Even though this was a year of transition for the Cardinal, with Andrew Luck and a number of other key contributors leaving for the NFL, expectations were still high for Stanford coming into this season. Two disappointing losses and two strong wins over USC and Arizona later, how do fans feel about the course of the season so far? What do you expect the rest of the year?
Perhaps the greatest piece of evidence that the Stanford football program has turned the corner is the fact that the fan base is genuinely upset about a team that is 6-2. Just five years ago the standard of success was beating Cal most of the time and qualifying for a bowl game once in a while. Anything beyond that was thought to be impossible at a school like Stanford. After three years of Andrew Luck and two consecutive BCS bowl games, expectations have soared. Some of the criticisms raised by those who are dissatisfied are actually valid. This team has been terribly inconsistent, so it's difficult to predict how the rest of the season will unfold. Oregon looks like a certain loss, but wins in the other three games (Colorado, Oregon State, and UCLA) wouldn't be too surprising. If that scenario plays out (and Oregon wins out), the Cardinal would finish the regular season at 9-3 and likely head to the Rose Bowl. Not bad for a rebuilding year.
Obviously there was going to be a drop-off from Luck to new quarterback Josh Nunes, how has he done so far? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Poor Josh Nunes. You know how they say you don't want to be the guy who replaces The Guy, but you do want to be the guy who comes after that? Josh Nunes is Exhibit A. First of all, there was no way he could live up to the standard of excellence that Cardinal fans had been used to seeing from Andrew Luck, but he's been less than mediocre. The problem with that is that if this team had just an average quarterback, it would probably be 8-0 and ranked in the top five. But it isn't. Nunes has been awful on the road, and only marginally better at home, and a big part of his struggles seem to be mental. He has a tendency to throw screen passes at his running backs feet and miss wide open receivers on short crossing routes, but when he has to really let one rip down field, it's often right on the money. When he's just making a play based on instinct or physical ability, he seems to be fine, but when he has time to think about what he's doing, he often struggles.
Coach Shaw supported him vehemently throughout much of the early season, at one point referring to questions about his efficacy at quarterback as "asinine." But after the awful performance against Washington State, even Shaw seemed to have had enough. Two days ago he finally announced a partial change at quarterback. Shaw says that redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan will be taking 15-20 snaps at quarterback as part of the Hogan Package. Hogan is a running quarterback, even though Shaw insists that he's "just a quarterback," but so far we've only seen one pass attempt. The other twenty or so plays he's run over the past four weeks have all been read options, and they've typically been successful. The offense under Nunes is stagnant, predictable, and generally unsuccessful. Things are much more dynamic under Hogan, so it will be interesting to see how successful he is this Saturday.
Stepfan Taylor is the star of this offense, what other Cardinal players do Buffs fans need to watch out for?
Did I mention that the offense has been inconsistent? I'll say there are three players to watch for. The first two are tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, the team's two leading receivers. Toilolo is a huge target at 6'8", but Ertz has been emerging lately as Nunes's favorite receiver. Ertz and Toilolo will both be playing tight end in the NFL soon enough, and both present huge matchup problems for the linebackers and defensive backs assigned to guard them. The third player to watch is kind of a sleeper, but I've got a feeling that sophomore running back Kelsey Young just might have a big day. He's often the feature back in the Hogan Package, and when Hogan decides to pitch to him, he can use his blazing speed to hit the edge and chew up some yardage. I think we might be hearing his name a lot on Saturday.
The Cardinal have another strong defense helping to carry a still coming together offense. Who are the playmakers and leaders of this defensive unit?
The unquestioned emotional leader of this defense -- and it's a great defense -- is inside linebacker Shayne Skov, but the two most productive linebackers play on the outside. All-America Chase Thomas has been as good as expected this year, but the true surprise of the defense has been Trent Murphy. Thomas and Murphy will wreak havoc behind the line of scrimmage all afternoon, then use the hash tag #partyinthebackfield to talk about it all on Twitter as soon as they sit down on the team bus. Thomas and Murphy (and maybe Skov) are probably locks for All-Pac-12 honors, and safety Ed Reynolds should join them on those lists. Reynolds leads the conference in interceptions with four, and he's taken two of those picks back to the house for scores. Also, watch for true freshman Alex Carter at cornerback. He suffered through some growing pains in his first career start last week, but he has the talent to be great down the road.
If you were Buffaloes head coach Jon Embree how would try and attack this Cardinal defense?
I hope Embree isn't reading this, because I'm about to give away a big secret. The Stanford defense is good against the run. Thanks to a boatload of sacks, their last two opponents -- Cal and Washington State -- finished with a combined total of -13 yards rushing. That's an impressive number. If you're going to move the ball against this group, you'll have to do it through the air. Coach Shaw's theory of pass defense is to have the defensive backs keep the ball in front of them and come up to make the tackles. In years past this was a disaster, because even though they could back pedal furiously to prevent the deep pass, they weren't fast enough or strong enough to make the tackles after the catch was made. This current group is big, fast, and hard-hitting, so even though they've yielded yardage, they've done a good job limiting points. Even so, that's Colorado's best shot.
How do you see this game playing out? Could Colorado put a scare into Stanford, similar to last week's game against Washington State? Could Stanford be overlooking the Buffs with Oregon State up next?
This is a Stanford win. After last weekend's debacle, I'm guessing we'll see a pretty focused Stanford squad on Saturday, and hopefully that will translate to a comfortable, relaxing win. I think we'll see some nice things from the Hogan Package, and hopefully some more consistency from the offensive line in the running game. Putting all that together, I see a 31-6 win for the Cardinal.