Gameday Preview: Stanford at TCU

Daniel Novinson builds upon his preseason preview of TCU and breaks down exactly what he expects to see tomorrow in this gameday preview. What should we expect when TCU or Stanford has the ball? How many yards will each team gain rushing and passing, and what are the keys for each squad? And, if Stanford does pull an upset, what does it mean for the rest of the Cardinal's season? Read on...

Gameday Breakdown:
Stanford (1-1, Predicted: 3-9) at TCU (2-0, Predicted: 8-4)
Fort Worth, Tex., Sat. Sept. 13, 11 a.m. PT

Last year:
TCU 38, Stanford 36. The Frogs trailed 31-17 in the third quarter, but Stanford's defense could not stop the Frogs down the stretch.

This year: Stanford allowed 490 yards, 181 more than they gained, but beat Oregon State 36-28 in the season opener. A 3-0 edge in turnovers was crucial, as the Beavers would have had a first-and-goal at the Stanford 1 with 30 seconds left to try to tie the game before their last fumble. Last week, the Cardinal kept it close for three quarters, but Arizona State ran away with Stanford's first road trip of the year, 41-17. Rudy Carpenter shredded Stanford's secondary for 345 yards, and Toby Gerhart led Stanford with 67 rushing yards in the loss.

TCU's defense has proven itself early, with the Frogs blowing out host New Mexico, 26-3, in their season opener and Stephen F. Austin, 67-7, last week. The Frogs' offense looks weaker than last year's unit, however, as TCU gained only 291 yards against New Mexico and has passed for only 370 yards through its two games this season. In fact, quarterback Andy Dalton has yet to throw a touchdown in 2008.

When Stanford has the ball:

I don't see Stanford gaining much traction on the ground against TCU's defense, honestly. Let's look at the data:

On the Stanford side…

- Stanford ran for 111 yards per game last season on a Pac-10 worst 3.0 yards per carry (and an abysmal 2.34 in conference).

- Stanford did run for 210 yards against Oregon State, with Toby Gerhart looking like the best back Stanford's had in years. But, the Cardinal then ran for 113 yards at Arizona State, right about their 2007 average. And then Penn State torched the Beavers for 239 rushing yards despite effectively shutting down their offense at about halftime, on 6.3 yards per carry. Suddenly, the Card's season-opening performance doesn't look so great.

- Stanford's passing game is the embodiment of the cliché that when you have three quarterbacks, you have none. Fans are clamoring for the head coach to start a true freshman quarterback fourth on the depth chart, burning his redshirt in the process. Most fans have never seen Andrew Luck throw a ball, yet they want him over Tavita Pritchard, Alex Loukas or Jason Forcier. Fan bases don't do that when they're confident in their quarterbacking; Stanford fans didn't do that in the Trent Edwards era. (And, by the way, congratulations to Trent on his success in Buffalo. He was always such a classy, nice guy during the darkest of seasons, and he deserves to be on a strong NFL team where he has the opportunity to shine.)
To be fair, the quarterbacking has been worse in recent seasons; it's not abysmal, but it's not great either. Still, the passing game (and pass blocking) is enough of a liability that, bottom line, opposing defenses can tee off against the run and make Stanford beat them through the air.

On the TCU side…

- In my TCU preview, I predicted TCU's "rush D will be as stiff as ever." Through two weeks, the Frogs' front hasn't disappointed. New Mexico is one of the better football teams you haven't heard of, and won a bowl game last year, 23-0. They managed 35 rush yards against TCU. Stephen F. Austin managed three.

Plus, there's the weather factor. As passing becomes harder in wind and rain, not only do offenses adjust, but defenses do too. Sure, both teams will run more, and tackling might be harder, but both defenses should tee off against the run and stack the box. Gerhart's an inside-the-tackles, not outside-the-tackles runner, and so if TCU clogs up the middle in response to the rain, it's going to be hard for him to find open space.

However, there is one X factor in this analysis. Stanford ran for 170 yards (admittedly, on a season-high 49 carries) against TCU last year, and that performance against a BCS D was not new for TCU. As I wrote in my TCU preview:

"Texas ran for 176 and Stanford 170 against the Frogs last year, two of the season's three worst performances by the rush D. TCU, meanwhile, managed just 43 yards (1.3 per carry) against Texas and 150 (3.1) against Stanford running – both below its season average of 165 rush yards (3.7). If recent years are any indication then, BCS teams will be better able to run against TCU than the numbers indicate. … Stanford needs to exploit [that] this year if it's going to pull the upset."

So TCU's rush D is the strength of the entire team and Stanford's still a far ways from becoming a strong rushing team. However, two mitigating factors are that Stanford did run for 170 against these guys last year, and that TCU's struggled against BCS rush attacks.

I call for 100 Stanford rush yards.

In the air, the analysis is shorter because not as much is known. You could tell me any of four quarterbacks could throw for Stanford and any of four or five receivers could have the biggest receiving day, and I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Similarly, two of TCU's safeties in its 4-2-5 are new starters, and still have yet to be seriously tested. (The Frogs' linebackers and cornerbacks are legitimate, though.) New Mexico and Sisters of the Poor, I mean, Stephen F. Austin passed for just 130 and 140 yards respectively, so you have to think it's going to be an uphill battle for Stanford in the air too. Given the limited data we do have on TCU's pass D, that Stanford's pass attack hasn't covered itself in glory, and the weather, I'm going to call for 180 passing yards out of the Cardinal.

All told then, that's 280 yards of total Stanford offense.

When TCU has the ball:

This is actually a great matchup for Stanford, which has done much better against the run than the pass this year. TCU's most powerful weapon is its rush attack, but it can't really throw that well.

TCU didn't try to pass in its blowout of Stephen F. Austin, but against New Mexico, they were just 16-of-26 for 120 yards. That's less than five yards per passing attempt, suggesting that even when the Frogs do pass, it's screens and short, underneath stuff that's going to test the linebackers more than the secondary. Stanford's linebackers are the strength of the defense and the secondary the biggest weakness, so that's wonderful news.

I'm sure TCU will adjust and try to air it out deeper, as they did in last year's tilt to the tune of a season-high 344 passing yards. Luckily for the Card though, Rain and Wind are going to be the 12th and 13th defenders. They should play the whole game without letting up, will never get called for too many men in the huddle, and, most importantly, can help out a suspect secondary that allowed Arizona State 345 passing yards and Lyle Moevao (who?) and Oregon State 404.

It's early, but this secondary is reverting back to its early-2006 form, and, to date, has to be the biggest disappointment on the team. Maybe the loss of Scott Shafer is hurting the Card more than initially expected.

But TCU in a rainstorm is just what the doctor ordered to turn it around. If Stanford can't slow TCU's pass attack, it's going to be a LONG season.

I see Andy Dalton and the Frogs passing for 220 yards .

On the ground, it's strength meets strength. Stanford has ran for more yards than it's allowed this year, with Oregon State held under 90, and many of Arizona State's 127 coming off speed, not the between-the-tackles running that is TCU's staple. Still, the Card did allow 4.7 yards per Pac-10 rush last year, worse than everyone save for Washington in the league. And TCU did run for 150 against the Card last year.

The Frogs' rush attack, as I detail in the TCU preview, is downright scary. The line returns four starters, causing me to predict that "TCU should be able to steamroll most of its opponents." Indeed, even without No. 1 rusher Aaron Brown healthy (a big break for Stanford), Joseph Turner and converted receiver Ryan Christian are each averaging over 4.5 yards per carry, with Turner scoring three touchdowns last week.

I'll take last year's 150 rush yards as a baseline, and assume the fact that both lines are better more or less washes out. There's no way, though, that TCU is passing 34 times for 344 yards tomorrow, and so some of those yards will come on the ground.

I'll call it 200 rush yards, bringing TCU's total to 420 yards versus Stanford's 280.

Key for Stanford:

Will the defensive line tire? One of my most salient memories as a student reporter was hearing a TCU player screaming as he walked out after last year's game, "We played for four quarters. They f--ing quit. They f—ing quit." Stanford's D line and TCU's ground game should play each other to about a draw in the first half, but that calculus could tilt in the offense's favor if Stanford tires in the second half. Unfortunately, we've seen Stanford's defense wear down several times in recent years – the 2005 Walt Harris season (remember UCLA), against TCU last year, heck, even against Arizona State a week ago. A quick gauge of how the D is doing late is whether Stanford keep TCU's second-half yardage equal to its first-half total.

Key for TCU:

Force the issue defensively. Neither of TCU's two opponents this year have cracked 200 total yards. Between Stanford's trouble passing the ball and the weather, TCU has a definite advantage when Stanford has the ball. It needs to exploit that and have a field day defensively. Seeing as TCU has allowed only 10 points over two games in 2008, if I'm TCU's DC, I'm reminding my players of Stanford's 36 points last year every chance I get and setting a goal of scoring more on defense than I allow. That's not completely unreasonable.

For Stanford, the other side of the coin is that the offense needs to realize it's not going to gain 400 yards tomorrow, but there's a big difference between a respectable 350 yards and a no-way-we're-winning 200. The key word is efficiency. If the Card can convert key third downs, whatever red zone opportunities they get, avoid turnovers and get enough out of Gerhart, they'll put themselves in position to win a much lower-scoring version of their season-opener: capitalize on TCU mistakes and do just enough to win despite being outgained.

Vegas Prediction:

TCU 28, Stanford 14. (Line: TCU -14, Over/under: 42)
Fans are forgetting how good TCU is just because they're not a big-name team. Stanford's as big of an underdog against TCU (14 points) as they were against Arizona State, and, quite possibly, as big a dog as they will be the rest of the way, save for USC's visit. No one realistically expected Stanford to beat Arizona State and no one will realistically expect the Card to pull The Greatest Upset Ever v. 2.0, so I don't know why I sense the optimism I do for this game. (Save it for Notre Dame, who looks a LOT worse than I thought they would.) Conversely though, if Stanford can pull this off, I think it's as likely as not that they're going bowling, both because of the actual win, but also because of what it would imply about the quality of Stanford's team. This would be a huge upset.

My Prediction:

TCU 23, Stanford 10
The under looks pretty good to me given the weather, and given that TCU's offense won't be able to exploit Stanford's secondary as much as most other teams. Plus, TCU's defense might be best Stanford faces until the final stretch of Oregon, USC and Cal in November.

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