How Stanford turned its season around
After a disappointing loss to the Northwestern Wildcats to begin the season, it looked as though the Stanford Cardinal simply didn’t have the talent to compete in the powerful Pac-12 conference. Now, four weeks later, they look unbeatable
As it turns out, Northwestern is actually pretty good. Perhaps not world-beaters, but a legitimate Big Ten contender and certainly a better team than many gave them credit for when the season began. Stanford, on the other hand, has worked to right the ship.
How have they done it?
For starters, QB Kevin Hogan has been great. When not pressured he has shredded opposing defenses with a PFF passing grade of +8.9. Any QB is better when he has time, but Hogan’s NFL caliber arm and pinpoint accuracy have been evident when able to step into his passes and drive the ball down the field. Saturday, against Arizona, Hogan went 17 of 19 for 217 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. With no pressure, he was 12 of 13 for 153 yards and two touchdowns. It’s also not enough to simply send more guys at him as he’s preformed above average against the blitz (+1.7). Hogan was 7 of 8 for 123 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions when Arizona sent extra attackers.
The power run game, led by OG Joshua Garnett (+18.1) and FB Daniel Marx (+13.9), has forced opposing defenses to play the Cardinal tight, helping Hogan post a +3.8 passer grade over the middle of the field and +3.9 down the sidelines.
As usual, Stanford boasts an impressive group of tight ends. None more impressive than veteran pass catcher Austin Hooper who owns the center of the field bringing in 10-13 passes for 150 yards when targeted over the middle. When the Cardinal run the ball to the left, opposing defenses have little chance of getting them off the field. As a team, they post a commanding +17.1 when running behind Garnett. If forced to run behind center Graham Shuler or left tackle Kyle Murphy positive results still routinely follow, as they post a +9.2 and +5.7 respectively. Marx, who will likely excel in a similar role at the NFL level, grades as an elite blocker leading runners to a +13.2 when they follow him through the hole.
If the Cardinal do have a weakness, it likely lies in the depth of their defense. After graduating nine starters from last season and suffering some unfortunate injuries already this season, many of the Stanford defenders are playing on little to no rest. With unproven backups behind them, defensive standouts like DL Solomon Thomas (+12.5), LB Peter Kalambayi (+10.1), and LB Blake Martinez (+9.9) are playing nearly every snap. Luckily for them the Cardinal offense rarely turns the ball over and their ground-and-pound style of play is shortening games in the normally up-tempo Pac-12, keeping the opposing offense off the field.
As it stands now, Stanford looks destined to square off against Utah in the Pac-12 championship game at Levi Stadium. For many that may come as a surprise considering their opening day loss. However, this Stanford team bears little resemblance to the team we saw that day. These are the real Cardinal – the team Coach Shaw crafted to compete in a league that thinks old-fashioned football can’t win in today’s up-tempo world. The Stanford Cardinal look ready to teach them all a difficult lesson.