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Football looks for consistency, gameplan execution in opener against Northwestern

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All offseason, the Stanford Cardinal have had to live with the idea that they were much, much better than their 8-5 record indicated in a maddeningly inconsistent 2014 campaign.

On Saturday, the No. 21 Cardinal will finally get their chance to turn a new page, see if they can take advantage of the lessons they learned the hard way last year and live up to their sky-high potential against the Northwestern Wildcats of the Big Ten.

Stanford fans, of course, saw a glimpse of that full potential at the end of last season when the offensive line started to hit its stride and fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan dug deep for the most dominant stretch of his career.

Head coach David Shaw fully believes that if Hogan can consistently find that form, the 2015 edition of the Stanford offense will be very hard to stop.

“He’s very explosive in making big plays but was also very efficient,” Shaw said. “He made great decisions, scrambled for first downs. He was athletic, he was active, he made great decisions and he stayed in rhythm for whole games, which was awesome. We need that.”

Shaw has made no secret of the fact that he also wants the offense to run through sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey, who burst onto the scene as one of the most explosive playmakers in the conference last year and will see his workload greatly increase this year.

But whereas Shaw had a predetermined notion of what he wanted his offense to look like last year and saw the unit struggle when the personnel couldn’t execute Stanford’s “identity” of power football, Shaw isn’t so quick to try and conform his 2015 offense to any such “identity.” Instead he seems more willing to be flexible to adapt to the feel of his personnel.

“I don’t like to put that on us until I see us play,” Shaw said. “I think every year is a little bit different… As the season starts to come out, I think we’ll start to figure out who we are. And I don’t want to put that on us until we actually get on the grass and become it.”

So don’t be surprised if the 2015 offense looks a lot different from Stanford offenses of years past — especially given the flexibility of McCaffrey, who put on weight in order to better fit the mold of a Stanford power back but can still be lethal lined up in the slot with his elite open-field speed and mobility.

If Hogan and McCaffrey can be the elite players that the coaching staff expects them to be, then all of the pieces around them should fall into place easily.

After some uncertainty in the weeks leading up to the game, Shaw has confirmed that his top two wide receivers, fifth-year senior Devon Cajuste and senior Michael Rector, will both play at Northwestern. And with an offensive line sporting four talented seniors and a tight end group that would make many NFL teams jealous, the Cardinal finally look like they can field an offense that can live up to their winning standard.

On the other side of the ball, while the return of only three starters to Stanford’s defense has certainly raised a few eyebrows around the nation, Lance Anderson’s unit has proven time after time that it has been able to weather heavy losses without losing its deadly potency. Although nine lost starters is certainly a taller order than usual, Shaw seems confident that the growing pains will be minimal due to the raw talent that the Cardinal are plugging into their holes.

“I feel really good right now about the guys playing within the scheme, knowing where their help is, doing their responsibilities, and also having the talent enough to do it,” he said.

“As a coach you learn not to expect perfection, but to push guys towards perfection. There are going to be mistakes. But high effort and great technique make up for mistakes. It’s obviously not going to be a perfect game but those guys will play well.”

While many have also pointed to Stanford’s still-open competitions at inside linebacker (Kevin Palma and Jordan Perez) and cornerback (Alijah Holder and Alameen Murphy) as potential signs of weakness, Stanford’s heavy defensive rotation in its varied packages has always led to a deemphasis of the importance of “starting,” meaning that the Cardinal are still well within their comfort zone, even without a clear-cut number one.

Luckily for Stanford, the Wildcats’ offense is in a state of flux as well, with redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson set to make his first career start behind a traditionally ineffective offensive line that is replacing its center and left tackle.

Although there are many question marks surrounding the Northwestern attack, that has also worked to the Wildcats’ advantage in a way, because the lack of game tape involving Thorson will mean that Stanford’s defensive coaches have effectively been preparing blindly.

“It’s always tough,” Shaw said. “In the NFL you have some preseason games, especially versus new teams, but in college football with the turnover that you have, with the graduating guys, and you don’t know about the guys that didn’t play last year that will come into prominent roles… Midway through that first game, you have a better idea of who you are, but you also have a better idea of who you’re playing.”

In all likelihood, Northwestern will run a fast-paced, spread attack around Thorson, which is something that Stanford is certainly accustomed to defending but will still need to execute effectively to stop.

“We’ve had experience, but not this year,” Shaw said. “This is our first tempo test of the year. We’ve got to be able to count on our training and we’ve got to be hydrated and rotate some guys to keep up with their tempo.”

The one sure thing about Northwestern’s offense is sophomore running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 1,187 yards as a true freshman last season despite no help from his offensive line. Jackson will provide a difficult early test for Stanford’s new-look defensive line, and if he can develop a rhythm on the ground, Stanford’s safeties, Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd, could be forced into challenging situations defending both the run and the pass.

Although Northwestern actually fielded a solid defense last year, the one thing it was truly lacking was any effective pass rush, a weakness that likely won’t be improved this season. With all day to work within the pocket and big possession receivers all around him, the stage is set for Hogan to have a big day on offense, even against a stingy Northwestern secondary.

But matchups aside, Stanford’s ability to execute its gameplan with its talent advantage will likely decide the game. Although execution wasn’t the team’s strong point last season, the Cardinal are determined to ensure that sloppy play won’t hold them back this season.

“It’s not who we play or where we play; it’s how we play,” Shaw said. “We focus on us. We focus on what it takes to win a football game — doing the right things, preparing to win, and playing really hard and playing together and trying to start games fast and finish them hard. Those things don’t change, no matter where the game is.”

Stanford and Northwestern will square off at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. at 9 a.m. on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Do-Hyoung Park '16, M.S. '17 is the Minnesota Twins beat reporter at MLB.com, having somehow ensured that his endless hours sunk into The Daily became a shockingly viable career. He was previously the Chief Operating Officer and Business Manager at The Stanford Daily for FY17-18. He also covered Stanford football and baseball for five seasons as a student and served two terms as sports editor and four terms on the copy desk. He was also a color commentator for KZSU 90.1 FM's football broadcast team for the 2015-16 Rose Bowl season.