And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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As the calendar turns to October, the heart of the football season arrives. The next month will likely determine the fate of the Irish, kicking off with Saturday’s matchup against Stanford.

No stranger to David Shaw and the Cardinal, the Irish know they are in for their biggest challenge of the season. Stanford’s defense will test Everett Golson and the Irish offense, requiring a near perfect Saturday for the Irish to advance undefeated.

As we did in the spring, we connected with Stanford Daily Executive Editor Joseph Beyda. Joey took the time to answer a few of my questions about the Cardinal four games into the season. In addition to writing for the school paper, Joey co-authored the book “Rags to Roses,” and also covered the Cardinal’s women’s soccer national title for the New York Times. He’s a senior majoring in electrical engineering.

Hope you enjoy.

 

The Cardinal are 3-1 and ranked 14th in the country. While they’ve coasted to easy victories over UC Davis and Army, they pulled out a tight victory over Washington and lost a close game to USC. With one-third of the season behind, is this team better or worse than you imagined?

How about this: The Cardinal actually look a bit better than expected, but at the same time, they have severely underperformed through four games on offense. That’s the contradiction Stanford fans have been wrestling with so far this season, and it’s the only reason why the team didn’t blow out USC and Washington.

Let me explain. To begin with, there have certainly been some positives for the Cardinal offense. Star receiver Ty Montgomery’s role has expanded past the passing game and kickoff returns, as he now fields punts, serves as Stanford’s primary Wildcat back and has even taken some read-option handoffs from Kevin Hogan.

The tight end position, which accounted for just 10 catches last year (down from 93 in 2012), has already doubled its production with 20 receptions so far, bringing back an intermediate passing game that is crucial for Hogan’s success. And even without a true power back in the Toby Gerhart-Stepfan Taylor-Tyler Gaffney mold, Remound Wright and Kelsey Young (Stanford’s two primary options) are both above five yards per carry.

But the offense’s inconsistency has been maddening, especially against USC and Washington. The loss to the Trojans was particularly incomprehensible: Stanford got to the USC 32-yard line on each and every drive – that’s nine times – and finished with just 10 points. Let that sink in for a second. It all came down to a mix of incredibly inopportune penalties, turnovers deep in Trojans territory, bad blocking by the offensive line and missed field goals, and three weeks later the Cardinal nearly beat itself again against Washington with more of the same.

The coaching buzzword here is that Stanford needs to “execute” better, and for all the close games the Cardinal has played over the last two seasons, that label seems to fit this team the best. For 80 yards of the football field, Stanford’s offense has looked worthy of a top-five team, and the talent is certainly there. But we all know it’s those last 20 yards that count.

 

The defense doesn’t seem to have lost a step with Derek Mason and a lot of talent departing. Looking over the stats there are a lot of familiar names and a few new ones, too. Is first-year defensive coordinator Lance Anderson doing anything differently? What has been the most impressive part of the nation’s No. 1 defense?

I told you in May that Stanford’s rebuilt front seven wouldn’t miss a beat. Well, here you go.

But in all honestly, I didn’t expect the Cardinal to be better defensively this year than it was last year, after the loss of Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Ed Reynolds and others. Stanford ranks first in the country in a few notable categories: total defense (198 yards per game), scoring defense (6.5 points per game) and passing defense (74 yards per game). That includes showdowns with both USC’s dynamic hurry-up and Chris Petersen at Washington.

Anderson hasn’t changed much, which is part of what makes this front seven so impressive. The guys who had been waiting in the wings have stepped up, so Stanford can just keep doing what it had done in the past – only better. Outside linebacker Kevin Anderson, who backed up Trent Murphy last year, has made some big stops this season, and his backup, sophomore Peter Kalambayi, actually leads the team in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (four). Stanford has also successfully rotated four or five inside linebackers despite the loss of two fifth-year seniors.

If there’s any big shift for the Cardinal defense, it’s coming from new secondary coach Duane Akina, the longtime Texas DBs guru who essentially replaced Mason’s expertise on the staff. He had a line from fall camp that hinted at the changes that were in the works, joking to his players, “It’s hard when you’ve taken French, and we’re trying to teach you Chinese.” So far, the DBs have been pretty fluent.

 

The offense doesn’t seem to be hitting on all cylinders just yet, failing to break 200 yards rushing this season. How has the rebuilt offensive line performed? Are the Cardinal getting the explosive plays they wanted from the passing game? Any surprises or disappointments thus far?

The two biggest factors for Stanford this season were always going to be the offensive line and quarterback Kevin Hogan. The line – made up of five juniors, four of them first-time starters, all from Stanford’s historic 2012 O-line recruiting class – started off slowly and had some of the more devastating hiccups (red zone penalties, poor protection, etc.) against USC. But the unit has gotten better in each of its last two games since then, and you really couldn’t complain about their performance against Washington, which had led the nation in sacks (19 in its first four games) before recording just one against Stanford.

Hogan has been another story. Head coach David Shaw has been saying since Hogan’s redshirt freshman season, when he took over as starter, that the dynamic quarterback just had to cut down on the five or so bad plays he had every game. Two years later, the issue hasn’t changed. Against Washington, Hogan stared down a blanketed Montgomery before throwing a predictable pick and also lost a fumble later in the game. His throws are often high and late, squandering yards after catch and nullifying what would be easy completions. Surrounded by a receiver corps that could be the best in the country, Hogan is often the weakest link in the Cardinal passing game.

Granted, Hogan does a lot of things well: he manages the Cardinal offense pretty effectively, completes a high percentage of his passes (despite the perceived inaccuracy) and won Saturday’s game at Washington with his feet. But he still plays like a freshman at times, and that’s been a disappointment.

You’re right that the gaudy numbers haven’t been there, both when it comes to rushing yardage and big plays downfield. If Stanford can eliminate the mental mistakes and sustain its drives better, that should fix itself.

 

David Shaw had to answer some tough questions after red zone woes all but cost Stanford the game against USC. Widely viewed as one of the elite coaches in college football, is his stubbornness in short-yardage situations is becoming part of his narrative yet?

Blaming David Shaw has become a bit of knee-jerk reaction for fans after a Cardinal loss. He’s taken the heat for everything: setting up a potential game-winning field goal in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl, running too little against Utah (which had a great front seven) last season and taking the ball out of a struggling Hogan’s hands against Michigan State (which had a great secondary) in the 2014 Rose Bowl. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a Shaw defender, but the flak that he takes is usually inconsistent and surface-level.

Perhaps the biggest outlash came after the USC loss this season, since Shaw takes over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren in the red zone, where Stanford struggled so heavily against the Trojans. Even though Shaw took much of the blame on himself after the loss, the criticism isn’t entirely merited. My great friend and colleague George Chen broke down every Cardinal drive and did a great job highlighting the execution issues that were more prevalent. You can’t blame a head coach for chop blocks and bad snaps.

 

Stanford’s secondary looks like a really talented group of veterans. Notre Dame’s young receiving corps is very skilled. Is this the biggest matchup you see for Saturday afternoon?

It’s definitely up there. Remember, USC’s young-but-skilled receiving corps only came up with 135 yards against the Cardinal. Step one for Stanford is to control Notre Dame the same way.

This week, though, the Cardinal are probably looking inward more than anything. Even the defense took a few drive-extending penalties at Washington. Stanford needs its best, least sloppy game of the season to win on Saturday.

 

Vegas has this game as a coin-flip. How do you see things shaking out?

Vegas probably has it right. If Stanford can clean up its game, this could be a breakout performance for the Cardinal, but it’s hard to predict whether that will happen any time soon.