at and beyond the line of scrimmage. I detailed the issues facing the defensive backs up above, so it will be interesting to see how they handle a consistent receiver like Richardson. It won't be any one player's responsibility to defend Richardson. Instead, he'll likely see a rotation of players.
There has been a lot of talk about potential expansion (even though that has cooled with Larry Scott's declaration that the Pac 12 will not expand for now). What is Stanford's stance on expansion and how much does education requirements influence their decision?
Personally, I wasn't a fan of expansion, but I understand the reasons for it, Larry Scott helped secure one heckuva TV deal, and I don't have any problems with Utah or Colorado. I'd like to stop here, though. I think the academic profile of a school being considered for expansion is important to all of the schools in the conference. If the Pac-12 re-opens its doors to expansion down the road, I think it's equally important to target schools with solid all-around athletic programs, rather than schools that excel primarily at the revenue sports.
Go Mighty Card: Academics will obviously always be of prime importance at Stanford, and I think the University agrees with the conference's general stance that any school added to the current twelve should be an academic and cultural match for the current schools. Colorado and Utah both fit this criteria, as well as making geographic sense, but I'm not sure what other schools out there, aside from maybe Texas, would fit. I hope we stick at twelve for a while.
Over/Under - Stanford scoring 50 points this weekend?
I'll take the over. 52-17, Stanford.
Go Mighty Card: I think Stanford stays under fifty points, but it'll be close. The offense had been struggling a bit early in games, but last week they drove ninety-nine yards for a touchdown on their first possession. I think they'll look to do that again, and I'll put the number at 48. Here's my final score: Stanford 48, Colorado 13.
Does anything scare you about the game Saturday?
Staying healthy and -- no, just staying healthy. That's about all, though I suppose Richardson could go off for 300 yards.
Go Mighty Card: Three weeks ago Stanford beat Arizona, 37-10, but there were moments early in the second quarter when the game, and by extension the season, was in doubt. With the expectations as high as they are this year, there's an element of fear for fans each time the Cardinal takes the field. We're talking about twenty-year-old kids, so there's always the possibility that things could start going wrong and the players could respond poorly. That's the fear. It's a small one, but it's still a fear.