The 2016 edition of the Stanford Cardinal was the first coached by David Shaw to be selected to win the Pac-12 North in the preseason media poll.
Now, following a 44-6 beatdown at the hands of Washington and with the WSU Cougars looming on deck, the 2016 Stanford Cardinal are perhaps already playing to simply keep their conference championship hopes alive.
How’s this all sitting with Cardinal fans? We reached out to our SB Nation brethren at Rule of Tree and Tony Fernandes was kind enough to answer our questions. (My answers to his questions follow.)
CougCenter: Stanford’s loss to Washington was stunning in not just the result, but the manner of the result. How surprised were you that the Cardinal were bullied like that?
Rule of Tree: Honestly, I was surprised at the final score - but not at the loss. Stanford came into the game a wounded animal, and left even worse for wear. Washington is a great team, with a lot of young talent and will be a tough beat for any team this season. I actually picked Washington to beat the Cardinal; but no one expected the beating that they took last Friday night. I think it was a great learning tool for the Cardinal as teams can go only one of two ways - down and out, or can take it as a learning experience to never happen again.
Christian McCaffrey has been good, but certainly not otherworldly, as he was at times last year. To what do you attribute this?
Teams are putting 8 and 9 men in the box on every play. The offensive game plan has not been exotic, and the other skill players have been hardly utilized. Teams are not allowing Christian to return kicks, and are trying to force the Cardinal to beat them in other ways. Coach David Shaw has always been known to be conservative in the early parts of the season, and he is taking it uber slow at this point with an inexperienced QB under center. I feel that if the Cardinal are to be successful, McCaffrey needs a lot of help from his young offensive line, his QB and fellow skill players to play a bigger role
Is there any hope for improvement in the Cardinal passing attack, or is this simply a personnel issue?
There is always hope; but right now it is not the brightest spot for the Cardinal. This situation is eerily reminiscent of the 2012 season, when Coach Shaw bypassed his starting QB (Josh Nunes) and back-up for an untested redshirt Freshman named Kevin Hogan. Will the same happen this year with Coach Shaw going to his heralded Frosh QB KJ Costello? Only time will tell.
The Cardinal are are dealing with a plethora of injuries, but it’s the injuries to the corners that has WSU fans gazing hopefully at their offensive prospects. Just how big of a dropoff is it for the Cardinal from the first unit to the second unit when it comes to defending a sophisticated passing attack?
HUGE dropoff. Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder could be all-Pac-12 selections at the corner position. They are big, fast, and can handle the play of speed receivers. The back-ups are back-ups for a reason. The back-ups were torched last week, but full blame could not be placed on them. There was zero rush made on the QB, and basically the Huskies just did what they wanted on offense. Injuries had been a “bug” that had avoided the Farm the last few years; this year it has hit hard, and at the worst time. I see Washington State and QB Luke Falk looking to put up big numbers this week against the Cardinal defense that is nursing a ton of injuries with young players that have yet to be tested.
Besides McCaffrey, who’s one guy -- on either side of the ball -- whom WSU fans should watch out for?
Sophomore Bryce Love at RB is one to watch. The young man is an elusive, speed back who is not afraid of contact. If McCaffrey decides his time on the Farm is up and heads to the next level, Love will surely step in and keep the train at RB rolling for the Cardinal for the next few years
Tony Fernandes; staff writer and Football contributor for the Rule of Tree since 2014. Twitter @Tonefernsports
Rule of Tree: Do you feel the course has been corrected on the season for the Cougars after the big win over the Oregon Ducks?
CougCenter: For the most part, yes. There were signs in the second half of the Idaho game that things were coming back together to the point we expected at the beginning of the season, and the entire game against the Ducks was really just an extension of that. I honestly feel like the Cougars came out of the gate a little tight at the beginning of the year; I mean, let’s be real -- expectations are not the norm around Pullman, but a 9-win season from a young team allowed fans to dream big for the first time in a while.
But instead of playing with confidence, the Cougs were tentative, particularly on defense (although the offense wasn’t exactly humming along, either). That, combined with some off-the-field distractions -- there were a number of arrests before the season, the first in years -- led to the losses against Eastern Washington and Boise State. But they now seem to have rediscovered much of that swagger that allowed them to finish so strong a year ago, and it’s allowed fans to feel like this team is back on track.
Luke Falk has played well the last few weeks, what has been the key to his success at Quarterback?
Like the rest of the team, this year hasn’t exactly gone as planned for Falk. The numbers look fine -- he’s right up there with the national leaders in just about every passing category -- but for those of us who have watched him every week, something was just … off. The decisions were slower and he seemed to be looking to throw only to guys who were wide, wide open instead of trusting his receivers to make plays on the ball. He was hesitant. That started to change against Idaho, and then last week looked like a return to what we expect: He was decisive and he made some well-timed throws into some tight windows to break some big plays. It certainly helped that Oregon could get next to no pressure on him, and I would guess that will be Stanford’s number one priority.
What will be the key for the Cougars defense in stopping the rush ability of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love?
Last season, it was the ability to penetrate and change the line of scrimmage before McCaffrey could get going. Will that work again? The Cougs certainly lost a lot of talent on the defensive line after last season, and the first couple of games of the season suggested we might be in for a rough go of it this year. But WSU did a masterful job containing Royce Freeman last week, attacking him like crazy -- outside of a 75-yard run when the game was already out of hand (not an excuse, but … yanno), Freeman gained less than 65 yards. I suspect they were able to do this because there wasn’t a lot of respect for Dakota Prukop’s ability to throw the ball; can the Cardinal throw it enough to keep WSU out of 100 percent attack mode?
James Williams and Jamal Morrow have been highly effective in the run game for the Cougars in 2016; do you see the Cougars offense lean more to the run this week against Stanford, or stick to the Air Raid offense that has proven so effective the last few weeks?
Well, to start with, an Air Raid that can run the ball effectively on 35 percent to 40 percent of its plays is probably the best version of the Air Raid. The reason the Cougs didn’t run the ball that much in Mike Leach’s first four years is because WSU just didn’t really have the personnel to do so, but that’s changed now: They have a huge, athletic line and a trio of quality running backs, including a burgeoning star in Williams. I doubt they’ll be able to run it as much or as successfully as they did against Oregon, but you’ll probably see more action on the ground from the Cougs than you have in past games between Stanford and WSU. I think there’s a sense from WSU that they can run on anyone.
Give us your prediction and what you hope to see in the game on Saturday night.
In my ideal world, WSU takes advantage of a weakened Stanford defense, throwing the ball for some big plays against inexperienced corners. Gabe Marks -- whom we didn’t even talk about, and is WSU’s most dangerous offensive weapon -- finally gets unhinged, and Stanford has to roll extra coverage his way. This softens up the front seven, and then WSU is able to gash the Cardinal on the ground. Meanwhile, WSU’s attacking defensive front is able to more or less contain McCaffrey -- even though he gets away for a few 10-plus-yard runs -- and Ryan Burns just can’t do enough through the air to make WSU pay for its aggression. The Cougars show that the start to the season is a fluke, winning 38-21.
It probably won’t go down that way. But that’s what I’m hoping for!