And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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There’s likely a new sense of urgency in The Gug this morning, with Notre Dame waking up on the outside looking in at the four teams currently slotted for the College Football Playoff. But with a short academic week and a very large game looming, it shouldn’t take the Irish long to focus their attention on the real problem at hand—a Stanford football team who’ll be playing for the Pac-12 championship.

Notre Dame has no argument for inclusion in the playoff if they don’t win on Saturday. And until they do that, it’s wise to leave the politicking to the talking heads and fans, with better play on the field after two slugging weeks saying more than any strength-of-schedule argument.

In a rivalry that’s ascended to national prominence (and now needs a clever nickname), Saturday evening’s game is one of a handful of key national showdowns that’ll likely impact the Playoff committee’s decision making. With a beat up Notre Dame team heading to Palo Alto on Thursday for what’s essentially a one-game playoff, I caught up with the Stanford Daily’s Do-Hyoung Park for an update on the Cardinal.

Do and I had a great Q&A this summer heading into preseason camp and he was kind enough to take some of his Thanksgiving break to bring his A-game here as well. Do is the Staff Development Editor for the Daily, their lead college football writer and has been a contributor at SI.com’s Campus Rush. He’s also a senior majoring in Chemical Engineering and studying computer science. (He also hails from St. Paul, so if you needed any more reason to like him, there you go.)

Hope you enjoy.

 

Stanford leads the Pac-12 North and will play for a conference championship, but their chances at the CFB Playoff seem very, very slim, even if they beat Notre Dame this weekend. What’s the mood surrounding the program and this game? Still important? Less so after the loss to Oregon?

These end-of-season games against Notre Dame are always weird; this is going to be the second time in three years that Stanford will already have the Pac-12 North locked away when it faces Notre Dame, and I remember the atmosphere of that game in 2013 being rather subdued because everybody knew that whatever happened in that game likely wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, with Stanford already effectively locked out of the BCS title game.

This year, though, I think things could be different. Yes, the Oregon loss took a lot of wind out of Stanford’s sails, but from a rankings standpoint, this is still the Cardinal’s biggest game of the season — and a rivalry game, no less — and given that Stanford should be borderline top-10 in this week’s CFP poll and we’ve seen a healthy amount of chaos over the last few weeks, Stanford fans aren’t saying die until those final rankings are released and the Cardinal aren’t in the final four.

I know lots of people on campus still believe that a two-loss Pac-12 champion has a healthy argument against a one-loss ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 champion, and a win over one of the strongest non-conference opponents in the nation would certainly help that case.

 

The Cardinal have done an amazing job rebounding from their season-opening loss to Northwestern, winning games at a rate similar to their great teams of recent years. But how they’re doing it is much different. The Cardinal aren’t playing great defense, outside of the Top 35 in scoring defense, total defense, and No. 74 in passing defense. Let’s keep the focus on this side of the ball: We knew there was major attrition. But where has Lance Anderson’s defense overachieved or under-delivered?

I’m not necessarily saying that Lance Anderson is a wizard, but all I’m saying is that we don’t have any conclusive proof that he’s not a wizard. Given the lack of depth and inexperience on this defense, there’s honestly no reason this defense shouldn’t be one of the worse defenses in the conference — but Anderson’s superb coaching makes up for that in spades.

The numbers might not necessarily be there, but the fact that Stanford didn’t slip into the bottom half of the conference in defense after losing so many starters is a testament to Anderson’s ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his players and adjust his scheme in that way. Shaw has said that he hates the term “bend but don’t break” to describe his defense, but that’s exactly what the Cardinal do — and they’re very, very good at it.

Anderson recognizes that his pass rush is a huge step down from those of years past and his corners might not necessarily be able to keep up with the top receivers of the Pac-12 every down, so he gives the receivers cushions and trusts his defensive backs to tackle in space — which is something they’re excellent at. That’s how you have games like Saturday’s against Cal, where Stanford lets Cal march down the field at will before buckling down in the red zone and holding the Bears to three field goals and a turnover on downs. That’s why the numbers get bloated, but make no mistake — this defense can get big stops when it matters most, which is impressive given the youth around the board.

 

Let’s talk about Christian McCaffrey. Outside of goal line carries, he is—quite literally—the engine of the Cardinal offense, averaging a ridiculous 30 combined touches a game. He’s the team’s leading rusher at 140 yards per game. He has 34 catches, seven more than the team’s leading receiver. And he returns punts and kicks. He’s rightfully a part of the Heisman conversation.

First, how have the teams that slowed McCaffrey down done it? And second, as I look for some type of negative on McCaffrey, is it maybe that his pitch count is too high because he’s that much more explosive than his teammates?

I’m not sure if I’m the right person to tell you how to slow down McCaffrey if some of the finest defensive coordinators in the nation haven’t been able to do that already. He isn’t an elite running back or an elite receiver, but it’s an unparalleled adaptability that really makes him dangerous — if you hold one element of his game in check, Stanford will burn you the other way.

I look at the Washington game as an example: The Huskies won the line of scrimmage and held McCaffrey to only 109 yards rushing, but Stanford accommodated that aggression up front by getting its stud sophomore involved in the passing game on screens and wheel routes out of the backfield — he finished that game as the team’s leading receiver with 112 yards. Or the Washington State game, where the Cougs overcommitted to McCaffrey and Hogan’s legs burned them on read-options. Or against Cal, where the Bears overcommitted and were burned on a reverse to Bryce Love (who is the most explosive player on this team — not McCaffrey).

As to his pitch count, Shaw and his teammates always rave about McCaffrey first and foremost as “a ball of energy” and a “kid that never gets tired” — among other things. I’m sure there’s fatigue that sets in, but if there is, he never shows it. In fact, he usually gets better after his first 20 or so touches. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

 

Kevin Hogan will be playing his final regular season game at a Stanford quarterback. He has played some good football and some not so good football. What do you expect from him this weekend, and how will his career be viewed when he’s gone?

There’s a strange dichotomy between Kevin Hogan’s career and his legacy that I’m not even sure Stanford fans really know how to balance. By the eye test and by all offensive metrics, it doesn’t look like he should have been a good quarterback. But when you look back at some of the things he’s accomplished, he might very well be the best quarterback in Stanford history — and that’s not an exaggeration.

You can call Hogan many things — a game manager, a mechanical mess — but the lone constant over his four years under center has been that he’s been a winner. No other quarterback in Stanford history has made it to two Rose Bowls, and none has ever had more wins wearing the cardinal and white than Kevin Hogan.

I think seeing those accolades and seeing Hogan’s career as a whole has really softened the hearts of Stanford fans that were calling for him to be benched a season ago and have made them a lot more appreciative of his talents: He’s deadly accurate, throws one of the best deep balls in the nation, has complete mastery of the most complex offense in the nation and was at the helm of this team’s rise to unprecedented heights. Stanford fans might not yet realize it, but his tenure has been one of the most special periods in Stanford history.

It’s strange to think that this Saturday will be the final time he takes the field at Stanford Stadium — he’s quite literally been the quarterback of my entire Stanford existence. He’s all I’ve ever known. But what I know is that whether he throws 10 times or 30, he’s going to be the accurate, clumsy-looking, poised, cool winner that he’s always been — and nobody in the stadium would have it any other way.

 

Game within the game: Stanford’s front seven vs. Notre Dame’s offensive line. The Cardinal are No. 28 as a rush defense, not quite as stout as they have been in the past, but still far from shabby. But they struggle to get after the passer, with most of the pass rush coming from linebackers Peter Kalambayi and Mike Tyler. Who do you think wins this matchup?

I hate to take the cop-out answer, but I’m going to call it a draw. Quite honestly, I’m not at all sold on Notre Dame’s running game — regardless of who’s carrying the ball out of the remnants of the Irish backfield. Stanford’s defensive line has been bad at getting pressure, but it’s been great at sliding off of blocks and meeting rushers at the line of scrimmage. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez is quite literally the best in the business at sniffing out run plays — he leads the conference in tackles despite not seeing the field much due to Stanford’s ball-control offense.

But in the passing game, the Irish offensive line will have a clear advantage. Those sack numbers are actually really misleading — Mike Tyler is a third-string outside linebacker and those sacks have mostly come in garbage time when Stanford is essentially running blitz drills while up three touchdowns. In meaningful passing downs, Stanford has had little to no success pressuring opposing quarterbacks with its linebackers, instead choosing to take its chances by dropping them into coverage a lot of the time. Unless Stanford’s defensive line manhandles Notre Dame’s big men, Kizer should have plenty of time in the pocket.

 

Last one from me: If Stanford wins, give me the two big keys to a Cardinal victory. Likewise, if Notre Dame wins, Stanford lost because it couldn’t do these two things.

If Stanford wins:

  • The Stanford offensive line controls the line of scrimmage, Christian McCaffrey runs for 140 yards, Kevin Hogan throws fewer than 15 times and Stanford holds the ball for over 35 minutes, keeping Notre Dame’s offense off the field for as long as possible.
  • Stanford is able to outmuscle Notre Dame on short-yardage downs. No team has been able to stop Stanford’s “ogre” package on third-and-short and goal-line situations this season, which has been a huge part of why short-yardage back Remound Wright has 23 goal-line touchdowns in the last two seasons and why Stanford is fifth in the nation in converting third downs (50 percent). If Notre Dame can’t stop Stanford in those situations, the Cardinal death machine will keep marching on.

If Notre Dame wins:

  • Stanford turns the ball over more than two times. I mentioned Stanford’s bend-but-don’t-break defense earlier, which puts an emphasis on limiting big plays over getting turnovers — Stanford is 10th in the Pac-12 with its -2 turnover margin. Stanford’s defense does a good job of holding opposing offenses to field goals instead of touchdowns, which is why Stanford can win games even when the defense has an off day. But if the opposing offense gets more opportunities, the bend-but-don’t-break gets closer to breaking. Two late turnovers made the difference against Oregon — Notre Dame is more than capable of taking advantage as well.
  • Kevin Hogan throws the ball more than 30 times. In Hogan’s 43 career starts, Stanford has only once won a game in which Hogan has thrown the ball more than 30 times. If Notre Dame can keep McCaffrey in check and force Stanford out of its comfort zone, Hogan working from the shotgun in clear passing situations is nothing special.