If you didn't learn enough about the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal on The CougCenter Hour, good news! We've got even more Cardinal preview goodness in this week's Q&A with Tim Eckert-Fong of SB Nation's Rule of Tree.
CougCenter: Casual observers thought Stanford might be in for a long season after its awful season-opening performance against Northwestern. Did you know better, or has this run into the top 10 been a bit of a surprise?
We all knew the talent was there for an elite offensive team, it was just a matter of David Shaw putting guys in the right positions and not punting from inside the opponent's 30 yard line. In the early loss, Stanford’s creativity was non existent, the offensive line showed no signs of gelling, and there were our fair share of stupid mistakes.
Since then the line has gelled and Shaw has taken the training wheels off this talented offense. To the delight of our fanbase, he’s doing things like going for it on fourth downs, calling flea flickers, and not keying in on single players. So while being in the top 10 is always somewhat unexpected, we knew this team had a chance to be elite.
CougCenter: Most of the buzz centers around how good the Cardinal offense is. And most of that buzz centers around Christian McCaffrey. On a scale of pretty terrified to really really terrified, how terrified should we be?
I’d say pretty dang terrified. McCaffrey is the obvious player to key in on, and he has been every bit as good as the media has advertised. He’s probably the fastest offensive player, the quickest, has the best vision and the best hands. Mentally, he’s always making the right decisions and he is extremely clutch.
You can’t acknowledge how great McCaffrey has been without giving due to the offensive line. The line has opened up huge holes left and right, protected Hogan and been a huge factor in the newly dynamic Stanford offense. I’m a big believer that the line is key to a team’s success, and I have no doubt McCaffrey’s wouldn’t be the player he is without the guys up front.
There are also numerous other playmakers to keep your eyes on. Austin Hooper might be the best tight end in the conference and he has a knack for big third down plays. Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector are capable receivers who don’t put up eye popping stats because we’re rarely throwing the ball, but both bring a lot of talent to the table. This is a damn good and complete offense.
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CougCenter: Kevin Hogan is also having a heck of a season, finally delivering on his talent. How and why has it happened now?
After a difficult 2014 in which he lost his father, Hogan has really come back strong. A dominant O-Line and running game are keeping the pocket clean for Hogan, giving him plenty of time to find his playmakers. Hogan also has a tremendous ability to run the ball, leading to many third down conversions with his legs.
I think another huge difference this year has to do with Shaw and company’s play calling. Hogan is routinely put in situations that allow him to succeed. Stanford is throwing the ball more off play action, using McCaffrey and Love as decoys, changing formations and personnel, and just being creative.
CougCenter: The metrics still love the Cardinal defense, but to our eyes, it doesn’t look quite as impenetrable as it has in the past. Do you agree with that assessment?
Amazingly, Stanford’s defense is still fairly untested midway through the season. Since the USC game, every contest has been a blowout where the Cardinal jump out to an early lead, forcing opposing offenses to be one dimensional. It’s hard to gauge a defense when the threat of the run game is eliminated by a big lead.
My gut tells me this defense has taken a major step back this year. Defensive Tackle Harrison Philips was lost in the opener to an ACL tear, and the defensive line lacks depth. Fortunately, teams aren’t able to just run the ball and that depth hasn’t been tested. In the passing game, the team lost shut down cornerback Alex Carter to the NFL draft. Ronnie Harris and Alajiah Holder have done a solid job manning the starting spots but require a lot of help from the safeties and linebackers. We’ve seen some big gains against the secondary and lots of yardage given up in blowout losses.
That said, with this offense we certainly don’t need an elite defense, just a serviceable one. But overall I agree, this defense isn’t the same as it has been in years’ past.
CougCenter: Are Stanford fans at least a teensy bit nervous about facing the Air Raid, which has scored 45 points in three consecutive weeks?
I don’t think a bit nervous does the Air Raid justice. While the PAC 12 isn’t looking like a defensive juggernaut, WSU’s numbers are impressive. The Cougars are trotting out an ever improving sophomore at quarterback and with the addition of a functional running game, it’s clear this team poses a real threat offensively.
Stanford fans are drawing confidence from our offense combined with WSU’s defensive struggles. Hopefully, McCaffrey and co. will be able to eat up clock with our defense on the sidelines, keeping the Air Raid at bay.
CougCenter: If it all goes wrong for Stanford and WSU pulls the upset, this is how it happens …
WSU jumps out to an early lead, leaving their playbook wide open and putting pressure on the Stanford offense. Down for the first time since USC, Stanford turns the ball over giving the Air Raid an extra possession Stanford can’t recover from. While Stanford scores at an impressive pace, their defense is unable to get off the field, wearing down as the Cougars control time of possession.
Thanks again to Eckert-Fong for his answers. We'll post the link to our answers to their questions when it's available.