Pac-12: David Shaw

Two months ago, Stanford football, mired in a losing streak, faced a bevy of gravely legitimate questions. The Cardinal were stuck in a 5-5 rut, a product of offensive ineptitude that frustrated the fan base and emptied sizable chunks of the stadium. The gas tank that Jim Harbaugh had left full when he departed to the San Francisco 49ers back in 2011? It seemed to be running on empty. Stanford was functioning solely on the fumes of its exhausted defense, and the clock seemed to be ticking even on that reliable unit.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Tony AvelarCoach David Shaw will enter the 2015 season riding a three-game win streak and relishing in the retention of two successful assistants on Stanford's staff.
Then came five consecutive victories that have completely reversed the narrative surrounding the Stanford program. The first three of those wins came in resounding fashion on the field, while the most recent two have arrived in dramatic fashion off of it.

The opponents the Cardinal have defeated during their recent stabilization of what had been a very unsteady situation: Cal, UCLA, Maryland, and Jim Harbaugh (twice).

Yes, you read that right. In order to right the ship, Stanford has had to defeat the same Jim Harbaugh who initially left them the keys to glory four years ago. Sometimes, the wacky world of football gives us full circle stories that simply couldn't have been scripted in a more fascinating fashion.

Chalk this latest one up as a massive victory for current Stanford coach David Shaw.

Even after the Cardinal's offensive resuscitation earned that desperately-needed trio of victories to close the season, the Stanford program was still under siege. Multiple reports indicated Harbaugh wanted to poach defensive/recruiting coordinator Lance Anderson and sports performance director Shannon Turley, widely regarded as the two most important members of the Cardinal's staff, to his new job at Michigan.

Stanford, coming off its first five-loss season in half a decade, seemed like potentially vulnerable prey. Harbaugh, possibly confident this was the case, reportedly told at least one Michigan recruit he was persuading a number of Cardinal assistants to join him in Ann Arbor.

This was a serious threat to Stanford, and it's not hard to understand why.

As a liaison between the Stanford football program and the university's famously strict admissions office, Anderson had become a master of the recruiting game and an excellent defensive coordinator to boot -- the Cardinal finished second nationally in scoring defense despite losing a truckload of defensive star power before the season (see Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner, Ed Reynolds, and Josh Mauro). Meanwhile, Turley's innovative approach had garnered national attention after it had created a physically dominant roster and cut Stanford injury rates by a staggering 87 percent since his arrival in 2007.

Colleagues dub Turley the "scientist" and the "technician," and Stanford uses his track record of keeping players healthy while developing them into NFL prospects as potent fuel on the recruiting trail. The likes of Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman, two of the biggest stars in the professional game today, return to train with Turley at Stanford in the offseason. It'd be hard -- if not impossible -- to quantify the monetary value of that fact when it's presented in a high school player's living room.

In short, Anderson and Turley were two assistants Shaw could ill afford to lose. And he had to beat Harbaugh -- the coach who had initially employed these coaches at the University of San Diego before bringing them to Stanford -- to keep their services.

In a precarious time for the Cardinal program, Shaw came through with two of his biggest victories as coach.

It's likely that Shaw's allure as a popular leader to work under -- one willing to step up to the plate for his assistants in negotiations -- was instrumental in winning these battles. Sure, Stanford's inconsistent offensive play has led to some fan and media criticism of the Cardinal's head man, but he has earned steady appreciation from inside the program for his guidance as its chief. This respect proved vital this past weekend, and Shaw kept an essential part of his brain trust intact.

Of course, Stanford is not out of the woods yet. A majority of the defense's starters will graduate this offseason. The team is waiting for the future plans of left tackle Andrus Peat and quarterback Kevin Hogan. Even if both of those players return to the program in 2015, the Cardinal will have much to prove after their ultimately disappointing 8-5 campaign, and they'll have to rely on several currently inexperienced players in the next foray.

But this past weekend's off-field victories were as necessary as they were symbolic for Shaw's program: They maintained momentum following the team's promising finish to the 2014 season, and they retained two critical drivers for the daunting reloading effort that now faces the Cardinal. Most importantly, they solidified belief that Shaw can carry the success that ended this recent season into 2015. Positive forward energy is now a valuable Stanford ally, and it shouldn't be underestimated.

Plenty of grumpy teams in Pac-12

December, 1, 2014
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It's been another banner year for the Pac-12, one that might even get better if the conference wins its first national title since 2004. Five teams are ranked, eight are bowl-eligible and seven won eight or more regular-season games.

Yet there's a lot of grumpiness out there. As in: The only two fan bases that seem completely satisfied with their seasons belong to the South and North division champions, and Oregon's satisfaction is entirely contingent on getting revenge against Arizona on Friday in Levi's Stadium.

The Ducks were the overwhelming preseason pick to win the North, as they received 37 of 39 votes in the preseason media poll. Oregon also was the decisive favorite to win the conference title, earning 24 of 39 votes. So it's no surprise that the Ducks, led by bell-to-bell Heisman Trophy favorite Marcus Mariota, are eyeballing a spot in the College Football Playoff, the program's first national title twinkling on the horizon.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez's Arizona Wildcats weren't expected to be a Pac-12 contender, but are playing for the championship on Friday.
Meeting high expectations is rarely easy, and second-year coach Mark Helfrich is on the cusp of doing so. Those who questioned whether Helfrich was up to replacing that Magical Football Coaching Leprechaun Chip Kelly have quieted down a bit, though Helfrich's true measure might best come post-Mariota.

As for Arizona, the team that will square off with the Ducks for the Pac-12 title, nobody picked the Wildcats to win the South Division, much less the entire conference. The Wildcats were relegated to fourth in the South in the preseason poll, closer to fifth-place Utah than third-place Arizona State.

Dramatically exceeding expectations is rarely easy, and third-year coach Rich Rodriguez already has done so. When he wins Pac-12 Coach of the Year, as he most certainly should, it will be a gleaming vindication for him after his unfortunate tenure at Michigan. The man -- and his A-list staff -- can flat-out coach, and that's why Wildcats fans might want to reposition border patrols to the east in order to prevent suitors from invading Tucson, most notably Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

After those two teams, however, everyone else seems to have at least a harrumph or two, though odds are good this will be a rare season without a firing.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham started the season on some hot seat lists, but the Utes' 8-4 mark, which includes their first winning record in Pac-12 play, has reignited optimism in Salt Lake City and hushed Whittingham's critics. The season was far from perfect or devoid of "what-ifs?" But there's no question it was successful after consecutive losing campaigns, particularly if the Utes cap it with a bowl victory.

Arizona State, which flashed playoff potential during a five-game winning streak, didn't finish strong. It was upset at Oregon State, and Sun Devils fans have a hard time being happy about any season that includes a loss to That Team From Down South. Still, the Sun Devils entered 2014 with plenty of questions and were burdened with youth and injuries but still finished 9-3. Hard to believe too many clear-thinking folks are truly disappointed with the direction of the program under Todd Graham.

You can pretty much draw a line there between the satisfied and aggrieved, though there's a wide range between disgruntled and DISGRUNTLED.

California and UCLA are interesting cases for different reasons. Cal went 1-11 last year and was pretty much the worst Power 5 conference team. So you'd think a 5-7 finish with four losses by eight or fewer points would rate as significant improvement. UCLA went 9-3 and beat USC, which would qualify as a huge success most years in Westwood.

Yet Cal started 4-1, and Bears fans clearly envisioned bowl eligibility ahead. Also, with Stanford apparently swooning, they anticipated retaking the axe in the Big Game. But after being blown out by the Cardinal, getting clipped at home by BYU to conclude the season and suffering through atrocious defense only a little better than last season, there was hardly a warm glow coming from Bears fans Saturday about progress under Sonny Dykes.

Jim Mora's rebuilding job at UCLA has been justifiably celebrated, but the Bruins began the season as Pac-12 co-favorites and were widely viewed as the conference's second-most-likely team to make the playoff behind the Ducks. In the Pac-12 media poll, they received 37 of 39 votes to win the South and 13 votes to win the conference.

While the season had ups and downs, the Bruins nonetheless were still in position to meet preseason expectations until they went belly-up Saturday against Stanford. The reaction among Bruins fans afterward was a combination of deflation and aggravation, which might actually be better than previous seasons of resignation. But it also shows you how fine the line between success and seeming failure is in the college football paradigm, particularly for teams with championship hopes.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
AP Photo/Troy WayrynenMike Riley and Oregon State lost to Oregon for the seventh consecutive season.
Many Oregon State fans have risen up against coach Mike Riley after a seventh consecutive loss to Oregon, which ensured a third losing season in five years. His once-secure status is now precarious. While Colorado under second-year coach Mike McIntyre was vastly more competitive this year than the previous two, the Buffaloes actually regressed in terms of overall record, going 0-9 and 2-10 compared to 1-8 and 4-8 a year ago.

Speaking of zigzagging rebuilding projects, Mike Leach was once viewed as Washington State's savior. Now, after a 3-9 finish in Year 3, it's fair to ask if he'll be on the hot seat in 2015. It took just one year for some USC fans to put Steve Sarkisian on the hot seat, and Chris Petersen's 8-5 finish in his first season at Washington rates as a disappointment to most Huskies fans.

How quickly can things turn negative? Just a year ago, at the end of the 2013 regular season, Stanford's David Shaw was the hottest Pac-12 coach and generally rated among the nation's best. He was widely viewed as coveted by the NFL. Now, after a 7-5 finish, more than a few fans -- and pundits -- are wondering whether Stanford's run among the nation's elite is over.

While it's easy to counsel against overreaction one way or the other or to recommend patience, soothing, measured words don't seem to stick the way they used to. Coaching has always been about "What have you done for me lately?" only now that's practically become a week-to-week judgment. The old five-year plan for recruiting and development and scheme adoption is pretty much gone.

The Pac-12 has surged in terms of revenue and national significance since expansion. But despite that -- perhaps because of it -- these are days of angst. Coaches often talk about learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and that's becoming relevant advice for most conference fan bases.
Stanford has lost three games in a regular season for the first time since 2009.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Tony AvelarDavid Shaw and Stanford have their backs against the wall -- again.
 On the way, its offense has dropped to the very bottom of the Pac-12's statistical rankings. Its vaunted defense has suffered a pair of critical injuries at the position where they hurt most -- the defensive line.

And for the first time in 72 weeks (that dates back to early 2010), the two-time defending Pac-12 champion is not ranked in the Top 25.

Are we witnessing the end of this program's magical four year run, a stretch during which Stanford was the only team in the nation to qualify for a BCS bowl in each season?

"The sky is falling every single year," coach David Shaw contends. "Coaches and players don't [buy into that]. Fans can do that. Talking heads can do that. We go back to work and we try to solve our problems."

There are plenty of those on The Farm right now.

Perhaps Stanford can take comfort in its recent history during these trying times: The Cardinal did also hit rocky points on their way to those consecutive Pac-12 titles the past two seasons, after all. The 2012 campaign featured the anemic offensive performances of losses at Washington and Notre Dame, while the 2013 journey saw maddening red-zone struggles deliver gut punches at Utah and USC.

The Cardinal regained their footing both of those times. In 2012, renewed balance came thanks to a quarterback change that introduced Kevin Hogan to the starter's role. In 2013, outside help -- coming in the form of Arizona's upset over Oregon -- was Stanford's saving grace.

In both instances, though, Shaw's team maintained its championship trajectory thanks to a core of fiery veteran players, the experienced bodies who had been staples around The Farm throughout the program's entire resurgence. Shayne Skov's raspy 2012 locker room speeches came when the team's back was against the wall, and they became the stuff of Stanford legend. Ben Gardner became a rallying point for the 2013 squad after a torn pectoral muscle ended his career. Trent Murphy may not have been as outwardly vocal as Skov, but he too had a penchant for inspiring stability and constant work in the locker room.

"Just keep chopping wood," Murphy repeated after the Cardinal's 2013 loss to USC, a setback that looked like it had knocked the team out of Pac-12 title contention. "Good things will happen."

Sure enough, he was right: Good things did happen. Stanford found themselves back in (and dominating) the Pac-12 championship game just three weeks after their moment of greatest despair.

'A fascinating team'

Well, Stanford's annual pilgrimage to the land of adversity is back, 2014 style this time. And the hole to escape certainly seems deeper than the previous two. Three losses saddle the Cardinal this time. A struggling offense is again the culprit, but unlike 2012, there is no shocking salvation-via-quarterback change on the horizon. The fiery veteran leadership of players like Skov, Gardner, Murphy, and Tyler Gaffney has graduated.

 For pundits, those losses were a source of major preseason concern, with potentially trying situations like the current one being the primary source of worry. Shaw, meanwhile, agrees that his team's leadership make-up is different, but he thinks it can still be effective.

"This is a fascinating team," Shaw said. "We don’t really have [fiery players like Skov]. But our guys work like crazy. We may not have the guy who goes up there and does all the speeches and gets everybody all fired up and motivated, but we came out here Monday, Tuesday, and now Wednesday on our goal line day, and guys were hitting hard and hustling. It was as physical as it was in training camp."

Shaw exuded unbridled optimism at practice Wednesday, the day after he took blame for his team's offensive ineptitude by suggesting he needs to do a better job scheming to put Stanford's dangerous playmakers in a position to succeed.

"I don’t worry about that speech-making and that obvious leadership stuff," he said. "But I love the way that Jordan Richards, A.J. Tarpley and Kevin Hogan get back to work. The players are always more resilient. ... All the fans have seven days to lament. These guys have to work."

The public can begin to judge the fruits of that labor this Saturday, when Stanford has its chance to rebound at home against Oregon State. The Holy Grail -- err, the Oregon game -- awaits at Autzen Stadium the week after that. While the Cardinal's three losses have eliminated the team from College Football Playoff contention, Stanford still controls its own destiny in the Pac-12 title chase. So Shaw's team has the rather odd opportunity of playing spoiler (at least two of its remaining opponents, Oregon and Utah, are very much alive in the Playoff chase) while simultaneously chasing a conference championship.

Given the team's offensive struggles, such success certainly seems like a long shot today. But Stanford's squad is making it no secret that they're still shooting for that Pac-12 three-peat. Fittingly, Usua Amanam, their retired 2012 Rose Bowl champion, swung by Wednesday's practice, preaching the same sense of urgency that his own Stanford team had embraced to rise from the dead two years ago.

"No matter what happens," Amanam told the team. "Don’t waste one day, because at one point, you can't play anymore."
Happy Friday.

This weekend can't possibly be as nutty as last weekend ... could it?

Follow me on Twitter here.

To the notes!

Dominic fro Tucson writes: Now that Oregon and UCLA both have one loss. Both teams were projected to play in the Pac-12 championship and both are playing this Saturday. My question is: Will the loser of the Oregon/UCLA game be left out of the Pac-12 championship game and as a potential playoff contender as well?

Ted Miller: Probably, but maybe not.

The loser of the UCLA-Oregon game will have two Pac-12 defeats at the midseason mark, which isn't good, but a loss won't have tiebreaker impact in either division. As the Bruins have lost to Utah, they would need the Utes to lose two more times to win a South Division tiebreaker (we are not going to even wade into potential three-way ties, etc...). The Ducks' loss to Arizona doesn't hurt them in a North tiebreaker.

The first question: Could 7-2 in Pac-12 play win the North/South Division? Absolutely. Arizona is not only the Pac-12's only undefeated team, it's also the only team undefeated in conference play. But the Wildcats, who play host to USC on Saturday, still have a road date with UCLA, so Arizona's margin for error is only one game if it lost in the Rose Bowl on Nov. 1. As for the North, Oregon will be the division champion if it loses to UCLA but then wins out. So that's pretty simple.

Ergo, if UCLA loses to Oregon but finishes 10-2 overall and 7-2 in Pac-12 play and then bests the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game, I'd rate the Bruins shot as solid to be a candidate for the College Football Playoff. The strength of schedule would be impressive enough to even eclipse a two-loss team from the SEC West, particularly a team like Mississippi State, which played a weak nonconference schedule.

Same for Oregon. The Ducks as Pac-12 champions at 11-2 would have a strong resume, particularly if Michigan State ends up the Big Ten champ at 12-1.

There is so much football left that projecting forward is pretty futile. If you want a confident statement from me, however, here it is: The only Pac-12 teams that you can say are definitely not going to be invited to the CFP are Colorado and Washington State. As no other teams have more than two losses, everyone else seems to still have a mathematical chance.

And, yes, you might use that line from "Dumb and Dumber" to wrap up my thoughts here.


Tom from Seattle writes: I would like to propose a rule that no "official" polls can be conducted until ... until November 1st. With most major programs playing, well, no one in their non-conference schedule, it would seem many of the rankings are based off of last weeks rankings, rather than the state of college football that week. Arizona didn't "jump up," they were as good before they beat Oregon as they were afterward. realistically, the only polls that matter are the final polls anyway, and weekly polls give something for everyone to talk about, but I worry that speculation in September lead to deception in December.

Ted Miller: The College Football Playoff took your advice, pretty much, Tom. It's not releasing its first poll until Oct. 28, and the selection committee has repeatedly claimed it will not be influenced by the existing polls that have been infuriating everyone since August.

You note two important issues with the national polls, though: 1. They tend to stick too much to preseason expectations; 2. People love talking about polls.

The first is the problem inherent within the national polls, and the second is why the national polls continue to exist in their longstanding format. The public loves them.

And, yeah, the media sorta enjoys that Sunday boost when the polls come out and everyone feels compelled to react -- Perfect! Horrible! Conspiracy! -- to what ultimately will be absolutely meaningless within a week or two.


Steve from Los Gatos, Calif., writes: Wasn't this supposed to be the year that Stanford's offense brought back the stud TE glory days? What happened?

Ted Miller: Yes. And the production at tight end thus far is notably better than 2013. Austin Hooper's 15 receptions for 189 yards with a touchdown is already better than what the Cardinal got from the position last season, and Eric Cotton's four receptions for 72 yards sets him up to eclipse the total production from the position last season, too.

But, no, it's not like the days of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, three current NFL starters. That troika might be difficult to duplicate over the next 100 or so seasons. And, yes, it's concerning that tight ends didn't catch a pass against Notre Dame.

The problem is not tight end, though. It's the Stanford offense as a whole. The offensive line has been underwhelming and quarterback Kevin Hogan hasn't taken a step forward as a third-year starter. The redzone offense, you might have heard, has been particularly awful.

With the talent on hand, particularly at receiver, the Cardinal offense should be better than it has been through five games, and if we are folks who believe the buck stops with the leadership, then head coach David Shaw, who calls the plays, and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, also share significant blame.

Stanford's offensive mediocrity, in other words, has been a total team effort. And a total team effort -- and maybe a little flexibility in terms of adhering to an identity -- is the only way to solve the problem.


Matt from San Jose writes: Why has Jared Goff been getting ZERO recognition from the media for the job he has done in year 2 as Cal's QB? I know the 4Pac have been talking him up in recent weeks, but there is no national recognition. He's been spurned for player of the week a couple of times, and his numbers are off the charts, yet he doesn't even have a single vote or any consideration on the Heisman tracker. Come on, 22 TDs to 3 picks (two of which were drops by the WRs) is pretty freakin' impressive, along with a 4-1 record, which could just as easily be 5-0. Interested to hear your guys' thoughts on the matter.

Ted Miller: Well, there's this from Kyle Bonagura this week. And Goff's rating in ESPN.com's Total QBR is notable.

And there's this. And our friends at the California Golden Blogs posted this headline: "Jared Goff Starts to Garner National Attention."

But, yes, Goff has yet to make a dent in the national Heisman trackers. There is a good reason for that, though. His team went 1-11 last season, and folks are only starting to raise an eyebrow at Cal's surprising 4-1 start.

If Goff continues to rate in the top-five in QBR and continues to put up big passing numbers and Cal continues to win games, he'll start to get more national attention. In fact, if he plays a key role in the Bears winning two of their next three home games -- Washington, UCLA and Oregon -- I'd guess he'd start to get plenty of national acclaim.

And there also would be an NFL scout or two raising an eyebrow.


Tim from Atlanta writes: I wonder if the extent of Oregon's defensive troubles have been at least a bit exaggerated ... WSU and Arizona have proven to be very good offensive teams, and the MSU offense has looked pretty impressive since leaving eugene. Before Armstead got hurt against AZ, the ducks had given up 3 points. and really, giving up 31 to WSU in pullman (albeit missed-PI aided) isn't THAT BAD. The O-Liine's struggles the last 2 weeks seem to be a much greater concern, as oregon should be able to win games giving up 31 to a team that just gave up 45 to Cal the game before. Seems the D is taking the fall for the O's poor performances the last 2 games.

Ted Miller: I agree to some extent. I definitely think the Ducks' biggest problem is the offensive line. I also think if offensive tackle Jake Fisher were healthy, the Ducks would be unbeaten and no one would be talking about sack numbers.

Another absolutely irrelevant observation: If the Ducks' projected starting offensive line -- including Fisher and tackle Tyler Johnstone -- was injury-free, the Ducks would be an overwhelming No. 1 right now and the Heisman Trophy discussion would pretty much be over.

"If only..." again, is a pretty stupid exercise in sports or just about anything else. But I thought I'd type that to make some Ducks feel better.

My perception of the Ducks' defense is there have been more obvious breakdowns compared to past years. When coach Mark Helfrich talked to Chantel Jennings about "miscommunication" being an issue, I thought about how good a communicator former coordinator Nick Aliotti was.

To me, "miscommunication" means coaches aren't getting their message across to players. That falls on the coaches.

Yet your larger point about the Ducks facing a number of top-flight offenses so far is valid. It's also fair to note we should expect some growing pains when you change coordinators, even if continuity was one of the biggest reason to promote Don Pellum instead of, say, hiring Clancy Pendergast.

It's too early to deliver a verdict on the Ducks' defense, just as it's way too early to deliver a verdict on Helfrich's second season. Let's see how things stack up when the calendar flips into December.


Ross from Portland writes: This is for Erik McKinney and all Pac-12 Blog Staff: So there I was, drinking my favorite Oregon Micro Beer, Black Butte Porter, and reading the Pac-12 Blog... And then I started to read Erik McKinney's Piece- "Ducks finding recruiting success by heading south." And all was fine, until I took a drink while reading the paragraph below..."Oregon's annual trip to Southern California will take place Saturday, and recruits in the area will flock to the game -- of course, UCLA's rise and recruiting prowess has plenty to do with that as well. But a visit from the Ducks is akin to the circus coming to town, billboards and all. "And so, I busted out laughing hard, when he wrote, "the Ducks is akin to the circus coming to town...". Problem is, my mouth was still all full of Oregon's finest. And I ended up spitting, actually spraying, my whole entire computer screen, wall and whole desk, from laughter while drinking the beer. Note to self: Never drink any liquids while reading the Pac-12 blog. Doing so may erupt much laughter, erupt much liquid, and create a big mess.

Ted Miller: Ross, Kevin has patented the "Gemmell Grabber" (TM) -- "Reading the Pac-12 blog ... well then expect to expectorate! -- and I'm sure he'd send you one for the very low price of $99.95.

It's a retractable computer shield that uses Bluetooth technology and a handy iPhone AP. As a bonus, it comes shaped like your favorite Pac-12 defensive back sporting his home uniform.

And if you order now, you'll get a copy of my bestseller, "Pac-12 Predictions: I guarantee [insert your team] wins this weekend!"

Planning for success: Stanford

September, 30, 2014
9/30/14
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This past Saturday, the Washington Huskies managed only a measly 2.7 yards per play, but Stanford's offense and kicking game both bumbled their way to performances so shaky that the Cardinal were flirting with defeat until the final gun.

That description of Stanford's 20-13 victory probably sounds familiar because it has applied to a bevy of recent Cardinal games. Stanford has done a plethora of things well over the past two seasons, but offensive performance in scoring range is not on the list of positives.

This might seem preposterous given the current struggles, but when it came to red zone scoring efficiency in 2011, Stanford was the nation's No. 1 team. Fast-forward less than three years to experience the jarring drop-off: The Cardinal have tumbled to No. 121 in that category (and there are only 128 FBS teams).

In 2011, Stanford scored on 97 percent of its trips to the red zone. Through two Pac-12 games so far this season, the Cardinal have converted red zone opportunities into points only 50 percent of the time (Icing on the cake: Against USC, Stanford managed only 10 points despite reaching the Trojans' 35-yard line nine times).

But while the numbers are gruesome, the ending of the game in Seattle should make Stanford optimistic about carrying offensive improvement into South Bend. Though it seemed an invisible brick wall was protecting Washington's end zone for three-and-a-half quarters (a bulldozer named Ty Montgomery rammed through it once), the Cardinal appeared to rediscover their formula of red zone success in one late drive against the Huskies.

Let Hogan be Hogan?

A surface-level look may associate Stanford's dramatic plunge in red zone productivity with Andrew Luck's departure to the NFL. Upon a closer look, though, the story here isn't that simple, because the offense's ability to score at close range didn't truly fall off a cliff until several games into Kevin Hogan's tenure. Case in point: Hogan actually pushed the Cardinal attack to a 100 percent red zone scoring rate after he took over in 2012. It wasn't until 2013 and this early 2014 stretch that Stanford turned into an inconsistent, bewildered mess when it approached the end zone.

The Cardinal lacked their usual tight end threat last year, and they're missing the 220-pound bell cow (Tyler Gaffney, now with the New England Patriots) that they'd grown accustomed to at running back this year. Though there's still enviable talent all over the offensive formation, it almost seems as if Stanford's shifts of positional strength the past two seasons have led to uncertainty in the pressure cooker of the red zone.

The current wishy-washiness in scoring range contrasts starkly with the simple, effective philosophy Stanford showed during Hogan's first year: Power runs bruised opposing defenses and lured them into overcommitment on the inside before well-timed play-action took full advantage of Hogan's athleticism and big targets on the outside. The Cardinal are now implementing a wide range of new looks and formations, but more hasn't meant merrier. It's been tough to identify Stanford's offensive backbone in the red zone, and Hogan's play there has suffered as he's been forced to deliver in situations outside of his comfort zone. The drastic statistical drop-off reflects this.

Some change was finally evident during that game-winning drive at Washington, though. The Cardinal simplified their approach in a 13-13 tie. For two pivotal plays, it felt like old times again: A rapidly-improving offensive line paved the way for 12 yards from Kelsey Young on the inside. From the 5-yard line, Stanford reintroduced its heavy-duty bunch formation, suckering Washington -- anticipating yet another interior run -- to the middle. That set the table for a deceptive yet beautifully simple play call, one that put Hogan right in his element of athleticism: He sprinted right and beat the lone Husky defender to the pylon for the game-winning score.

Stanford's return to its bread and butter let Kevin Hogan be Kevin Hogan, the athletic quarterback who has a nose for big plays whenever he's on the move against a defense preoccupied with the hand-off. More of the same will be critical in Saturday's showdown at No. 8 Notre Dame. Against a potent opponent, Stanford would be wise to avoid over-reliance on its defense, and that can only happen if its offense returns to a decisive, dominant 2012 form at close scoring range.

Stanford defense even better this season

September, 27, 2014
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SEATTLE -- Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan knows he's lucky.

Not because of anything specific in Saturday's 20-13 win at Washington -- it was the type of win the Cardinal has grown accustomed to over the past three years. Lucky, because the Stanford offense, thanks to its defense, plays by a different set of rules.

First to 20 points wins? Not even.

Through four games, the Stanford defense has allowed a grand total of two touchdowns. Forget limiting 300-yard passers; the Cardinal has allowed just one 100-yard passer and has now allowed fewer than 30 points in a nation-best 27 consecutive games. New defensive coordinator Lance Anderson's unit not only looks the part of the Pac-12's best defense, but is also playing as well as any in the country.

"It might be on us tonight [when the team returns to Palo Alto],” said Hogan, referring to how the offense can thank its counterpart.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Peter Kalambayi
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonPeter Kalambayi (three sacks) and the Stanford defense held Washington to just 179 total yards.
Coming into the season, it was fair to question how good the Stanford defense could be. After losing six significant contributors and coordinator Derek Mason, it was only natural. But Shaw's decision to promote Anderson, the program's longest tenured staffer, and willingness to rotate in younger players over the past few years has paid off so far.

Not only has the Cardinal defense avoided taking the vaunted step back, but both the eye test and numbers say it has done the opposite. Playing on the road for the first time this year, Stanford limited Washington to 81 yards rushing and 98 yards passing and allowed the Huskies to enter the red zone just once.

Besides a 77-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, Washington had the ball in Stanford territory on just two other occasions. The first came following an interception at the Stanford 39-yard line, and the second came after the Huskies started their final drive at their own 48.

"Congratulations to our defense. Once again, they won the game for us,” coach David Shaw said. "As for the rest of the team, if we can stop turning the ball over, stop having penalties that take points off the board and stop missing field goals, we have a chance to be really good. How good? I don't know. But we will never reach our potential if we keep going backwards.”

Stanford's problems on offense weren't as costly as they were in the Week 2 loss to USC -- when a lack of red zone production changed the outcome -- but it's hard not to see the what-could-have-been parallels. This time, it was because of turnovers.

Two lost fumbles -- one ripped out and returned 32 yards for a touchdown by Shaq Thompson and another at the Washington 11 -- completely changed the complexion of the game.

"Without the turnovers, I don't know if this is a one-score game,” Shaw said.

Stanford's defense, for just the third time in the past 43 games, didn't force a turnover. Before Saturday, FBS teams that were minus-three in turnovers were just 5-14 this season.

Shaw's right that it probably should have been more than a one-score game, but there's also the other side of things to consider: Washington has one of the most talented defenses around. Marcus Peters, who intercepted Hogan, and Thompson, who forced both fumbles, are both potential first-round NFL draft picks. And up front, tackle Danny Shelton and pass rusher Hau'oli Kikaha are also among the nation's best at what they do.

"We certainly did enough [defensively] to win, and I am proud of those guys for that,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, who lost for the first time at his new school. "If we keep working, those guys will get there. They held a good offense to 20 points, and that should be good enough to get some things done.”

As for the offense, Petersen had no answers.

"We have to go back to the drawing board,” he said. "We have to get our quarterback some answers for sure. We need to be able to run the ball better and figure out how we're going to throw the ball down field better. There were some protection things, and our run game was nonexistent in the second half.”

The Huskies will have some time off to get those things cleaned up before a much different test Oct. 11 at Cal.

Stanford doesn't have the same luxury. The Cardinal travels next week to No. 8 Notre Dame, where it lost in 2012 -- a game that might have cost Cardinal a chance to play for the national championship.

It hasn't forgotten.
Now that Chip Kelly is no longer his problem, Stanford coach David Shaw is more than happy to discuss the former Oregon coach. In fact, he took it a step further.

"Chip Kelly is one of my favorite subjects because he is so much more simplistic than we all think that he is," Shaw said. "I think he’s cagey. I think he’s very wily. He’s very confident in what he believes in, but it’s not willy-nilly. It’s very calculated."

Shaw saw it up close for six seasons. He became the Stanford offensive coordinator on Jim Harbaugh’s first staff in 2007 -- the same year Kelly landed at Oregon in the same capacity -- and matched wits as head coaches in 2011 and 2012. By the time Kelly made the jump to the NFL following the 2012 season, Shaw was a believer -- convinced Kelly’s system would work on Sundays.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesChip Kelly will match wits with another former Pac-12 coach, Jim Harbaugh, when Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles face Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.
"That’s the thing that Chip and I both said before he left," Shaw said. "Their mentality at Oregon -- and now at Philadelphia -- was really not that different than our mentality [at Stanford], which is to run the ball and use whatever people are trying to do to take away the run to add to our passing game."

"It’s going to look very complicated, but it’s really not."

Now in his second year as the coach of the Eagles, Kelly returns to the Bay Area this weekend to renew a coaching matchup with Harbaugh and the 49ers. The last time Kelly and Harbaugh coached against each other, the Ducks came back from down 21-3 to win 52-31 and hand Stanford its only loss of the 2010 season. Coincidentally, LaMichael James, who ran for 257 yards and three touchdowns in that game for Oregon, was released by the 49ers on Sept. 8.

Both Shaw and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said this week that it's tough for either of them to root for specific teams because of all their former players scattered among NFL rosters, but Helfrich admitted he makes one exception.

"I've said it before, that's how much I like Chip Kelly, I've been a lifelong Cowboys fan and now I'm an Eagles fan," he said. "So, I'll be excited to root for them if we can."

Harbaugh
Much like how the 49ers invested a second-round pick in James during Harbaugh’s first draft, the Eagles did the same with former Stanford tight end Zach Ertz in Kelly's first. A Bay Area native, Ertz called Shaw this week to ask if he would be making it to Levi's Stadium for the game -- but because Sunday will also be the first full day for Stanford’s Notre Dame prep, Shaw said best-case scenario is that he would make it out for pregame warm-ups before getting back to the office.

Kelly’s connection with the 49ers' staff is more than just an adversarial one. After leaving Stanford to become the offensive coordinator with the 49ers prior to the 2011 season, Greg Roman traveled to Eugene to spend time with Kelly on the Oregon campus.

"I’d heard so much about that nice facility they had up there and I had lot of respect for Chip and what he had done competing with him for a couple years," Roman said. "Got to get up there to visit with him and meet with him, talk ball. He’s a football guy."

And during Kelly’s final season at Oregon in 2012, he took advantage of an opening in the schedule to make an in-season return visit to the 49ers’ headquarters in Santa Clara to meet with Roman and Harbaugh.

"Two guys I have great, great respect for," Kelly said. "Two really good football coaches."

Between Harbaugh, Kelly and former USC coach Pete Carroll with the Seahawks, the NFC turned into somewhat of a playground for former Pac-10/12 coaches last year. The trio combined to go 35-13 during the regular season, and after the Seahawks' demolition of Denver in the Super Bowl, it was clear San Francisco, was the league's second-best team.

Now the question that's begging to be asked: Who's next?

Shaw, Petersen share mentoring role

September, 25, 2014
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When Stanford and Washington kick things off Saturday afternoon, Mike Sanford will be nearly 1,400 miles away in Colorado Springs. Boise State’s new offensive coordinator will be going through the Broncos’ final preparations for their game with Air Force, but there’ll also be a part of him wondering what’s going on in Seattle.

Without the two head coaches opposing each other at Husky Stadium -- Stanford’s David Shaw and Washington’s Chris Petersen -- Sanford wouldn’t be where he is today. Not from a philosophical coaching standpoint, nor from a literal one.

As Stanford’s quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator last year, Sanford was preparing for the Rose Bowl when it was announced that Steve Sarkisian was leaving Washington to return to USC. The potential domino effect immediately piqued his interest.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkBoth coaches in Saturday's Stanford-Washington tilt, David Shaw (pictured) and Chris Petersen, had a profound effect on Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford's career.
“I always thought that Coach Pete would be a good fit [at Washington],” said Sanford, a former Boise State quarterback who had Petersen as a position coach for four years. “And if he went to Washington that probably meant there would be a whole new staff at Boise State.”

Since spending time as a graduate assistant at UNLV in 2005-06 under his father, Mike Sanford Sr., Sanford made it abundantly clear to those he worked with that he could eventually return to Boise. Until being hired onto David Shaw’s first staff at Stanford in 2011, he made every attempt to make that happen.

“Anytime [Petersen] had an assistant coach opening on staff, he knew he could expect a text or a phone call from me,” Sanford joked this week. “Him and Coach Shaw both received plenty of text messages from me over the years about jobs.”

However, it wasn’t until Petersen officially left Boise and was replaced by Bryan Harsin, also a former Boise State quarterback, did Sanford see a real possibility for a return. Nearly a year earlier, on Christmas Day 2012, shortly after he accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas State, Harsin reached out to Sanford about becoming the Red Wolves’ offensive coordinator.

“I really thought about it, but I didn’t want to leave Stanford after just two years,” Sanford said. “'At some point,’ I told him, ‘I think this might happen for me to work with you.’ Sure enough, when he got hired at Boise State, I texted him and asked if had time to talk.”

Harsin didn’t need any convincing. Sanford, widely considered one of the brightest young coaches and recruiters in the country, was a big coup for the first post-Petersen staff at Boise State.

But before he pursued it fully, Sanford first went to Shaw.

“I was really quite nervous having that conversation with Coach Shaw about this job,” he said. “I went in there asking him for advice, more so than saying, ‘I’m going to do this.’ I asked him what he’d do in my situation and he was great.

“He told me, ‘There’s nothing like coaching at your alma mater, if anyone knows that, it’s me. You got to take this job; it’s a great opportunity for you. You love that place.'”

That sealed it.

“Mike was really instrumental in our success here,” Shaw said. “And if there was one place he loved as much or maybe slightly more than Palo Alto, it was Boise. Being a Boise State alum ... he and his wife always loved it there. They talked about retiring there and that’s where they wanted to live and raise their children. So when the opportunity came up for him, it was too good to pass up.”

Support like that part of why Sanford credits Shaw as one of the three most influential coaches he’s ever been around, with the other two being his father, who is now the head coach at Indiana State, and Petersen.

"Playing for Coach Petersen I just respected everything about him as a coach," Sanford said. "The biggest thing about him was the unbelievable standard he had for himself, the offense, the quarterback position. You wanted to strive, strive, strive to put forth a performance that what worthy of meeting the standard he set out there."

For Petersen, Sanford’s rise in the coaching ranks has come as no surprise.

“I’ve really enjoyed watching his career progress and climb and all of that and I had no doubt that he would do some good things and get to where he wanted to be one day,” Petersen said. “Once he got through the process of playing and all those things and sat down and figured out what he wanted to do, he put his sights on the bullseye and was charging hard.”

And thanks to an assist from Petersen, he's back where he wanted to be.

Healthy line fuels Stanford defense

September, 25, 2014
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Stanford is allowing a nation-best 4.3 points per game. The Cardinal defense is the only unit in the country to have not surrendered a touchdown drive of 75 yards or longer. Heck, it's only given up one touchdown in 12 quarters of football.

Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith has been watching film of Stanford's sturdy crew all week, and from his perspective, the viewing sessions have been "depressing."

Wait, what the heck is going on here?

Stalwarts Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, Ben Gardner, and Josh Mauro have all left for the NFL. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason filled the head coaching opening at Vanderbilt.

[+] EnlargeAziz Shittu
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezStanford's defensive line battled injuries last season, but Aziz Shittu and the unit are healthy and dominating this season.
Wasn't this team supposed to suffer a defensive a dropoff? On the surface, two and two don't seem to add up.

Two major road tests at Washington and Notre Dame loom for Stanford, but early indications suggest the defense is successfully weathering the significant loss of star power. And an answer as to how Stanford is defying expectations is becoming evident: The team is actually healthy along the defensive front this time around.

Decimated in 2013

Coach David Shaw understands the fundamental importance of a sturdy line within the 3-4 defensive scheme.

"My dad (Willie Shaw) always used to tell me, 'if you give me a choice between a great cornerback and a great defensive lineman, I'll take the great defensive lineman,'" he said. "Because a great defensive lineman can make an average corner look great."

At this point last season, the decimation of Stanford's defensive line was well underway, so there was a severe shortage of those desired game-changers on the Farm.

End Henry Anderson had suffered a significant knee injury which would sideline him until November, tackle David Parry was straining through a lower abdominal issue that had him nowhere near full capacity, and Ikenna Nwafor -- Parry's backup at tackle -- was about to succumb to a foot injury that would force his medical retirement.

The misery didn't end there. Just a week later against Washington, stalwart defensive end Ben Gardner began battling searing pain in his arm. He fought through the issue for three weeks, but eventually saw his college career end when he tore his pectoral muscle while trying to corral Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion with that arm.

Outside of Josh Mauro, the Cardinal didn't have a defensive lineman in the regular rotation that was playing at close to 100 percent last season. Shaw's staff reacted by converting outside linebacker Blake Lueders and tight end Luke Kaumatule to the line, but Lueders was still significantly underweight for his new position, and Kaumatule didn't yet know the playbook.

The leaks in the dam were apparent. In a particularly brutal two-week stretch, players labored in the second half versus Washington and then scuffled to find any real footing in first half of the team's loss at Utah, during which the Utes easily racked up over six yards per carry. Stanford eventually patched up the leakiest of its defensive problems, but players and coaches both admit that was a smoke-and-mirrors solution that placed tremendous pressure on the team's linebackers and secondary.

An offseason of rest pays dividends

The Stanford defense is built on a fully healthy foundation now. Parry is finally at 100 percent and somersaulting his way to backfield tackles in WWE-wrestler style, and Anderson has considerable bounce back in his step after spending the offseason shedding about eight pounds and regaining his original explosiveness. Gardner and Mauro are gone, but Lueders has had a chance to put on the 20 pounds of extra strength needed for the defensive end position, and Aziz Shittu and Kaumatule have both earned spots in the line's rotation.

All of these developments have allowed Stanford to assuage the losses of Murphy and Skov on the second level.

"Henry Anderson and David Parry are playing at the best levels of their career," Shaw said. "You see all those tackles for loss, and then you see the linebackers making a lot of plays as a result."

Stanford is averaging a sack on 12.5 percent of opponents' passing attempts. That's the best figure in the Pac-12, and it's more than three points higher than the one Stanford's sack-happy 2012 team, the national leader in tackles for loss, posted.

"You see David Parry getting whammed and getting double-teamed because [the opponent] has to account for him," Shaw said. "Then Henry's up in the quarterback's face pushing the pocket."

Washington makes a case

This Saturday's showdown at Washington presents an intriguing matchup. Though Stanford leads the Pac-12 in the aforementioned sack rate, the Huskies lead the nation in total sacks. They have registered 19 in four games. Behind six-foot-two, 339-pound wrecking ball Danny Shelton, Washington will try to make a claim that it features the best front seven in the Pac-12.

Stanford offensive lineman Josh Garnett, whose father played for the Huskies, thinks that working against his own team's finally healthy unit has prepared the Cardinal well for this trip to Seattle.

"Our guys are definitely healthy now," Garnett said. "And if we can run our plays on those guys [in practice], we can run our plays against anybody. You see their pass-rush moves, and then you see them stoning people in the run game on the next play, and it's very impressive."

So keep an eye on the battle up front this Saturday. If Stanford proves that it can pack up and travel with the same eye-popping pass-rush fury and run-stopping proficiency it's shown early in this season, the raging battle in the Pac-12 North will have become that much more fascinating.

Stanford backups hold on to shutout

September, 13, 2014
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford’s victory against Army was well in hand before anything of lasting significance took place. And when it finally did, the Cardinal had its second-team defense to thank.

 Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Stanford 2 with 80 seconds left, Army wasn’t content breaking up the 35-0 shutout with a field goal. For the Black Knights, it was end zone or bust.

“Well, there are certain situations where you've got a shutout, and you put the second team in there and the [other] team drives down," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You think about putting the starters back in there, but absolutely not [this time].”

Option-left was the call, and Stanford countered with a successful corner blitz to help preserve what amounts to a historic shutout. Following its Week 1 shutout of UC Davis, the Cardinal has multiple shutouts in the same season for just the third time since 1950.

“We did the same about three plays in a row there, and it worked every time,” said defensive end Henry Anderson, who watched from the sideline. “We wanted to keep that shutout. We were happy those guys got it done.”

The last time Stanford recorded multiple shutouts in a season came in 2010, when it had three, but before that it hadn't happened since 1969.

The performance was also the 26th consecutive game the Cardinal held its opponent under 30 points -- the longest such streak in the country. With former defensive stars Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner and Chase Thomas watching from the sideline, the defense, again, showed no signs it'll regress.

Coming into the season, there was reason to wonder.

Losing five players to the NFL -- OLB Trent Murphy, S Ed Reynolds, DE Josh Mauro, Skov and Gardner -- plus defensive coordinator Derek Mason -- didn't figure to allow for a seamless transition. But through three weeks, there's no reason not to classify Stanford among the nation's best.

While obviously premature, Shaw was even asked after the game if the defense can be the best he's had since arriving on the Farm on Jim Harbaugh's staff in 2007.

He didn't take the bait.

"Those are discussions for when the season's over," Shaw said. "We're off to a great start. The thing that I'll keep hammering home to our guys, because they should feel good about themselves on defense right now. That's great. We're only three games in, and we're where we are on defense because we're playing together."

Inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who has proven to be a worthy replacement for Skov, finished with a game-high 11 tackles and James Vaughters finished with six tackles, including two for loss.

With three days of practice to prepare for Army's triple-option offense, Shaw credited new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson for installing an effective game plan. The Black Knights were limited to just 207 yards of total offense a week after putting up 47 points and 466 yards against Buffalo.

Stanford now has two weeks to prepare for a trip to Washington, where the Huskies will be making their Pac-12 debut under new coach Chris Petersen.

Pac-12 morning links

September, 11, 2014
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There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.

Leading off

Remember all that chatter in August about how good the quarterbacks were in the Pac-12? Well, it was also in July, and June ... pretty much since last season ended. The quarterbacks driving this quarterback-driven league certainly deserve their spotlight. But lest we forget, there are some guys who can also do some damage on the ground.

John Marshall of The Associated Press looks at some of the teams in the conference who are also tearing things up on the ground. Marshall goes into detail on the running games of four teams in the league, including Arizona State:
The Sun Devils also have a pass-first perception that isn't exactly true. Since coach Todd Graham arrived three years ago, his focus has been on establishing a strong running game to set up the pass. The Sun Devils have had success doing just that with a variety of backs. This season, it's D.J. Foster's turn. A high-profile local recruit, he spent his first two seasons playing multiple positions so the Sun Devils could take advantage of his versatility.

Arizona, ASU, Washington, Utah, Oregon and USC are the six teams that are averaging more than 200 yards per game. However, perhaps the most interesting element of this story is who isn't mentioned. And that's Stanford. While the Cardinal have never been the team that put up obscene rushing numbers, they certainly have set the standard over the last few years for power running. And they've produced a 1,000-yard rusher every season since 2008. Bizarre seeing the Cardinal ranked 10th in the conference in rushing offense. But as Marshall points out, it's still early.

Individual hype

Some high praise in a couple of different articles about Pac-12 players Wednesday. First, CBS' Dennis Dodd profiles UCLA's Myles Jack. He cites an NFL scout who calls Jack the best athlete in the Pac-12.

Also, Stanford coach David Shaw joined the NFL's college football podcast and compared wide receiver Ty Montgomery to former first-round pick Irving Fryar.
"This guy needs to touch the ball every single way as humanly possible," Shaw said. "Just because he’s that kind of an athlete. He’s that kind of a dynamic football player. We have to make it hard for defenses to key on him … There is one name some of the younger listeners might not know very well, but I spent a year with Irving Fryar in Philadelphia. You’re talking about compact, physical, explosive. Irving ran a 4.3 coming out of college, coming out of Nebraska, and he would run over somebody and then run around them."
News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

The smile hasn't changed, eh? Good for you, KP.


Something to keep an eye on in 2015?

Shaky line play a Stanford rarity

September, 9, 2014
9/09/14
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These days, it's mea culpa en masse on The Farm.

How the Cardinal were able to so efficiently move the ball, and yet come away with just 10 points in their 13-10 loss to USC on Saturday, isn't exactly a mystery. Just the opposite, in fact. It was a breakdown. And it was glaring.

Anyone who watched came away thinking the same thing ... that just didn't look like Stanford. Stanford doesn't self-destruct. Stanford doesn't take aim at its toes. The Cardinal, so precise and disciplined in what they do, failed to live up to that standard against the Trojans -- specifically in the red zone and along the offensive line, where the Cardinal have four new starters.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Mike Bloomgren
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports"We're an undisciplined group right now and we need to work really hard to change that," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said.
There were missed assignments, mental errors and penalties big and small. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, who also coaches the offensive line, said any finger pointing should start with him and then trickle down.

"Anytime you point a finger, there are four pointing back at you," Bloomgren said. "The blame, if anybody wants to blame anybody, they should even the blame out pretty fairly. I heard [head coach David Shaw] after the game, he said the red zone is on him. I think that's untrue. I agree with the boss 99.9 percent of the time. But I disagree with him on this one. I think the blame has to go on every coach and every offensive player that had any part in that game on Saturday."

So it's back to the film room, where Bloomgren will try to bring this group of highly-touted recruits into one unit as an offensive line. It certainly wasn't all bad. The Cardinal tallied 413 total yards and kept USC's up-tempo offense in check by extending drives. Which is exactly what they wanted to do.

But once they got into the red zone, the Cardinal converted on just 1 of 5 opportunities.

"The film showed a very inconsistent group," Bloomgren said. "A group that's unbelievably talented and can take a great defensive front and move them all around the field but was still making too many errors for our offense to be successful and end drives in the end zone. Whether those errors are penalties or missed assignments or snapping the ball over someone's head, those have to be eliminated."

Last year, Stanford offensive linemen were flagged three times for holding -- for the entire season. A 14-game season. They already have two this year in two games, to go with a couple of false starts and one game-changing illegal block that took a touchdown off the board against the Trojans.

"Penalties are such a component of lack of discipline and that's something these guys don't lack in their lives and I never would have thought we would lack on the field," Bloomgren said. "But two games in, we are who we are. And that's who we are. We're an undisciplined group right now and we need to work really hard to change that."

Shaw was quick to praise the good things the young group did -- like solid pass protection that allowed quarterback Kevin Hogan to complete 22 of 30 passes for 285 yards. He was just as quick to point out the inconsistencies.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "It's a really good group. Before we ever started playing games, I know Game 4 and Game 5 they are going to be better than they were in Game 1 and 2. And we're counting on that."

The hope for Bloomgren and Co. is that the linemen can take this game as a learning experience. While a loss in Week 2 certainly doesn't eliminate the Cardinal from competing for a third-straight conference title, it puts them in the position of having to play catch-up.

"For them having to watch this film and know that in a ball game decided by three points, there are 25 snaps where if someone does one thing different, we score a touchdown or move the sticks one more time and in a game that's decided by three points, you realize how critical those one or two mistakes that you made are," Bloomgren said. "And then you compound them with the one or two mistakes the guy next to you made, you see why this offense struggled to score points. We moved the ball fine. We just didn't find a way to score points."
On a chalkboard, the base offenses of Stanford and USC probably look very similar. Both derive from pro-style philosophies and principles. But if games were played only on a chalkboard, you’d have no idea just how different they really are in application.

When the No. 14 Trojans head to No. 13 Stanford on Saturday for the Pac-12 opener for both teams, the game will feature USC’s up-tempo attack versus Stanford’s methodical ground-and-pound approach.

Think of it as pro-style versus pronto-style.

Last Saturday in Steve Sarkisian’s debut as USC's head coach, the Trojans ran a conference-record 105 plays in a 52-13 pasting of the Fresno State Bulldogs. Leading the charge for the Trojans was quarterback Cody Kessler, who completed 25 of 37 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for a fifth score as the Trojans amassed 701 yards of offense -- their most in a game since 2005.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Juan Lainez/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesCody Kessler will try to keep the USC offense humming at Stanford.
“They were what you want to start the season with,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “They were efficient and explosive. Sometimes you get one without the other, but they were both. Cody played well. It’s obvious he’s got some weapons. Like us, they turned the ball over too many times and had some first game issues. But when you watch them play, they can go up-tempo, they have great personnel, they’re big on the offensive line. They are tough to crack and get after the quarterback like we like to because they are big up front. It was an impressive thing to watch.”

Impressive indeed. But duplicating that kind of success will be a chore against the Cardinal. Known for its stout defense and ability to keep offenses sidelined (it held Oregon to just 58 plays last season), Stanford will try to play the ball-control game. Shaw & Co. have their own idea of tempo. And it’s speeding up the game by slowing it down.

“They are a lot more multiple than people give them credit for,” Sarkisian said of Stanford’s offense. “Everyone wants to focus on when they go to their big package and bring in the [extra] offensive linemen. But they do stuff out of the traditional pro-style. They do stuff out of two-tight-end sets. They do stuff out of three-wide-receiver sets. They give you a lot of different looks, and they execute their stuff really well.”

It's also worth noting that Washington integrated this scheme USC deploys last year, when Sarkisian was the coach there. And the Huskies totaled 489 yards of offense in a 31-28 loss to the Cardinal in Palo Alto.

"Tempo" is a word you’re probably going to hear a lot on the telecast and read a lot following the game. Because whoever establishes tempo is, in essence, dictating the flow of the game. And for as much credit as USC’s offense deserves in the first week, Shaw said it’s the USC defense that deserves as much of the praise.

“If you don’t stay on the field on offense, they are going to run a ton of plays,” Shaw said. “For me, that’s not a function of tempo, that’s a function of playing good defense and getting Fresno State off the field very quickly with a bunch of three-and-outs. Small time of possession, very few plays, and that gives their offense more opportunities with the ball. [USC defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox is as vital to how many plays they get on offense and how many points they get on offense as what they do on offense. USC is a very good defense. One of the best in the country. And they are going to give that offense a lot of opportunities.”

Last Saturday, the Trojans forced Fresno State into three three-and-out drives and six punts. Stanford forced UC Davis into nine three-and-outs. Offensively, Kessler was the model of efficiency on third down, completing 9 of 10 passes for 111 yards and a pair of touchdowns on third down. Davis was just 1-of-13 on third-down conversions against the Cardinal and didn’t cross midfield until the final play of the game.

And when you throw in the fact that Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is 10-1 in his career against ranked teams and that the Cardinal are riding a 17-game home win streak (including nine straight against ranked teams) and that the series has been a thrill ride of late, you have all the trappings for another fantastic showdown.

“It’s been really, really good football,” Shaw said of recent games with USC. “When both teams have been ranked or one team has been ranked, it doesn’t matter.”

NFL scouts eye Williams vs. Peat

September, 4, 2014
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Leonard Williams, Andrus PeatAP Photo, Icon SMILeonard Williams and Andrus Peat are among the top NFL prospects in all of college football.
STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford has become a frequent stop for NFL scouts traversing the country for the top college talent. For coach David Shaw, who spent nine years as an assistant coach in the NFL, those are visits he enjoys.

The conversations help Shaw gauge where the stock of his own players stands, and perhaps more importantly, give him informed opinions on players he’ll be charged with scheming against. One of his major takeaways is especially relevant this week with No. 14 USC coming to The Farm to play No. 13 Stanford.

“You ask [the scouts] the question ‘Who is the best offensive player you've seen? Who is the best defensive player you've seen?'" Shaw said. “Some of them said [Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery] on the offense. Some said some other guys, which is great.

“All of them said Leonard Williams at USC [on defense]. It's not just me, everybody sees it.”

Williams rolled his ankle in practice Tuesday and didn’t practice Wednesday, but even at less than 100 percent, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound physical freak will have the Cardinal’s full attention on Saturday. The Stanford coaching staff learned its lesson a year ago in USC’s 20-17 upset in Los Angeles, when Williams played despite a lingering shoulder injury.

“We didn't think he'd play last year,” Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said. “Not only did he play, but he played in a big way. He adversely affected our game plan. I can tell you that.”

And that performance came against a veteran offensive line that sent four players to NFL training camps this year, including a pair of draft picks in guard David Yankey and tackle Cam Fleming. This time, Stanford is still green in trenches. Talented, sure, but one game together against UC Davis wouldn’t exactly qualify as ideal preparation to face a player of Williams’ caliber.

That’s where Andrus Peat comes in.

What Williams represents as an NFL prospect on the defensive line, Peat does on the offensive line. At 6-foot-7 and 316 pounds, the junior is a prototypical NFL left tackle and also a potential top-10 pick in the 2015 draft.

“He’s a fantastic player and prospect,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Knew about him coming out of high school. Went to Stanford and they have just continued to develop him like they’ve done with the linemen in the past. I think he’s obviously become, if not the leader, then one of the leaders of that offensive unit and it shows in his play, but it also shows in his demeanor and body language.”

A year ago, there weren’t many opportunities to see Williams, who lines up at multiple spots on the line, and Peat go head-to-head, but it figures to happen at times on Saturday. When it does, count on NFL scouts to be watching closely.

“I can't wait,” said Bloomgren, who also coaches the offensive line. “Every chance they get to line up on each other, I hope USC puts him there and I don't think our guy will back down and I don't think any of our guys would back down from him. But that's going to be a pretty epic battle when 70 [Peat] goes against 94 [Williams].”

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranks Williams as the No. 2 draft-eligible prospect for next year’s draft, but, like Peat, Williams has another year of eligibility remaining if he chooses to use it. McShay’s evaluation of Williams projects him at defensive end in the NFL and colleague Mel Kiper Jr. agrees.

“If Williams doesn't wow you with quickness on the edge, realize he's 290-plus pounds and won't get pushed around even if he moves inside,” Kiper wrote. “At his size, he's a special athlete who could line up as a defensive end and drive a tackle back or line up on the outside shoulder of a guard and create problems with power and quickness as well. He's the kind of disruptive, versatile lineman who can succeed in any system.”

Both McShay and Kiper rank Peat among the nation's top-10 prospects for next year, but it's still too early to forecast whether Peat or Williams will head to the NFL after this season.

For Shaw, the Peat-Williams matchup is intriguing, but he'd just assume any future meetings between the two players occur on Sundays.

"Hopefully Leonard will be a top-5 pick this year and hopefully Andrus will be a top-5 pick next year," Shaw said wishfully.

Even when Williams is lined up away from Peat, it should provide for good theater. Stanford's offensive line is as highly touted a unit as any in recent memory despite its collective lack of game experience. How it fares against USC's front seven should provide some insight into how the Cardinal's season will progress.
Back in 2007 new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh seemed pretty foolish when, like a bombastic Don Quixote, he trash-talked USC and coach Pete Carroll. For no particular reason, he volunteered to a reporter that Carroll would soon bolt for the NFL. Then, at Pac-10 media day, a smirk flickered across his face when he archly announced that USC "may be the best team in the history of college football."

When challenged about his motives, he unveiled what became a program catchphrase: "We bow to no one at Stanford" -- pretty much saying he didn't give a rat's tookus if he bothered USC, Carroll or anyone else.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Matt SaylesThings started getting testy between Stanford and USC when Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll were at the helm.
Great fun ensued, of course. That first season, Harbaugh and Stanford shocked USC 24-23 as a 41-point underdog behind a backup QB, ending the Trojans' 35-game home winning streak. Any chance that would be viewed historically as college football's version of Halley's Comet was squelched in 2009 when Stanford drubbed USC 55-21, aggressively running up the score in the fourth quarter, including a gratuitous attempt at a 2-point conversion.

"What's your deal?" an irritated Carroll famously asked a smug Harbaugh during a wonderfully ungenial handshake.

Nonetheless, we had no idea what the actual deal would become between USC and Stanford. Early on, Stanford's success appeared to be a curious and anomalous run, a surprising reversal of fortune that briefly thickened the Pac-10 plot but seemed certain to be only temporary. Carroll and Harbaugh would both bolt to the NFL, where their personal rivalry has remained just as spicy. USC's short-term future was burdened with NCAA sanctions. Stanford's future seemed burdened by, well, being Stanford, the most elite academic institution playing FBS football.

When David Shaw, a polished Stanford graduate, ascended from offensive coordinator to replace Harbaugh, few imagined he'd maintain a top-10 program. There was a suspicion that Harbaugh built what he did because he was crazy enough to make it happen. Shaw was way too normal.

Yet here we are, two days away from a renewal of what has become the Pac-12's most meaningful cross-division rivalry. While Stanford-Oregon mostly has decided the Pac-12 champion the past four years, there's been little drama in their actual games, with only the 2012 contest being an actual nail-biter.

Three of the past four USC-Stanford games have been decided essentially on the game's last play, twice by field goals, once in triple-overtime. Average margin of victory in those four games? Five points. National importance? Stanford may have played Florida State in the BCS National Championship last year if not for being upset 20-17 at USC. In 2012, USC was ranked No. 2 in the nation before Stanford exposed the Trojans 21-14, starting a spiral from which former USC coach Lane Kiffin never recovered. QB Andrew Luck became Andrew Luck during thrilling Stanford wins in 2010 and 2011.

Both teams are star-laden NFL pipelines. Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champ, enters this game ranked 13th, just a little annoyed at how Oregon and UCLA have grabbed the biggest preseason headlines in the conference. USC is 14th, a team with fewer than 60 available scholarship players but as gifted with its starting 22 as just about any team in the nation.

Both crushed overmatched foes last weekend and looked impressive in doing so. The Trojans added a wrinkle for this go-round by switching from their long-standing pro-style scheme to an up-tempo offense under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who notes "up-tempo" isn't a transition from a power to a finesse attack, only a means to create more touches for his talented skill players.

If the football part of football wasn't enough, if we needed to introduce some new drama and personalities at loggerheads to liven things up, it's worth noting that Shaw and Sarkisian engaged in a public war of words after last year's Stanford-Washington game. Sarkisian, then the Huskies' coach, accused Stanford of faking injuries in order to slow down his up-tempo offense, going so far as to specifically point a finger at Cardinal defensive line coach Randy Hart. Shaw wasn't happy with the accusation, and he opened that week's Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a lengthy and strongly worded statement.

"I believe it's unprofessional to call out an assistant coach on another team," Shaw said. "It's unprofessional and it's disrespectful. The only D-line coach that I know of that's ever instructed players to fake injury works at the University of Washington."

That would be controversial coach Tosh Lupoi, now working at Alabama, who was suspended in 2010 while at California for instructing players to fake injuries against Oregon. Sark, however, never backed away from his assertions.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillSteve Sarkisian has his hands full with off-the-field drama at USC, but Saturday's game at Stanford is at the forefront of his worries this week.
While it might be fun if Sarkisian and Shaw continued to eyeball each other's throats, that doesn't seem to be the reality. It appears, rather, that they have agreed to disagree and let the issue die. Though they both admit they haven't revisited the conflict in order to make a formal peace, they also pointed out they've spoken amiably multiple times since then -- a couple of times, in fact, within range of reporters -- and they claim to respect and like each other.

"We had a disagreement in the heat of the moment; both of us have moved on," Sarkisian said.

Offered Shaw, "There is no animosity whatsoever."

Still, one suspects there are at least some residual fumes from this squabble, since a few Stanford players also took issue with Sarkisian's accusation.

There is another Shaw on the sidelines of this game, though figuratively: USC CB Josh Shaw, who last week went from heroic to notorious. Coupled with Anthony Brown calling Sarkisian a racist after the running back quit the team -- a charge that has been supported by absolutely no one -- USC was dealing with substantial tumult and unfavorable national headlines last week. It may have been a bit surprising that the Trojans overcame those distractions to efficiently dismantle Fresno State 52-13, setting a Pac-12 record by running 105 plays.

An easy way for Sarkisian to change the narrative around his program and to win over Trojans fans who remain skeptical about his hiring is to beat the Cardinal on Saturday. Winning cures just about everything in college football.

In any event, even without Harbaugh and Carroll sniping at each other, we know the deal between USC and Stanford. It has endured as an annual battle imbued with drama and meaning, with the winner Saturday likely pushing into the top 10 and announcing itself as a Pac-12 and national contender.

And who knows? Maybe the postgame handshake will offer up another memorable exchange.

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