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Wednesday roundtable: Can Shaw play conservatively in Seattle?

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In last weekend’s comeback at the Rose Bowl, head coach David Shaw put on his conservative hat, settling for a field goal three times and electing to punt on 4th and 1 from the Stanford 39 toward the end of the 4th quarter. Can Shaw afford to be his same reserved self in this week’s trip to Seattle against a team that is averaging 45.8 points per game?

Andrew Mather (AM): David Shaw’s inarguably restrained decision making can certainly be frustrating, but at least this season there’s a very good reason to back it up: the Stanford defense. In their three matches so far this season — all of which pitted Stanford against legitimate Power 5 opponents — the Cardinal have only allowed a grand total of three touchdowns, and one of those came on a shortened field after a Ryan Burns interception. When you know that your defense stands a pretty darn good chance of keeping your opponent off the scoreboard, it’s a whole lot more forgivable to punt or kick in coin toss situations — especially when your punter has proven one of the best in the country at pinning the other team in deep. David Shaw’s team has been winning football games precisely because of this “conservative” decision making, and I expect to see it in full effect this Friday.

Lorenzo Rosas (LR): If a decision comes again where Shaw feels confident enough in his defense and the rhythm of the game has frustrated a high-powered Washington offense, then Cardinal fans and journalists know that adept and creative Shaw could definitely punt again in similar situations. That being said, Shaw’s usually versatile options will definitely be limited heading into this Pac-12 showdown as both the Cardinal’s starting cornerbacks, sophomore Quenton Meeks and junior Alijah Holder, were recently ruled out from the game in Seattle. Following their injuries in last week’s Rose Bowl classic, Stanford evidently began to leave holes in their passing defense, as UCLA’s sophomore celebrity QB Josh Rosen continually found patterns in the middle of the field.

Although the secondary ultimately held the Bruins in that pivotal late fourth-quarter drive, Stanford’s defense will have to rely on this weakened secondary for an entire game against a strong Washington offense centered around steamrolling Husky sophomore QB Jake Browning. In the first four games, Browning has been enjoying success through the air, scoring a total of 14 touchdowns while already nearing the 1000-yard passing mark ahead of their fifth game of the season. With Browning posing such a threat in each drive this upcoming weekend, Stanford’s thin secondary could ultimately affect how Shaw and his team decide to play close 4th-and-1 calls on the other side of the ball in a close game down the stretch. Therefore, whether or not Shaw trusts his defense, more importantly his secondary, will ultimately become a major deciding factor in close drives and plays as the game continues.

Tristan Vanech (TV): While I didn’t agree with Shaw’s decision to punt with just 4:40 left in the game at the time, it ultimately pinned UCLA back against their own end zone and resulted in a defensive stand that set up the game-winning touchdown drive. Junior punter Jake Bailey has been stellar in his first three games, and there is no reason not to have faith in him. However, with the Stanford secondary short on hands, the success of Shaw’s call may have actually had more to do with Jim Mora’s unwise conservatism in the fourth-quarter Bruin offensive scheme. While Washington barely passed its first real test against Arizona last week, its offense doesn’t seem to be at all tamable. Since we can’t count on a thinned out Cardinal defense to hold the opponent to its average of 12 points, offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren will need to dial up some big-impact plays and Shaw must give him the opportunities to execute those plays.

Senior wide receiver Francis Owusu, junior cornerback Alijah Holder and sophomore Quenton Meeks all left Saturday’s game with injuries and will not play against Washington. How will their absence be felt on Friday?

AM: We’ve been hearing all year about the depth of the Stanford secondary and receiving corps since the spring, and honestly I think they’ll fully live up to the hype when they roll into Husky Stadium this Friday. Losing Meeks and particularly Holder will hurt on defense, but Alameen Murphy and Terrence Alexander both filled in quite nicely for the team in the latter half of the UCLA game. This isn’t a case of replacing dependable veterans with untested freshman — Murphy and Alexander have practically grown up with Meeks and Holder under the watchful eye of Duane Akina, and while they might make some minor mistakes here or there I can’t imagine that the secondary is due for any ridiculous collapse.

LR: As I’ve discussed before, Holder and Meeks’ absence will pose serious problems for the Cardinal defensively against strong-armed quarterback Jake Browning and will ultimately affect Stanford on both sides of the ball. While Owusu will be dearly missed and can always provide electricity to any ball thrown to him (see last year’s UCLA catch), Holder and Meeks’ starting presence will definitely affect Stanford’s defensive capabilities and options overall, most likely shifting the Cardinal defense into less one-on-one situations against such a passing threat. In addition to being missed defensively, the thin secondary could ultimately change Shaw’s trust in his defense in close plays on offense. With Browning capable of making throws across the field, Shaw and his staff will definitely be looking to keep his defense off the field as much as possible, essentially changing some of his play-calling.

Owusu, on the other hand, has a strong list of teammates and wide receivers who can step into some of the roles played by the concussed absentee, and while he will be missed by senior quarterback Ryan Burns and playcallers on the staff, I’m more confident that Stanford’s WR core will pick up the slack left by their veteran. While Stanford continues to be silent about the injuries, these three key players, as well as junior fullback Daniel Marx, will all definitely change Shaw’s play calling on both sides of the field, but whether the Stanford team can adjust to some of their other weapons will be a big deciding factor in this Pac-12 north clash.

TV: The Cardinal’s backup cornerbacks are anything but inexperienced, so while the loss of both starters will definitely affect the passing defense, Terrence Alexander and Alameen Murphy are hardly newbies. They have played in pressure situations in big-time games, and I expect them to continue the “bend, don’t break” attitude defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s squad espouses. Losing Owusu to concussion is truly heartbreaking, yet again the position boasts tremendous depth. One need look no further than sophomore receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside’s heroics during the 70-yard drive in the final stanza of Saturday’s game to see that when Burns can hit targets, Stanford receivers will come down with catches.

Husky quarterback Jake Browning has put on a show in his first four games this year with 14 touchdown passes and an insane 194.9 passing efficiency. Who will be most instrumental to stopping the Northern California native?

AM: No single player or unit stops a talent like Jake Browning, but I’m going to give the honor to Solomon Thomas and the defensive line. It’s not that this group has just been piling on the stats or anything, but on almost every big play for UCLA last weekend they seemed itching to get involved. The forced fumble returned for a touchdown in the game’s final seconds may have been the most visible example of this, but the defensive line also made a few big third down stops and sacked Rosen on UCLA’s fourth-down conversion attempt near the end of the third quarter. Obviously the Cardinal’s other units will have to show up to give the defensive line a chance, but if they do I expect Thomas, Harrison Phillips and company will give Browning just enough to think about to bring his efficiency stats back down to earth.

LR: I’ve already talked a lot about the importance of the injuries to Cardinal starting cornerbacks sophomore Quenton Meeks and junior Alijah Holder, but I cannot stress enough how important their absence will be throughout this showdown in Seattle. If backup cornerback pair of juniors Terrence Alexander and Alameen Murphy can provide a strong showing against the Husky quarterback, Shaw’s options both on offense and defense widen immensely as a result.

While the rest of the defense remain integral parts in helping provide success against Browning, offensive-minded Husky head coach Chris Peterson will definitely attack this weakened Cardinal secondary, and if the cornerbacks prove stout early on, Stanford will have a lot more flexibility in terms of game management that comes as a consequence of a regained trust in his defense. This defensive line can provide a lot of help to this secondary if they can immediately pressure pocket quarterback Browning consistently, but overall, Stanford will have to dig themselves out of a huge hole if their cornerbacks cannot hold their own this Friday.

TV: The defensive line will certainly be vital to preventing Browning from getting too comfortable in the pocket, but I’d say the safeties will be the most instrumental. The Husky quarterback has averaged 13.49 yards per completion, meaning sophomore Justin Reid and fifth-year seniors Zach Hoffpauir and Dallas Lloyd must step in to provide that extra deep protection. Only then will the Cardinal stop a quarterback who is ranked third in the nation in passing efficiency.

 

Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu, Lorenzo Rosas at enzor9 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tristan Vanech at tvanech ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.