Know Your Foe: Stanford

Mark DeVaughn, beat writer for The Bootleg, the Scout affiliate that covers the Stanford Cardinal responds to five questions about this year's Cardinal squad. Oregon takes on Stanford on Saturday at Autzen Stadium, with kickoff scheduled for 4:30 p.m. The game will be carried live on Fox with Gus Johnson (pxp), Charles Davis (analyst) & Molly McGrath (reporter).

Stanford has had the Ducks' number over the last couple of years, what do you think the game plan will be this Saturday? Will the Cardinal want to control the ball by using a straight ahead rushing game?)

The Cardinal will look to control the time of possession, but not how it engineered wins over the Ducks in each of the last two seasons. Stanford is no longer better off resembling the preferred methods of Bo Schembechler’s 1970’s Michigan teams. The Cardinal’s sons of NFL All-Pros – true freshman Christian McCaffrey and redshirt sophomore Barry Sanders – are most effective in open spaces, not between the tackles. David Shaw loves the old-school approach, but to a fault.

They seemed forever inclined to “ground-and-pound” their opponents until the demoralizing 26-10 loss to Arizona State, Stanford’s worst loss to team not named Oregon since 2009. Shaw then admitted this approach did not suit his team’s talents and promised changes. What followed was an overdue revelation against Oregon State last weekend. The 38-14 victory over the Beavers featured an abundance of plays without a huddle, formations that spread the field, and designed runs for Kevin Hogan. This may not fit the “run-them-out-of-the-building” approach of last year, but the personnel of 2014 begs a different style.

What are the significant differences between this year's Stanford squad and last?

1) The running game lacks a bruising tailback in the form of Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. In their place are threats like McCaffrey, a capable receiving target. No Stanford runner has rushed for 100 yards in a game this season.
2) “Tight End U” is back after a one year absence. Last year, Stanford – which has four tight ends on active NFL rosters – completed a mere 10 catches for 69 yards and zero touchdowns to the tight ends. Three redshirt freshmen form an effective corps at that position: Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada have all caught touchdown passes.
3) The offensive line has yet to become a cohesive, threatening unit. Four members of last year’s group are all in the NFL. The replacements (center Graham Shuler, guards Josh Garnett and Johnny Caspers and right tackle Kyle Murphy) are all talented, but the wait goes on for their collective breakout performance.
4) Changes to personnel, but not performance, define the defense. Fifth-year senior Blake Lueders replaced Trent Murphy on the defensive line, while Blake Martinez has enjoyed a fine season at Shayne Skov’s old slot at linebacker. They’re still the No. 1 group in the Pac-12, though injuries to safety Zach Hoffpauir (out) and lineman David Parry (questionable) could be critical against the Ducks.
5) Jordan Williamson has regressed significantly, making only 8 of 14 field goals.

Who do you think will be the critical difference-makers for Stanford against Oregon?

It’s going to come down to each side of the line of scrimmage. As we saw in Pullman, Mariota is most vulnerable when pressured. Stanford won’t win unless they make him uncomfortable in the pocket and collect sacks/hurries. With Parry’s status in doubt, the linebackers – Martinez and Peter Kalambayi have proven to be revelations in 2014, huge reasons why the defense is one of the nation’s best – must make a difference.

Oregon should benefit from the o-line’s inconsistencies in 2014. They’re prone to mistakes in execution (more than a few of Shuler’s shotgun snaps have sailed over their intended target’s head) and brainpower (penalties killed drives against both USC and Notre Dame). Miscues like those will derail any hopes of Stanford’s second win at Autzen in its last eight tries.

What kind of year has Kevin Hogan had? We know he had a great game against Oregon State throwing two TD passes and rushing for another score. What can Duck fans expect to see Hogan do this weekend?

Hogan’s inclusion as a “difference-maker” in your third question is a given, so I’ll save my analysis of him for this section. He averages almost 30 pass attempts per-game in 2014, compared to only 21 last year. I’m not sure Stanford fans know exactly what to expect from him. In Oregon Duckspeak, he’s Akili Smith in some games, Pete Nelson in others.

Hogan came into the season owning a 10-1 record against ranked opponents. The Cardinal is 0-3 this season against foes of that caliber. You can’t blame him entirely for that mark, however. The coaching staff’s failure to tailor a game-plan around his running strengths stands as a much bigger culprit. He’s only thrown one touchdown (and been intercepted three times) in three road games. But he was brilliant against the conference’s No. 2 defense against Oregon State, totaling 277 passing yards and accounting for three scores (one rushing, two passing). Oregon fans should expect to see a flawed, but capable dual threat. Maybe, just maybe, he becomes the first opposing quarterback to collect two victories in Eugene since Andrew Walter.

Stanford leads the conference in defense and fewest points allowed. This weekend it will be the top offense against the top defense. How do you see this playing out?

Stanford lacks that “it-factor” of years past. I expect a close game to become a two-touchdown victory for the home side. The Cardinal has too many flaws (especially on offense) to overcome what should be a focused Duck team.

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