By George Chen
Minutes after Stanford’s loss to Notre Dame last Saturday, senior strong safety Jordan Richards told the media, “I was just trying to head over there as fast as I could, but I just couldn’t do it.”
I just couldn’t do it.
Richards was referring to his own play, in which he was unable to break up the game-winning touchdown catch. But it also perfectly captured a fact that Stanford football must live with: Despite playing at a championship-caliber level, the Cardinal defense can’t bail out its offensive counterpart over and over again. The defense just can’t do it.
A Friday night game combined with a Red Zone student section in full force for the first time this season may just be the formula that can revitalize Stanford’s offense.
But going back to last weekend in South Bend, consider this: What’s the worst way for a team to lose? Is it driving down to at least the opponents’ 32-yard line on every possession of the game but somehow only netting ten points? Or is it passing the ball for 734 yards but losing by one point because of a missed 19-yard field goal as time expires?
Finding creative, unimaginable ways to lose is a deep, inexplicable bond that No. 25 Stanford (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) and Washington State (2-4, 1-1) have shared this season. But tonight, as Stanford resumes conference play in its first home game since the students’ returned to campus, the Cardinal will look to erase the sloppiness that plagued their offense in Seattle and South Bend. Though claiming a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff now seems like a long shot, the Pac-12 title is still well within Stanford’s reach.
“It’s me reminding other people, ‘Yeah, everybody jumped off the bandwagon last year, everybody jumped off the bandwagon two years ago, everybody jumped off the bandwagon three years ago when we lost to Oregon at home,’” said head coach David Shaw. “But players don’t jump off the bandwagon. Players don’t live and die every week like other people do. Players play football.”
Players like to play football, but Washington State loves to throw the football. A lot. Cougars signal caller Connor Halliday broke the FBS single-game passing record in last Saturday’s 60-59 loss to Cal by throwing for 734 yards. Averaging 508.7 passing yards per game, Halliday is on pace to shatter the record books with over 6,100 yards through the air by the end of the season.
Last season, the stingy Cardinal defense shut down Mike Leach’s air raid at CenturyLink Field from the get-go, but truly exerted its dominance in the third quarter by returning two interceptions for touchdowns on top of knocking Halliday out of the game in the span of four minutes. Stanford is aware how much Halliday and his offensive line’s protection have improved this year, though.
“Halliday is better [than] last year,” Shaw said. “He’s getting the ball out quicker, he’s seeing the field better. He’s anticipating, not waiting. He knew the offense last year, but now he’s fully trained in the offense this year…You talk about that next step for a quarterback to where the game slows down for him, and he sees everything and knows where all his guys are. And that’s where [Halliday is] at right now.”
Secondary depth will be key for Stanford, as fifth-year senior free safety Kyle Olugbode and senior corner Ronnie Harris may see the field much more than they’re accustomed in order to give the starters some rest against the up-tempo, pass-happy Cougars offense. Under veteran coach Duane Akina, the secondary has been playing at a high level so far this season, though senior corner Wayne Lyons gave up a few big plays to the Irish last week.
“The challenge is trying to find the tendencies within all the passing—what they like on third down, what they like on first and second downs,” said Richards. “When will they sprinkle in the run every now and then? Is it out of a two-back, back-strong or back-weak?”
The Cardinal offense has plenty of questions of its own to answer. Though senior quarterback Kevin Hogan has had his ups and downs this season, it’s been the sloppy play of the offensive line that has been perhaps the most surprising flaw this season. The Cardinal O-line committed three penalties on the first two drives of the game against Notre Dame last Saturday, and when they started playing more cleanly, they still failed to open up many running lanes for Stanford’s tailbacks—the Cardinal finished the game averaging just 1.5 yards on the ground.
“You never want to be called inconsistent,” said junior center Graham Shuler. “I feel like we’re very un-Stanford-like in the fact that we are inconsistent, with the false starts and stuff like that. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Last year, Washington State stacked the box and forced Hogan to beat them over the top, which he did to a tune of 286 passing yards and three touchdowns. If the Cougars key in on the run again tonight, Hogan may have to be more accurate with the deep ball than he has been so far this season.
Tonight’s game is slated for a 6 p.m. kickoff time, with national television coverage on ESPN.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.