Mark DeVaughn: I like your observations because they tell the story. Stanford’s last two teams boasted a fantastic offensive line and a first-rate rushing attack. Together they aimed to hide the flaws found among those tasked at catching the ball. The script is flipped this season. The thought of containing Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night. But new challenges emerge with four new full-time starters on the offensive line and no one yet emerging from a crowded field of running backs. Can the Stanford offensive coaches make a productive machine out of all those moving parts? The jury is still out on that.
Since 2009, some of the best offensive lineman in school history have come and gone. But never have they exited en masse like they did after last year. It takes a while to replace four guys, three of whom are now in the NFL. Left tackle Andrus Peat and the new starters looked much better against Washington than USC. They cut down on the penalties and protection breakdowns. I see the potential in, and the barriers to, the tailback trio. Compared to where they were at this point in their careers, Barry J. Sanders, Kelsey Young and Remound Wright lack the experience of those whose legacy they’re trying to continue. They don’t need to be the second coming of Jerome Bettis, Reggie Brooks and Rodney Culver. But somebody must step into the spotlight as the No. 1 guy.
2.) Speaking of the recent past, it appears to be "lather, rinse, repeat" situation regarding the Cardinal defense on third-down. That is, third-down presents and Stanford wins the play. With recognizable national names such as Skov, Gardner, and Murphy gone, who are the new nail-chewers up front for Irish fans to monitor Saturday in South Bend?
MD: Stanford fans delight in listing all the indicators of a once downtrodden-turned powerhouse program: Record season ticket sales, 18 wins in the last 19 home games, consecutive Rose Bowls, etc. But the ability to reload a defense and replace the names you mentioned is yet another reminder of how things have changed.
Ben Gardner and Trent Murphy graduated from the defensive line, but a pair of veterans have elevated their games and stepped right in. Aziz Shittu arrived as a highly touted freshman in 2012, and he’s finally living up to that potential. Indiana-native Blake Lueders headlined the 2010 freshman class. The last player on the Cardinal roster to see game action for a Jim Harbaugh-coached team converted from linebacker a year ago. He finally looks comfortable and productive on the line. Stanford benefits from the return of senior lineman Henry Anderson, who sat out most of 2013 with an injured knee.
At linebacker, Blake Martinez topped the Cardinal with 24 tackles heading into the Washington game. That was when fellow linebacker Peter Kalambayi (Kol-um-BY-yee) literally took over against the Huskies, making three sacks and five solo tackles to earn Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors. Not bad for a program that posted all of one shutout between 1974 and 2006.
3.) Outside of Ty Montgomery, which skill position players should worry Irish fans most? Is there a Coby Fleener or Zack Ertz ready to be unleashed in South Bend?
MD: Besides Montgomery, the receiving corps boasts Devon Cajuste. Big and sure-handed, Cajuste set the school-record last year for yards per-reception in a single season (22.9). He caught three touchdowns against Army and continues to be a major factor. Michael Rector may lack imposing size, but he’s another talent whom Hogan likes to target deep down the field. Their combined production was so important in 2013 because the tight ends were a non-factor all year. Not so in 2014.
This year’s offense has made a clear priority to get the tight ends – all of whom didn’t play as true freshmen in 2013 – involved in the game plan. Expect to see Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada on Saturday. Cotton, a 6-foot-6 beast from Idaho, snared a 28-yarder last week against Washington. Hooper has 15 catches already (it would be one more, if not for a chop block penalty that nullified a fourth-quarter touchdown against USC). He graduated from famed De La Salle High in nearby Concord (just like Irish legend Aaron Taylor). Stanford tight ends collected all of 10 catches for 69 yards and no touchdowns a year ago.
4.) I noticed only three drives have breeched the Stanford red zone to date. A.) Is that because they played Army and UC-Davis, meaning two of the four foes faced had no chance? and B.) Who cares!? That's remarkable. Is the defense as good as they seem early? What makes this Stanford defense stand out, and is it similar to the units that have qualified for four straight BCS Bowls?
MD: This is no fluke. Like Notre Dame counterpart Brian VanGorder, new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson leads a surprisingly devastating group. They pitched two shutouts against inferior competition. They allowed one touchdown against USC. They hit the road in one of the toughest home atmospheres in the country (Husky Stadium in Seattle) and allowed only 98 yards passing. The defense has compiled 138 negative yards in tackles-for-loss.
I see similarities in how opposing offenses react: Quarterbacks dancing around the pocket with happy feet, receivers extending alligator arms to poorly thrown passes. Kalambayi resembled a young Shayne Skov last week, and his three sacks were indeed the most by a Stanford player since Skov in 2011. I expect corners Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons to have their hands full Saturday against Notre Dame’s lanky and fast receivers, but there are no obvious weaknesses yet in this defense.
5.) David Shaw has not hidden his distaste for the Notre Dame program. Is the feeling mutual throughout the Cardinal fan base? Is that the case toward Stanford's other rivals (USC, Oregon, obviously Cal?) In other words, is there just a collective chip on the Cardinal shoulder after being down for so long and now always in contention? Or does Notre Dame now hold a special place with the Cardinal rising up and actually being the better program of the two over the last five seasons?
MD: Good questions, though I’ve never heard Shaw say anything disparaging about Notre Dame. Before I go into my observations about Stanford’s relationship with the Irish, I will say the schools you mention do arouse serious emotions from those The Farm. Most Cardinal fans would describe their counterparts as follows:
-- Oregon: Lightweights who think college football history began in 1994.
-- Cal: Wannabe working class heroes with a serious mean streak (best typified by NFL Network’s Mike Silver). “Kal” is the term coined by The Bootleg years ago
-- USC, aka “U$C”: Arrogant snobs of the highest order.
There’s no downplaying Notre Dame’s mark on college football. How a small, Catholic school in Indiana boasts such a rabid fan following and storied tradition is remarkable. It’s one thing for the college football establishment to reward this influence with undeserved BCS bids (as in a Fiesta Bowl berth over Oregon in 2005). When it comes to this series with Notre Dame, Stanford catered so much to the Irish to the point of selling out.
The Thanksgiving weekend tilt becomes one less home game with the students in session, all the while Notre Dame coaches earn an extended stay in California to court recruits. Subway alumni have an excuse to flock here for a long weekend. Instances like the 1:26 mark of this video, or Brady Quinn’s 4-0 record against Stanford make all that hard for Cardinal fans to swallow. Stanford was much better off with the 1989-1997 format, hosting a game under sunny October skies and with students on campus. What makes the present day so intriguing is that the two schools are rivals, competing for the same recruits and a place in the Top 10.