With four games left in the regular season, tomorrow’s matchup against last-place Colorado will be the calm before the storm for the Cardinal.
No. 15 Stanford (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) will finish out the year by taking on three ranked Pac-12 teams–No. 2 Oregon, No. 11 Oregon State and No. 25 UCLA–in a row to determine its postseason fate. But before diving into its grueling late-season stretch, the Cardinal must take care of business at Colorado (1-7, 1-4) tomorrow.
The Buffaloes may be four-touchdown underdogs, but after Stanford’s unconvincing 24-17 win over Washington State last weekend, nothing seems to be guaranteed anymore. Tack on the fact that the Cardinal has only won one of its three road games this season, and that 28-point spread appears almost too generous.
“We had some guys who made some individual plays [against Washington State] that were outstanding, but I think we can play so much better, and we’re going to need to,” head coach David Shaw said.
In the biggest story of the week, Shaw announced during Tuesday’s press conference that quarterback Kevin Hogan will have an expanded role as the redshirt freshman looks to get 12-20 snaps throughout the game. Hogan has carried the ball seven times for 16 yards on option plays this year and his only pass was a 9-yard touchdown to tight end Levine Toilolo that came during Stanford’s 21-3 victory over Cal two weeks ago.
Given that the Stanford offense averages around 60 plays per contest, Hogan will likely be under center between one-fifth to one-third of the time.
“Kevin has played so well with what we’ve given him to do that we can’t not give him more,” Shaw said. “His athletic ability in space is exceptional. We want to make sure we utilize that.”
Despite the expansion of the Hogan package, Josh Nunes is still the starter–for now, at least.
“[Hogan] is not ready to take it all right now, and I’m not ready to take it all away from Josh,” said Shaw. “There are things Josh has done well that we’re pleased with and things Josh has not done well that we’re not pleased with. This is what’s prudent…It’s not necessarily to compete to be the ‘starter.’ It’s competing for plays.”
“As I said in front of the team, this is big-time college football,” he continued. “There’s competition everywhere–We’ll let that play out. Each guys has their things [sic] that we are packing together that will hopefully make us a more efficient offense.”
Efficiency is something that the Cardinal offense desperately needs sooner than later. Last year’s Andrew Luck-led squad sat atop the Pac-12 by converting nearly 53 percent of its third downs. This year, the conversion rate has fallen to 35 percent. Even a more discouraging sign is that Stanford’s pass efficiency is ranked eighth out of the twelve teams in the conference; Nunes’ completion rate stands at 52.6 percent, well below the minimum 60 percent standard set by Shaw.
Nunes, for one, voiced no complaints about ceding some playing time to Hogan.
“[Hogan] has done a lot of good things on the field,” Nunes said. “If it helps us get a ‘W,’ I’m all for it.”
But it’s not just the passing game that Stanford needs to improve in a hurry. Stanford’s high-powered running game mustered only 120 yards against a subpar Wazzu-run defense and senior running back Stepfan Taylor was held to a season-low 58 yards. To be fair, Nunes’ inconsistencies allowed the Cougars to play aggressively against the run by loading the box, but key blocks by the offensive line were also missed.
“We can’t have another half where we had 15 plays in the first half,” commented Shaw. “We have to be more efficient.”
The Cardinal has a golden opportunity to figure things out tomorrow, when it looks to exploit a vulnerable Colorado defense that has at times been the laughingstock of the Pac-12.
The Buffs, who were utterly helpless in giving up 70 points to Oregon last weekend, are ranked last in the conference in six defensive categories: total defense (505 yards per game), rushing defense (204 yards per game), pass defense efficiency (177.9), interceptions (3), opponent first downs (25.6 per game) and red zone defense (94.1 percent).
With hard-hitting safety Patrick Orms most likely sitting out on Saturday after suffering a concussion two weeks in a row, Colorado’s secondary looks even more exposed. The normally prolific tight end duo of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo seeks to play a much bigger impact after an unproductive outing against Washington State–Ertz only had one reception for 20 yards while Toilolo never got his hands on the ball.
The Colorado offense hasn’t been exactly spectacular, either. Ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, pass efficiency and third down conversions, the Buffaloes are having some quarterback controversy of their own. Junior Jordan Webb started in all eight games so far this year, but sophomore Nick Hirschmann is in contention for the starting role following the smackdown that Oregon laid on the Buffs.
Stanford’s defensive unit hopes to continue its dominant play that has allowed the Cardinal to get away with sloppy execution on offense in the last couple games. Following its ten-sack performance against the Cougars, the stout unit has continued to climb higher in national rankings in multiple defensive categories.
The Cardinal currently leads the country in tackles for loss (9.50 per game) and sits at third in sacks (4.00 per game). Giving up just 65 yards on the ground per game, Stanford’s fearsome run defense is second in the nation, behind only Alabama.
The last time that Stanford traveled to Boulder to play Colorado was in 1990, when the Cardinal lost to the Buffs 21-17. Shaw was redshirted as a freshman that season, and remembers that Colorado’s mascot, Ralph, “scared the crap out of” him.
Hopefully Shaw’s second trip will turn out to be more pleasant.
Stanford and Colorado square off at Folsom Field tomorrow, with kickoff slated for 11:00 a.m. PT and television coverage on FX.