David Shaw needs answers. The Stanford head coach might have to wait until next season to get them based on back-to-back losses that saw the Cardinal get out-scored 86-22 by Washington and Washington State.
And while Mark DeVaughn of The Bootleg might not have the fix for Stanford, he can explain how the Cardinal got so ordinary so quickly. Irish Illustrated spoke with DeVaughn to make sense of what’s happening on The Farm.
Pete Sampson: When you think Stanford it starts with the offensive line and that group generally mauling people. Looking at this year’s Stanford, to see it ranked in the triple digits in rushing (140.8 yards per game) and sacks allowed (3.2 per game) is bizarre. How did the Cardinal get there?
Mark DeVaughn: That’s a great thing to lead off with because there’s really been two constants since Jim Harbaugh got things going and since David Shaw elevated it. It all started with the ability to rule the line of scrimmage, the offensive side especially. For Shaw’s offenses, it all starts there. There’s a philosophy and an assumption that the line will get everything where it needs to go, that it will give Stanford the platform to score enough points to win.
Not only has Stanford struggled to build its next line, it’s lost a lot of leadership there too. You go from Toby Gerhart to Andrew Luck to Stepfan Taylor to where things are now. There’s always been an ability to groom the next group of offensive linemen and that’s been a constant. Now that’s completely fallen off and it’s shown in the last couple games.
Looking just at the line, it had to replace four starters, most notably Outland Trophy winner Josh Garnett at guard and tackle Kyle Murphy, who’s also in the NFL. That’s your left side. Yes, you have sought-after recruits to help replace them and you have center Jesse Burkett as a first-year starter at center. He’s held his own. But the other guys on the left side, the group just has failed to live up the legacy left for it. Right tackle Casey Tucker was a guy Notre Dame recruited, but he was a weak link last year and it’s been the same problem this year. Overall, this group really reminds people of the lines under Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Against Washington and Washington State, it got overpowered, allowed 12 sacks combined. Only Oregon State has allowed more in the league.
The line of scrimmage just isn’t there right now.
PS: Status of Christian McCaffrey? Shaw doesn’t seem to be saying much after he left the Washington State game.
MDV: Stanford is really mysterious on injuries, but I think it’s something in his hips. There was a punt return against USC where he got wrapped up low and hit high. His body sort of went in two directions and I think that’s where it started. He came back the next week against UCLA and ran for almost 130 yards. But there wasn’t a long run in there. Shaw announced today that it’s wait-and-see.
PS: What do you make of the quarterback play? I think a lot of people expected Keller Chryst to take the job after Kevin Hogan left, but Ryan Burns won the position, even if both are now playing.
MDV: The old cliché applies that when you have two quarterbacks that you really don’t have one. Burns won the job and gets the lion’s share of time. (He’s completed 69-of-104 passes for 768 yards, 5TDs, 3 INTs vs. Chryst’s 7-of-17 for 63 yards and 1 TD). But with Burns the consistency just isn’t there. He wasn’t asked to do a ton against UCLA and he did just enough. He reminds you a little of Hogan in the middle of his career in that Stanford doesn’t want to throw it more than 20 times.
With Burns, he’s a guy who’s been there for four years and won the job over a junior who was a top recruit, and it makes you wonder about the development there. Is Stanford struggling to develop quarterbacks right now? Maybe it doesn’t reflect well on how these guys are being grown.
It’s also very difficult to look at the offensive line and separate that out from how well or poorly the quarterbacks are playing.
PS: If the offensive line isn’t the calling card for Stanford, it’s the brawlers they have in the front seven. I know the defense was down last year, but it hasn’t bounced back. Is there a lack of talent, a lack of Trent Murphy or Shayne Skov?
MDV: Everyone talks about Luck transitioning to Hogan and how that created so many possibilities for the program. But the defense went from Skov to Blake Martinez, which is like having two all-time great linebackers back-to-back. No one has really stepped into that void since Martinez left. Solomon Thomas is outstanding along the defensive line, but it’s mostly ancillary players from there. Harrison Phillips has been good at nose guard and he missed basically all of last season. But the defense just has no produced overall.
PS: How healthy is the secondary right now?
MDV: At corner they are banged up. The last two weeks Stanford went without starting corners Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks, but both are expected back for Notre Dame. Those losses were huge difference-makers for the defense. Holder is a big, long-armed guy in the Richard Sherman mold. Meeks isn’t nearly as big, but he’s not short either at 6-foot-2. Holder missed the Notre Dame last year as well when Will Fuller went off.
PS What matchups intrigue you most on Saturday? What do you think Stanford needs to do well to win?
MDV: They have to run the ball. I think the regression we’ve seen the last two weeks, the common ground of those losses is that they were convincing losses. Stanford didn’t run the ball well in either game and it must show it can do that.
I don’t know how well Stanford is going to be able to defend Notre Dame, which also goes back to the running game and getting that going. To me, this is a chance to get all-purpose back Bryce Love involved because he can catch passes out of the backfield. I’d like to see more from receiver Trent Irwin (16 catches 200 yards) too.
PS: Outside of McCaffrey and the quarterbacks, who are a couple players you think have to play well for Stanford to win?
MDV: The tight end position for sure. I’ve always felt like it’s critical to have one group or one position that you know is better than the opposition every week. For Stanford, that’s been tight end. It’s always had two or three guys who could play. But really Stanford is struggling to replace Austin Hooper off last year’s squad after he declared for the draft after only playing a couple years here. If Stanford wins on Saturday, I’d expect Dalton Schultz (8 catches, 64 yards) to be a part of it.
PS: Neither team is ranked, neither team is going to the College Football Playoff. Stanford has already lost a couple conference games, so it’s probably out of that race too. So how big is this trip to Notre Dame? What does it mean?
MDV: Stanford just needs to show some signs of life. This season has sort of been the sum of all fears with the inability to replace talent. To have two of the worst losses since Harbaugh showed up here and have them back-to-back, it’s a rough situation. It all just feels so out of character. It’s hard for me to look at this a predict a Stanford upset. Even picking a close game is hard considering the Washington and Washington State games. This is a chance to make statement and all that, but really it’s about stopping the downward spiral. Two years ago when Stanford went 7-5, it was close losses to Notre Dame, USC, Utah. You could say those games could have gone either way. You can’t now. There’s a foundation concern here.