By George Chen
Midway through November, Stanford is still fighting for bowl eligibility. It may be hard to believe, but that’s the position the Cardinal have put themselves in for the first time in six years after wasting opportunities against USC and Notre Dame and getting blown out by Arizona State and Oregon.
The Cardinal need to win one of their last three games — not in order to reign over the Pac-12 North like in the past two years, but to simply keep their bowl hopes alive. The last time Stanford was in this position? Three straight losses to end the 2008 season and no postseason to show for.
Not only can Stanford (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) take a strong step towards salvaging its season and avoid a disastrous 2008-like ending when it takes on No. 23 Utah (6-3, 3-3) on Senior Day, but it will also have a chance to avenge last season’s heartbreaking loss in Salt Lake City.
The Utes aren’t the same underdogs that Stanford faced last season, though.
“[Utah] is playing at such a high level, and they’re finishing games,” said head coach David Shaw. “They lost a lot heartbreakers last year, and this year they’re finding a way to win most of them.”
The difference this year for Utah has been its stifling front seven, which leads the nation in sacks per game (4.78) and ranks second in tackles for loss per game (8.78). Leading the Utes is senior defensive end Nate Orchard, who has 13 sacks this season and had a 4-sack performance against UCLA back in October. Stanford ran the ball well last year against the Utes despite falling on the road, but considering the inconsistency of the Cardinal’s offensive line and running backs this year, it’s hard to imagine that Stanford will be able to dominate the ground game on Saturday.
As has been the case for most of the season, Stanford’s offense will go only as far as senior quarterback Kevin Hogan takes them. Hogan is still searching for his magic of 2012, especially when it comes to getting off to fast starts and establishing a rhythm on offense in the early going. Without having to worry about an explosive Oregon offense that’s virtually unbeatable in shootouts, Shaw may run the no-huddle more often on Saturday.
“The no-huddle — a little more up-tempo — fits us,” Hogan said. “It allows us to get lined up and know what we’re going to run…Our offense sometimes puts a lot of stress on us, having so many different options and so many different reads and checks. And [the no-huddle] just allows us to play fast, and that’s what it’s all about.”
On the other side of the ball, Stanford will go up against one of the most physical running backs in the nation, Devontae Booker, who is certainly on the same level as USC’s Javorius Allen and Oregon’s Royce Freeman. Booker ranks second in the Pac-12 and 14th in the nation with 117.2 rushing yards per game and is averaging 146 yards in conference play. Booker has collected five 100-yard games this season, including one in which he ran for 229 yards on just 32 carries against Oregon State.
“The real measure of a [running] back, for me, is not yards per carry,” Shaw said. “It’s how many tackles does he break? He’s got to be up there in the conference, if not in the nation. This guy runs through tackles, he doesn’t go easily and he fights for yardage — he drags guys. He’s one of those mentality-setting running backs. He reminds you a lot of [Tyler] Gaffney.”
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson has been wildly inconsistent in his time as the starting Utes signal-caller, but had the best game of his season last year against the Cardinal by throwing for 234 yards and two touchdowns. The Cardinal defense is best suited for containing a pocket-passer like Wilson, but the 6-foot-7 quarterback can scramble when needed.
“Our conference is still extremely turbulent,” Shaw said. “So who knows where we could finish up as far as what bowl game that will put us in? For us, we have football to play and we’re still trying to play our best. And the challenge for us is still out there: to play our best complete game to date.”
Tomorrow’s kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m., with television coverage on the Pac-12 Networks.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.