A Stanford fan exists, and he has things to say.
We haven't done a Q&A with an opposing team's blogger in a few weeks, and that's a shame. As much as we can watch highlights and pour over stats, we're never going to know an opposing team better than the guys that are devoted to them. Fortunately, Hank Waddles of GoMightyCard.com contacted me about trading questions, and I was more than happy to oblige. You can find my answers to his questions at GoMightyCard (most likely).
1. The stats say Stanford is clearly a run-first team, with enough passing to keep the defense honest. Oregon was able to force Andrew Luck into some of his poorer games (which means he just played pretty good instead of great) as a collegian. Can Kevin Hogan win a game with his arm if, for some reason, the running game sputters?
And just like that, you've found the weak spot. Coming into the season the expectation was that an entire off-season as the incumbent starter would elevate Hogan into the upper level of Pac-12 quarterbacks (not the Mariota level, but just below that), but that hasn't happened. He's not as accurate as you'd like, and he's also suffered due the revolving door situation at tight end (two different converted defensive ends have started at the position, and the current starter (Davis Dudchock) is incredibly inexperienced) and a recent injury to one of his favorite targets, wide receiver Devon Cajuste. Cajuste will return this week, and that will be a huge help. Also, he's had trouble with decision making, whether it's failing to progress through his reads, not understanding when to leave the pocket to avoid a sack, or even making the right call on the read-option on those rare occasions when that call comes in from the sidelines. He's at his best when he's looking downfield to Ty Montgomery, or even Cajuste or Michael Rector. To answer your question finally, I'd say that if the running game isn't working, Stanford is in trouble. Hogan is coming off the worst game of his short career, and Stanford fans can only hope that he's motivated to redeem himself this week.
2. With Ben Gardner out for the season, who steps up to replace him on the defensive front?
Gardner had a great career for Stanford, and fans will always remember him for his production and leadership, but this is unquestionably the deepest defense in Stanford history. Starting defensive end Henry Anderson returns this week after missing the past six weeks, and he'll provide a huge lift. Stanford has several highly-regarded defensive line prospects, people like Aziz Shittu and Jordan Watkins and one-time tight end Luke Kaumatule. It will be interesting to see if any of those three get any significant playing time.
3. How weird was that Utah game, right?
It was nice of you to wait until now to bring this up. To say that the Utah game was frustrating would be a massive understatement. First of all, the Utes had no business even being in that game, and yet they dominated throughout. This wasn't one of those games where the ball simply keeps bouncing in the direction of the underdog; Utah controlled every aspect of the game for three quarters. Even so, the Cardinal were in position to win the game as the clock wound down. They moved the ball with ease on their final drive of the game before arriving at 3rd and 2 from the Utah 6. Instead of just running the ball twice to get the first down -- or maybe even the touchdown -- Shaw called two passing plays. Both fell incomplete, and the game was over. This game is still relevant not because of the loss, though that still stings, but because it highlights a glaring weakness in this year's Cardinal team. The play calling has been suspect in key moments. The hope here, though, is that Shaw has been coaching with one eye on this Oregon game. Perhaps he's been holding something back. We'll see.
4. This Stanford defense seems to do everything well. What would you say they do best, and what is their weakest area?
You're right -- they do everything well. The return to health of Shayne Skov has been a huge benefit, but perhaps the biggest difference from last year to this has been the emergence of Trent Murphy. When he decided to return for his senior year, I think most Stanford fans were pleased, but I doubt that anyone had any idea that he'd be as productive as he has been. Listed at 6'6" and 251, there are few linebackers his size, but his freakish athleticism allows him to play the position at an NFL level. The defensive backs probably aren't as good as Oregon's, but they're still pretty good. Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds form one of the best safety tandems in the nation, Alex Carter is developing into a shutdown corner, and Wayne Lyons is improving at the opposite corner. This is a unit that was built to play Oregon. They have the size up front to pressure the quarterback, but they're disciplined enough to maintain the gap integrity necessary to handle the Oregon running game. But the biggest change since the Ducks were routinely torching the Cardinal two and three years ago is that this unit is much faster and they can tackle in space. I'd say the biggest concern facing them this Thursday night is Oregon's pace of play. The defensive line is thinner that it was last season, and that group could wear down by the end of the game. Again, we'll see.
5. If I'm tailgating at Stanford, what is the preferred food and drink choices? Is cheese and chardonnay required, or can I get away with a case of Natty Light and some hot dogs without feeling too lowbrow and middle-class?
If you're looking for wine and cheese, you'll definitely find it in dozens of varieties, but that's not all that's out there. When I was a student, one of my best friends always insisted that we buy nothing but cheap American beer, preferably from the G. Heileman Brewery. Black Label was a favorite. So I think you can bring your Natty Lights without fear.
6. What things have to go right for Stanford to win?
First of all, it has to be a low-scoring game. Through much of the season I kept expecting for the Cardinal offense to break out of their slump, but now I've finally come to realize that they aren't in a slump; this is just who they are. I know that Oregon doesn't believe in the importance of time of possession, but I think Stanford has to win that battle by a large margin. Stanford held the ball for over 37 minutes in last year's win over the Ducks, but every other significant stat -- total yards, first downs, points -- was essentially even. Without that edge, Stanford's in trouble. In order to establish that edge, it's crucial for Stanford to be able to run the ball. Tyler Gaffney has to have a big game, and he has to get going early. I think he needs to have at least 35 carries in the game, and I'd love to see ten in the first quarter. If Stanford can keep the ball away from the Ducks a bit, if only to give their own defense time to rest on the sidelines, the Cardinal will have a shot at the upset. I'll say Stanford 21, Oregon 17.
7. What does your college football top 5 look like right now?
I think the top 5 is pretty easy -- 1. Oregon; 2. Florida State; 3. Alabama; 4. Ohio State; 5. Stanford.
Thanks again to Hank for taking the time to talk to us!