“We did just about everything we could to help ourselves lose the game.”
In a Tuesday press conference filled with rhetoric of progress and a bright future, head coach David Shaw’s frank statement about Stanford’s 16-6 loss to Northwestern provided a sobering bit of reality. While Shaw acknowledged that the team “didn’t play indicative of how [it] prepared,” the fifth-year coach framed the opening loss as a series of costly but correctable mistakes. According to Shaw, many of the Cardinal’s mistakes came from its offensive line.
“We got hit. We got sacked a couple of times by guys that should have been blocked.”
While Shaw singled out left guard Josh Garnett for outstanding play, he added that “individual performances don’t count for much on the offensive line…there were times when we dropped back and got rushed, and a lot of that goes on the offensive line.”
Despite the strong critique of the so-called Tunnel Workers Union, Shaw remained hopeful of the line’s future progression, noting that “when [they] get into midseason form, it should be a good group.”
In the wake of the upset loss to the Wildcats (and a 2014 season of inconsistent results on offense), Stanford fans have questioned Shaw’s arguably overly-conservative approach to play-calling.
“We had go routes and post routes and double moves, but [Northwestern] played, as we typically play, deep to short, not giving up those deep routes,” Shaw offered as a response to his critics. Therefore, Shaw argued, Stanford had to respond by schematically manufacturing deep looks down the field. For Shaw, the Cardinal’s more grave error was a lack of continuous positive yardage, regardless of the distance of the pass attempts.
“We need to be efficient in our passing game, and we were not, and that’s why [the offense] feels stagnant.”
When asked about the criticisms of the Stanford offense, Kevin Hogan seemed to offer muted support of the Cardinal’s gameplan.
“I’ll do whatever is asked of me. Anything that gets us into a rhythm and moving down the field, I’m okay with,” the quarterback said.
Hogan agreed that employing a no-huddle offense, which the Cardinal did with great success towards the end of last season, could be an effective way to establish a good rhythm, adding that “there are certain plays we’re very confident we can get first downs with.”
Faced with criticism of his own play, Hogan seemed to echo Shaw, noting that “there are some plays that I’d like to have back, but I’m just looking to work on the things I can control and improve every week.”
Though the Cardinal’s defense performed better than the offense, Lance Anderson’s group must contend with a major injury at its thinnest position. Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips announced Tuesday morning that he would miss the entire season with a torn ACL, further depleting Stanford’s defensive line.
“That’s where it really hurts is our depth,” Shaw grimly noted. “We got to play more than three guys, so some guys have to step up.” Shaw pointed to seniors Jordan Watkins, Nate Lohn and Luke Kaumatule (who has spent time at both defensive end and outside linebacker) as the top candidates to fill in on the line rotation, where they would spell starters Aziz Shittu, Solomon Thomas and Brennan Scarlett. True freshmen Wesley Annan and Dylan Jackson are not likely to see the field, as Shaw hopes to preserve their redshirts to allow them to develop into future starters.
Fortunately for Stanford, conference play will line the Cardinal’s defense up against a bevy of spread offenses. Shaw plans to use a 4-2-5 nickel formation, which requires just two defensive linemen, for a majority of the snaps against spread teams.
The ongoing battle for the second starting inside linebacker was not resolved during the Northwestern game. In junior Kevin Palma and sophomore Jordan Perez, Shaw noted that “we have two guys there that are ready to play.” Shaw praised Palma’s steady play and Perez’s ability to overcome a slow start.
Palma or Perez will play next to senior standout Blake Martinez.
A year after making his first start for the Cardinal, Martinez noted the young defense’s faults but saw promising signs for the group’s future.
“We have a lot of new guys, but just through fall camp, I saw that we could be just as good, if not better, than last year’s…[Our issues were] just not recognizing where your help is and little fundamental stuff like that.”
For all Stanford’s talk of developing and hitting midseason form, Saturday’s game against UCF may indeed be a startlingly early watershed for the season.
“We kind of hit that on Monday, how important this week is,” Martinez said. “We brought it out to practice on Monday, the attitude of [this game] is what it all comes down to, that it can define the rest of our season.”
Contact Sanjay Srinivas at sanjay_srinivas ‘at’ stanford.edu.