Washington State has traveled to Stanford for a Pac-12 matchup with the Cardinal tonight (6 p.m., ESPN), and we've already covered the game from a bunch of angles.
If you haven't ventured over to Rule of Tree for the perspective of the other side, I have some great news: We brought them to you! Jack Blanchat and Nick Dempsey are here to answer five questions about the Cardinal as you prepare for what you might see tonight.
I don't want to put words in their mouths, but they seem at least a little concerned about what Connor Halliday and company might do to the Cardinal through the air. Read on for more!
CougCenter: Stanford has had a lot of success against WSU's passing attack the last two years, but the Air Raid has gone to a new level this season. Do you expect more of the same against Connor Halliday and crew?
Nick Dempsey: The defensive front seven for Stanford is the best in the country at disrupting the pass, and the secondary can tackle very well in space. This combination is precisely what a defense would need to slow down an Air Raid offense. However, if the Cougars can find a way to slow down the pass rush they could exploit weaknesses in the secondary. The bad news for Halliday is that this is obviously the best defense he's faced all season and he is likely to spend an awful lot of time on the ground Friday night. Expecting a 5+ touchdown night for Halliday against Stanford is probably unrealistic.
The great news for the Cougars though is that they will likely not need to score 60 points to win this game. Realistically Washington State could score half that many points and still be fine. In fact, the Cougars can have an abysmal day statistically on offense (compared to the numbers they normally put up) and still win this game. That is because unless Washington State's defense is as bad as UC Davis or Army's defenses, it is difficult to envision Stanford scoring more than 24-28 points at best. Still, if Nevada can keep the Cougs to just 13 points, then you really have to like Stanford's chances of grounding the air raid.
Jack Blanchat: Since we're really only functionally talking about pass defense, I do expect the Cardinal defense to play well against WSU given the level of success they've had in the past. That may not mean holding Wazzu to 14 points or something, but I think it'll be tough sledding for the Cougars to get the production against all levels of the defense. I think this coverage unit - when they don't make mental mistakes - is a bit better equipped to play bend-but-don't-break football, which is essential against the Air Raid. You're going to give up yards, but you can't make critical errors and give up touchdowns. As far as the pass rush is concerned, the main guy to watch out for is Peter Kalambayi. Once he gets on the move - or 1-on-1 against a running back - he's deadly.
CougCenter: Stanford's defense is incredible, but every defense has a weakness. What is the Cardinal's?
Dempsey: Stanford's defense does have a weakness and that is definitely the secondary. Everyone can point to the coverage failure during the game winning touchdown pass against Notre Dame. If you look closely though, there have been quite a few instances where the players in the secondary have been out of position or just been beat. The weakness in the secondary rarely gets noticed however because Stanford's defensive front is disruptive on almost every snap. If an Air Raid offense like the Cougars' can avoid the pass rush, then it could be a very long day for the Cardinal.
Keep in mind, that while the secondary does have issues that are largely covered by the pass rush, quick passes such as slants and WR screens to avoid the pass rush likely will not be effective. USC attempted to work the sidelines with quick passes to their wide receivers. This proved ineffective as the Stanford secondary is quite talented at tackling in space and the Trojans abandoned this strategy early in the game.
Blanchat: I don't really think Stanford's defense has a traditional weakness - no pass rush, thin at linebacker, etc - but think Stanford's defensive personnel packages sometimes make it hard to defend the pass. Zach Hoffpauir is an excellent run defender as a nickel cornerback, but has been exposed against the pass, while Ronnie Harris is better at coverage in nickel and dime but isn't quite as strong a run defender.
CougCenter: Kevin Hogan was thought of as a legitimate first round NFL draft prospect heading into the year, but he hasn't generally looked like one. What's going on with him?
Dempsey: Many people, even the so-called experts love to just look at a quarterback's stats, or the team's overall record and then make an assumption about that player's skills at quarterback without considering the context. Many people were on the "Hogan is a legit first rounder" bandwagon largely because of Stanford's success, not because he is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country. The fact is, when you really look at the whole picture Kevin Hogan never really was a first round talent.
Hogan's biggest problem is that he does not go through his wide receiver progressions. I would be willing to bet that on most passing plays he has already decided who he will throw the ball to before the snap. Look at last year's rankings for total number of receptions from last season. Last season Montgomery had the most receptions with 61, after that there is a sharp drop off with Cajuste having only 28 receptions and Whitfield with only 16. Compounding this problem is that Hogan stares down the receiver he is throwing the ball to which gives the defense plenty of time to get to the receiver before the ball does.
Hogan and the rest of the Stanford offense succeeded last season on the back of Tyler Gaffney when he averaged over 5 yards a carry. Gaffney was a beast last year and his success forced opposing defenses to load the box with 8 or 9 players. This generally resulted in getting a 1 on 1 matchup for Ty Montgomery with no safety help. Ty Montgomery in single coverage is going to make a lot of quarterbacks look very talented. Include a stout defense to the Montgomery and Gaffney tandem and you have a recipe for a Pac-12 champion even with a quarterback who threw 10 interceptions and only 20 touchdowns.
This season, the Cardinal do not have an impressive running game that opposing defenses have to adjust to. The result is that defenses can afford to give plenty of help in the secondary to cover Montgomery or even Cajuste. Because Hogan does not go through his progressions if the defense takes away his primary read, then they have effectively blown up the play. When this happens Hogan is forced to throw a bad pass into coverage, scramble, throw the ball away, or take the sack.
Blanchat: Kevin Hogan's problems are three fold: he's inaccurate at short and intermediate levels, he isn't an expert at reading coverages and the coaching staff doesn't help him all that much. His strengths are throwing on the run, throwing deep bombs downfield and play-action passing. The coaches continually call mid-level passes for Hogan, which he struggles to complete, so it makes staying on schedule offensively much more challenging. And because the run attack hasn't been supremely effective, it makes play action less threatening.
CougCenter: How is David Shaw trying to get the ball to Ty Montgomery, and why haven't the Cardinal been more successful doing so?
Dempsey: Looks like I may have went ahead and addressed this already. To reiterate, defenses know that Hogan is not going through progressions. On every pass play he is usually looking immediately at Ty Montgomery and only Ty Montgomery. Defenses also know that Hogan is not going to distribute the ball much to other receivers so if you lock down Montgomery, while keeping an eye on Cajuste, then the passing game is effectively shut down.
Therefore, there really are only two ways to get the ball to Ty Montgomery more often. The first is for Hogan to distribute the ball to receivers other than Montgomery in order to establish another credible receiving threat that the defense must account for thereby potentially loosening the coverage on Montgomery. The other possibility is to get the running game going and force the defense to put more players in the box to stop the run. In short, the Stanford offense needs to produce another threat, because right now opposing defenses can key in on Montgomery without risking much. Curiously, David Shaw has disastrously decided to put Montgomery in the wild cat formation this year in order to get him more touches rather than attempting to develop a second or even third offensive threat.
Blanchat: They've tried to scheme him the ball through quick screens and letting him run the wildcat - and those have generally been successful - but where Stanford hasn't been successful lately is getting Ty the ball down the field. Some of that was going against Washington's Marcus Peters, but the primary problem has been Kevin Hogan. He's not an accurate enough passer to make Ty a deadly weapon down the field, so teams can key in on Ty when the coaches clearly try to scheme the ball to him.
CougCenter: The rushing attack is lagging by most any measure. What's behind that?
Dempsey: There are 2 primary reasons the Stanford running game has struggled. The first is also the most obvious: Tyler Gaffney was a stud last season and no one has stepped up to replace him this year. Stanford had a pretty great run of replacing amazing running backs with equally amazing running backs year after year. As of now it appears that run is over.
The second and more important reason the running game has struggled this season is that none of the running backs seem to be getting into a rhythm. This could be the result of rushers only getting into the game for one carry at a time and then being replaced by another running back who also only gets one carry. Imagine for a moment the disastrous results if an offense tried switching quarterbacks after every play. This is essentially what is happening with the running backs. The offense would be much better served if Coach Shaw played just one running back for an entire offensive possession or giving just one running back the bulk of the carries for an entire half, and then switching to a different back. As it stands now, each of the 3 running backs is getting to touch the ball at a rate of about once every ten snaps. That is no way to get a running back in rhythm. Coach Shaw has stated that none of his running backs have impressed him yet, but the truth is he has yet to give any of them a chance.
Blanchat: This offensive line isn't all that good at running a variety of run blocking schemes. Take this opinion from former Stanford lineman Ben Muth: "Also, the greatest OL recruiting class of all time has a lot more Rivals stars than grind it out wins. 1st time since 06 OL has been soft" They're not very good at combo blocking to the second level and they make a lot of mental mistakes as well. However, I think Stanford's rushing attack could be more dangerous if they incorporated some more option elements, so look for that this week.