Stanford Football: David Shaw

Earlier this season, the methods of Stanford's ultra-successful defense generated some attention. New defensive coordinator Lance Anderson had simplified many of the unit's calls and methods of operation. The Cardinal's new-look unit -- one that was missing big names like Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds from a year prior -- embraced this streamlining process. New starters like Blake Martinez credited it for their ability to fly to the football with no inhibitions. The simplification worked: Statistically, Stanford's 2014 defense actually began outperforming the star-studded units of 2012 and 2013.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal's offense was lagging far behind. Paltry scoring efforts led to losses against USC, Notre Dame and Arizona State. "Ineptitude" became a commonly used word as the attack fixed one problem, only to see three new ones pop up.

Confused. Overwhelmed. Discombobulated. All apt words used to describe Stanford's offense at its low point.

David Shaw responded this past week by taking a page from his defense's playbook. He "streamlined" the offense, working with coordinator Mike Bloomgren to "make the game simple and fun" for Stanford players, particularly the team's stable of explosive, strong skill-position athletes.

Positive results were immediately evident in Stanford's 38-14 win over Oregon State. The Cardinal worked the perimeter with their sizable wide receivers, and they did so decisively. They put Kevin Hogan into his comfort zone via an early designed run (something they called only late in the game a week prior), and that resulted in a 37-yard touchdown complete with a sturdy stiff-arm from the quarterback. They hit Oregon State with a straightforward, aggressive attack, one that stretched the defense to the perimeter before gashing it tight end-style over the exposed middle of the field.

"We have to do what our guys our comfortable doing," Shaw explained of the adjustments after. "We have to throw everything else away."

Well, in playing to their offensive strengths, the Cardinal also threw the Beavers away. Oregon State entered the game ranked second in Pac-12 in total defense (behind only Stanford), but the Cardinal torched the Beavers all the way to Rout City, averaging a season-high 8.2 yards per play in the first half.

There were a pair of hiccups, as Hogan did throw two first-half interceptions in standard pocket passing situations. But Shaw and Bloomgren quickly rebounded from early disappointments. They tailored Hogan's throws to his strengths and the Beavers seemed helpless defensively after that. Stanford's muscle and speed across the entire formation became quickly evident.

"That's how our offense has to be," Shaw said. "Our playmakers have to be in a position to flourish."

True freshman Christian McCaffrey, Stanford's favorite new multi-dimensional offensive toy, confirmed that Stanford's decisive new focus on perimeter production made it easier for him to unleash his own athleticism. He opened the scoring like a lightning rod, turning Hogan's pass on a post into a 42-yard touchdown complete with a dizzying spin move.

And at that point, following several weeks of frustration, the Cardinal's offensive muscle flexing display was on.

"Point blank: What we had been doing wasn't good enough," Shaw said.

The changes came quickly on Saturday, and they might have come in the nick of time. Stanford visits Autzen Stadium this weekend, and it'll certainly need a balanced effort to hang in during the showdown with No. 5-ranked Oregon. The Cardinal's defense, no matter how good it is, can't carry the burden alone.

"When we can support our defense with our offense, we have a chance," Shaw said.

And because of that, "streamline" has become a critical and popular word when it comes to the development of Stanford's season.
Will Devon Cajuste's return help Stanford move to the perimeter?

For many Stanford fans, this week was noteworthy because David Shaw took full blame for the offensive ineptitude that strangled the Cardinal in last Saturday's 26-10 loss at Arizona State. Shaw repeatedly said he hadn't been appropriately utilizing Stanford's talent on offense, a unit that's stocked with highly rated recruits. Naturally, then, the question shifts: What will Shaw and his offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren change to fix their offense? Oregon State's defense has actually been statistically better than the Arizona State unit that smothered Stanford last week. The Beavers -- notably quick up front -- are allowing only 4.9 yards per play, and they're second behind only the Cardinal in Pac-12 total defense.

[+] EnlargeDevon Cajuste
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezStanford certainly missed big target Devon Cajuste last week.
Two weeks ago against Washington State, it became apparent that Stanford was trying to move to a more perimeter-oriented offensive attack, and it worked against the Cougars. Instead of only operating in the middle scrum, the Cardinal's smaller running backs succeeded with a heavy dose of off-tackle runs, and Shaw also utilized a size advantage at wide receiver to put the offense in position to block and break tackles on screens to the outside. But when an injury forced the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Cajuste to miss the Arizona State game, Stanford seemed to lose the will to effectively attack the perimeter. Cajuste is back this week, and that's critical. Because he has a 40-pound mismatch over almost any cornerback in the conference (a huge boon for perimeter blocking), he's a major puzzle piece for Stanford's offensive transition.

In the end, Stanford's scheme must help Kevin Hogan enter his comfort zone. The failure to draw up a designed run for Hogan until the second half last week was a mistake. If the Cardinal can buy enough space with perimeter runs and wide receiver screens to allow Hogan to play his game, this offense should start clicking. Otherwise, there will again be a whole lot of wasted talent on the field.

How will the defensive line hold up without both David Parry and Aziz Shittu?

Stanford's defense has posted prolific numbers throughout the first half of the season. They're leading the nation in several telling categories. In fact, they've been performing better than the 2013 Stanford defense despite losing a laundry list of star power to graduation (Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and several others). The reason behind this is simple: Unlike last season, the Stanford defensive line had been fully healthy.

Until now.

Versatile end/tackle Aziz Shittu might miss the remainder of the season after a practice injury, and David Parry -- the fire hydrant in the middle who might be the defense's most important player -- is out against Oregon State with a leg injury. So Stanford is left without an experienced defensive tackle. Last week, Stanford burned true freshman Harrison Phillips' redshirt. The team expects the high-motor Phillips to be an excellent player, but he's only listed at 255 pounds right now.

"It's been baptism by fire for him," Shaw said.

Stanford is also playing Nate Lohn on the defensive line, while Jordan Watkins and Alex Yazdi (nicknamed "the Iranian Meatball") are options. Oregon State's rushing offense is not good (3.8 yards per rush, third-worst in the Pac-12), so the Cardinal might get a break in that regard this Saturday, but this is a huge area of concern -- especially with the Oregon Ducks looming on Nov. 1. Parry, by the way, is questionable for that Oregon game.

More pressure on the secondary: Can they handle it?

Stanford's health issues along the defensive line puts more pressure on the secondary. The team's offensive struggles have also increased the stakes there, and cornerback Alex Carter admitted that his unit has been forced to play more aggressively -- creating risky tendencies -- to make up for the Cardinal's deficiencies elsewhere.

Though the secondary has been very good (second-best nationally, having given up only 4.8 yards per pass attempt), it has cracked a couple times this year under intense pressure. Fans won't soon forget Notre Dame's game-winning touchdown on fourth-and-10, and struggles against Jaelen Strong & Co. last week are still fresh in the memory, too.

Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion is only 316 yards from breaking Matt Barkley's Pac-12 passing record, so the Bay Area native has a chance to set the record in front of family and friends. The Stanford secondary hasn't allowed 300 passing yards in a game yet this season, but Mannion will certainly put it to the test -- especially if Stanford's depleted defensive line struggles to generate a pass rush.

Planning for success: Stanford

September, 30, 2014
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.

Healthy line fuels Stanford defense

September, 25, 2014
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.

2015 Stanford schedule: First analysis

September, 16, 2014
Who cares if the 2014 season is still in its infancy? This is the never-ending college football machine, so it's never a bad time to chop up Stanford's next go-round.

The Cardinal has scheduled a quality slate of nonconference games to complement what looks to be another rigorous nine-game jaunt through the Pac-12. The conference released the exact dates of the entire 2015 regular-season schedule Tuesday evening, guaranteeing plenty of spirited fan chatter with an eye on the future. Here are some takeaways from the Cardinal's 2015 slate:
  • There are no UC Davis-like cupcakes in the nonconference swing this time around. Stanford routed the Aggies, an FCS opponent, in Week 1 this year to make up for the schedule's loss of former regular opponent San Jose State. Northwestern (the Sept. 5 season opener) and Central Florida (the Sept. 12 home opener) have replaced UC Davis and Army on Stanford's slate. Notre Dame is the Cardinal's third and final nonconference opponent, and the Irish visit to conclude the regular season.
  • Fans vehemently complained about this current 2014 schedule, which features a visit from only one truly marquee opponent (USC, and that came before Stanford students even reported to campus). By contrast, this 2015 slate is absolutely glamorous. It features a mouth-watering line-up of home opponents. The following teams all visit Stanford Stadium: Central Florida, Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Oregon, California and Notre Dame. Six of those games take place with school already in session, as opposed to only three in 2014. Not too shabby.
  • Why Central Florida? Well, recruiting the Southeast is one of Stanford's top priorities. They've done a remarkable good job harvesting talent from the state of Georgia over the years, so playing the Knights should give the Cardinal program valuable exposure in the Sunshine State. Stanford will visit Orlando in 2019, providing a future opportunity to recruit in one of America's hotbeds of football talent.
  • It's not happening in Week 2 this time, but Stanford again plays USC early in 2015. That means that the Cardinal and Trojans will square off in September for the third time in four years. The previous two match-ups have (not surprisingly) resulted in sloppy games: In 2012, a patchwork Trojans' offensive line was not ready for Stanford's furious blitz; and just two weeks ago here in 2014, both teams still looked like they were in preseason form as they combined for 18 penalties for 155 yards.
  • The Cardinal must travel to Oregon State on a short week following their trip to USC. Granted, the Beavers won't enjoy a full week of preparation either, but they'll have a considerably easier test (San Jose State) the week before.
  • Until this week, 2011 was the last time Stanford had not enjoyed a full mid-season bye week. David Shaw even had to dig through his old practice notes to tailor his team's regimen during this hiatus. The Cardinal, in fact, will enjoy two full bye weeks here in 2014 -- but they'll be back to zero in 2015. There is a weekend off following the October 3 home game versus Arizona, but it'll be consumed by preparation for the following week's Thursday showdown against UCLA.
  • Stanford and Oregon have squared off in November in every single season since 2010. That will not change this time around. Mark Nov. 14, 2015, for the Ducks' return to Stanford Stadium.
For years, Stanford's ball-control offense has relied on the power run game to move the chains. But 2014 marks the first time in the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era that the Cardinal doesn't have a 225-pound workhorse forming the clock-chewing spine of the offense. Tyler Gaffney and his bruising 1,800 yards are gone. The team's biggest running back is now 204-pounder Remound Wright.

Given the shift in personnel, Stanford has had to turn elsewhere to maintain its effectiveness sustaining drives. The passing game has shouldered a heavier burden. So far, it's handling this new load well (at least outside of the red zone, but that is for another discussion), thanks in large part to the re-emergence of a familiar Stanford position group.

Tight ends say hello again

[+] EnlargeAustin Hooper
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsTight end Austin Hooper has been a reliable mid-range receiver for Stanford this season.
After seeing four of their own (Konrad Reuland, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo) enter the NFL in a dizzying flurry, the Cardinal's tight ends disappeared. Last season they totaled 10 catches for 69 yards without a touchdown.

In 2014, redshirt freshman tight end Austin Hooper has already blown by those numbers on his own with 12 catches, 170 yards, and a touchdown in just three games.

Fellow newcomers Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada have also contributed, which has the trio on pace to roughly match Ertz's monster 2012 production: 69 catches, 898 yards and six touchdowns.

Shaw is certainly welcoming this development with open arms.

Stanford's mid-range passing game

For quarterback Kevin Hogan, it means an essential intermediate threat is back. Between Michael Rector (30.4 yards per reception) and Devon Cajuste (22.9 yards per receptions), Stanford featured the nation's top two wide receivers in per-catch average last season, but it was missing a steady threat to move the chains in situations that required less sizzle. Hogan, in fact, was better converting and more accurate on third-and-long (61 percent completion) than he was on third-and-short (40 percent).

Bizzare, to say the least.

Stanford badly needed a steadying presence, and so far, Hooper has proven to be the answer. Though defensive backs have scrambled to cover Ty Montgomery, Cajuste, and Rector downfield, the 6-foot-4, 249-pounder has found success against linebackers and in soft spots all over the field. Through three games, Hooper has served as a glue of sorts for the Cardinal's offense: Hogan is back to successfully throwing the ball on third-and-short situations -- he's 7-for-8 in those situations, and Stanford credits much of that success to its newfound presence on shorter passing routes.

The continued emergence of Hooper, Cotton, and Taboada remains a point of emphasis for Stanford's offense moving forward, especially since the rest of the team's regular season features six of nine games on the road. The Cardinal's precarious College Football Playoff chances will rely on sustaining drives in hostile environments.

Thanks to this new crop of tight ends, it appears Stanford's passing game is better equipped to do this than it was a year ago, and that is good timing for Shaw, since his power running game isn't the machine-like juggernaut it once was.

What we learned about Stanford: Week 3

September, 13, 2014

Behind three touchdowns from Devon Cajuste and two Ty Montgomery scores, Stanford pasted Army 35-0. Here's what we learned from the Cardinal in Week 3.

Still no sign of a defensive drop-off

Through three games, Stanford's defense is surrendering just 4.3 points per game. The second unit preserved the Cardinal's second shutout of the season with a fourth-down stop late in the game, and that put an exclamation point on the group's third straight rock-solid performance.

Remember that Army's triple-option attack gave Stanford fits last year, racking up 284 rushing yards. On Saturday, the Black Knights couldn't even scrape out three yards per play until garbage time. The Cardinal secondary held Army to nine passing yards.

After the game, Stanford coach David Shaw expressed great satisfaction with the cohesion defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has fostered following former defensive coordinator Derek Mason's departure to Vanderbilt.

"We're only three games in," Shaw said. "We're where we are on defense because we're playing together."

So far, there's no evidence that Stanford's defense has skipped a beat following the losses of Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds, Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro. Against Army, Blake Martinez -- Skov's replacement -- paved the way with 11 stops. Outside linebacker James Vaughters (two tackles for loss) was also excellent, and Aziz Shittu continued his successful emergence -- a development that's critical to the depth of Stanford's defensive line.

Red-zone improvement?

The Cardinal's performance against USC last Saturday was bizarre: They were extraordinarily good in the middle of the field and epically bad when they approached scoring range. Stanford scored only 10 points despite reaching the Trojans' 35-yard line on every one of their nine drives.

As a result, the Cardinal's red-zone scoring efficiency (ranked No. 125 of 127 teams nationally) came under intense scrutiny this past week. On paper, the team delivered Saturday, scoring touchdowns on all three of its opportunities inside the 20-yard line against Army. Two of those scores, though, came on jump-ball throws from Kevin Hogan to 6-foot-4, 228-pound receiver Cajuste, who's more than 25 pounds heavier than Army's cornerbacks. It remains to be seen if the Cardinal can translate this success in the red zone to games against more talented Pac-12 competition.

video Intermediate passing game still succeeding

Hogan maintained success in the intermediate passing game, a critical component of a Stanford offense that doesn't feature the same power-rushing threat as in recent seasons. The quarterback spread out his 20 completions to seven receivers. Cajuste provided the fireworks with three touchdowns, but Hogan's strongest moments came when he effectively checked down to tight end Austin Hooper in the face of Army blitzes to fuel a healthy 60 percent third-down conversion rate.

Hooper, by the way, has already racked up 12 catches for 174 yards this season. That's more than Stanford's entire tight end position group hauled in all of last season: 10 catches, 69 yards.

Some sloppiness still present

Granted, this was a low-energy game. Stanford was playing a physically overmatched opponent in front of thousands of empty seats just a week after a gut-wrenching loss. Still, Shaw must be concerned with some continued Cardinal sloppiness. Montgomery lost the ball on a first-half punt return, and that marked Stanford's ninth fumble in three games this season. The Cardinal only coughed the ball up 20 times all of last season. Meanwhile, David Bright's holding penalty nullified a Kelsey Young touchdown. Stanford's offensive linemen have been flagged for holding five times, up from three holding calls throughout all of 2013.

Stanford will enter this bye week looking to patch up these recurring errors. A Sept. 27 game at Washington will mark this team's first foray on the road. That should serve as an important benchmark for the Cardinal. Six of Stanford's final nine games are on the road, so the true litmus test awaits.

Final look at Stanford's opening win

September, 1, 2014
With UC Davis in the rearview mirror, USC now has Stanford’s complete attention. But before we turn the page to one of college football’s best early season matchups, here are some lingering notes from the Cardinal’s 45-0 win in Week 1.

Game notes
  • The win was the 700th in the program's 120-year history (700-460-52).
  • Stanford has now won 17 consecutive home games -- the longest active home winning streak in the county.
  • Stanford has not lost consecutive games under Shaw (7-0 after losses).
  • The Cardinal have not allowed 29 points or more in 24 consecutive games -- the second-longest streak in the country behind Rose Bowl opponent Michigan State (28 games).
  • It was the first shutout for the Cardinal at home under Shaw. The most recent one came against Oregon State in 2010.
  • Shaw became the first coach to win four consecutive season openers since Pop Warner
Players of the Week

The coaching staff awarded its players of the game to WR Ty Montgomery (offense/special teams), CB Wayne Lyons (defense) and RB Christian McCaffrey (special teams).
  • Montgomery did all his work in the first half, catching five passes for 77 yards and a 44-yard touchdown to go along with a 60-yard punt return for a score on the first punt return of his career.

  • Said Shaw on Montgomery: "This year, we know people are going to key on him. We want to have the versatility to put him anywhere and everywhere. Saw him line up in the wildcat, punt return, kickoff return, receiver. We can put him anywhere and everywhere in the slot to the field, outside into the boundary, outside."
  • Lyons had a hand in two turnovers on a defense that allowed no points, just six first downs and 144 yards of total offense.
  • McCaffrey looks like he'll be an important member of the team's coverage units -- he made three tackles in that phase -- and returned three punts for 60 yards, including a long of 41.

  • Shaw on McCaffrey: "When we came back from the summer, coaches came back into town, getting ready for training camp. The players, the old guys, fourth- and fifth-year guys, which you never hear, they came out and say I can't wait to watch Christian McCaffrey play."

    The coaching staff also honored four members of the team for their roles on the scout team during the week: Sam Yules (special teams), McCaffrey (offense) and SS Denzel Franklin and DE Harrison Phillips (defense).
Player notes
  • De La Salle High product Austin Hooper has a strong debut, catching four passes for 63 yards and touchdown. Shaw likened him to a former Stanford tight end currently in the NFL.

    "I've set the bar really, really high for him. I don't mind telling you guys," Shaw said. "The bar for him is Jimmy Dray, what Jimmy Dray did for us here when we first started, setting the physical tone at the line of scrimmage, tight end, and being a receiving threat. And Austin's taken that to heart ... hard worker, physical guy. But you can see what kind of pass receiver he can be."
  • WR Devon Cajuste was suspended for the game for what Shaw termed a "violation of team rules." He will return to the starting lineup against USC.
  • Kicker Jordan Williamson is the program's new all-time leading scorer (294 points). The previous record (289) was held by Eric Abrams (1992-95)."There are a lot of people that had thrown Jordan on the scrap heap. 'He's done. Why don't we have somebody else?'" Shaw said. "And you look up a couple years later, after a couple of gamewinning kicks, a couple of crunchtime field goals as well as crunchtime kickoffs, where he put the ball at the back of the end zone in big games, big moments. Now he's the alltime leading scorer in the history of Stanford football."
  • LB James Vaughters has taken the role previously owned by Shayne Skov in leading Stanford's postgame ritual:

Pac-12 coaching hot-seat rankings

June, 26, 2014
While some like to gleefully dance around a raging bonfire in nothing but a loincloth with the heads of college football coaches on pitchforks, the Pac-12 blog is less demonstrative. And more empathetic.

It believes there is no glee in seeing someone fired, even if said coach is snarky, unavailable or arrogant. Let he who is not sometimes snarky, unavailable or arrogant cast the first stone! (Pac-12 blog starts sheepishly whistling.)

That's why the Pac-12 blog cringes every year when it acts as a reluctant prophet of doom by putting a thermometer to each conference coaches' stool and announcing a temperature. It gives us no pleasure to tell the coach to slide over a bit so we can scramble some eggs and rustle up some bacon (thick cut) on a portion of his seat.

Ah, but there is good news in 2014. The Pac-12 coaching stools range from comfortably chilled to slightly warm to the touch. There are no Will Muschamps, Mike Londons or Dana Holgorsens in the Pac-12 this year.

So while there's always going to be someone stuck at No. 12 when Pac-12 teams are ranked, there's good reason to believe the conference just might get through a season without a coaching change -- at least not one created by a boot and a slamming door.

1. David Shaw, Stanford: Shaw has won consecutive Pac-12 titles. He inherited a good thing from Jim Harbaugh and made it better. He's a Stanford graduate and he loves raising his family among family in Palo Alto. While many view him as a future NFL coach -- and you never say never in coaching -- he's the most likely guy on this list to be in the same place a decade from now.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJim Mora is 19-8 in two seasons at UCLA.
2. Jim Mora, UCLA: In just two seasons, Mora has built the Bruins into a Pac-12 and national contender. He has considerable positive momentum on the field and in recruiting. The most likely scenario for departure is him leaving on his own accord. UCLA can avoid that by continuing to invest in the football program -- read: coaching salaries and facilities upgrades.

3. Todd Graham, Arizona State: Mora and Graham are really 2A and 2B, as they have both turned so-called "sleeping giants" into potentially awakening giants. While some still believe Graham could eventually have a wandering eye, every indication -- including this -- is he is setting up for the long term in Tempe.

4. Chris Petersen, Washington: Petersen is not only secure because he's in his first season with the Huskies, he's also secure because he's Chris Petersen, who's widely regarded as an elite coach. Of course, if he's a 7-5 or 6-6 Chris Petersen in December, then the Sark II jokes will begin.

5. Mike Leach, Washington State: While Leach isn't great at avoiding controversy -- he feels no need to place a filter between his brain and mouth -- his team took a big step forward last year. Further, he seems like a great fit in Pullman and with Coug fans, who enjoy his quirkiness. Finally, he's got a good and supportive AD in Bill Moos, who has tirelessly worked to improve the facilities around the program.

6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona: Rodriguez has done a good job his first two years in Tucson, winning more than a few games he shouldn't have, as well as grabbing a pair of bowl victories. What knocks him down here is Graham's success in Tempe and Graham's 2-0 record in the Territorial Cup. Rich Rod can't afford for that to become a long-term trend.

7. Mike Riley, Oregon State: The notion that Riley could be terminated feels unlikely, but there is a faction of Beavers fans that is dissatisfied with the program, in large part because of Oregon's rise to national prominence. If those folks would write the athletic department a $68 million check, they'd have more legitimacy and a better chance of getting an audience with AD Bob De Carolis.

8. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado: MacIntyre's early returns are solid. Colorado improved in myriad ways last year. He seems like a good fit. But the Buffaloes are just 1-8 in conference games the past two seasons. You'd suspect fans are ready to show some patience, but a coach is never secure until he starts winning conference games.

9. Steve Sarkisian, USC: How can Sarkisian be all the way down here in his first year? For one, it's because his hiring wasn't overwhelmingly greeted with celebratory cheers. But it's also that USC fans have a small window for satisfaction: Pac-12 championships and national titles. You even can win a bunch of the former and not be loved if you're not competing for the latter.

10. Mark Helfrich, Oregon: Helfrich has some of the same issues as Sark, though he's in his second year leading a nouveau riche program as opposed to an old-school power. He won 11 games and was in the national title picture much of 2013 but some Ducks fans only know him for Not Being Chip Kelly. The Ducks are again Pac-12 favorites and top national title contenders. If they lose more than one regular-season game, though, some fans might become disgruntled. Not saying it's right, but it would happen.

11. Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Whittingham is the starting line on this list for where there's actually some real warmth, but he also has a strong track record with his program and a legitimate excuse: It ain't easy moving up from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Still, Utes fans are eager to gain some traction in the South Division. Whittingham should be safe with a return to the postseason, but a third consecutive losing record could tighten the screws considerably.

12. Sonny Dykes, California: Dykes is only in his second season, which typically would mean he's safe. The conventional wisdom is a coach needs at least three and preferably five years to be fairly evaluated. But college football has become far less patient with losing -- even academic bastions like Berkeley -- and Cal has spent a bunch of cash for fancy facilities upgrades. The expectation here is Dykes will be back in 2015 if his team wins three or four games and shows improvement in terms of soundness and consistent focus. But he can't afford another feckless 1-11 season.
Over on the SEC blog, Alex Scarborough decided to take a look at some heartbreakers in the SEC in recent years in honor of the U.S. soccer team’s heartbreaking finish on Sunday.

The Pac-12 is no stranger to last-minute agonies. They might not have fancy names like “The Kick-6” or "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare." But whether it’s nonconference or in-conference, the last few years have provided Pac-12 fans with plenty of tears in their tea (or tears of joy, depending on which colors you wear).

Here are a few in that last few years that come to mind.

[+] EnlargeKivon Cartwright, Tanner Hedstrom, Theron West, Joe Dahl
AP Photo/Matt YorkA second-half New Mexico Bowl collapse, where it squandered a 22-point lead to Colorado State, ended Washington State's 2013 season with a thud.
Misery in New Mexico: Colorado State was down by eight points with less than two minutes left in last year's New Mexico Bowl. But they were able to capitalize on a pair of late fumbles from Washington State as the Rams went on to erase a one-time 35-13 deficit. Lost was a sensational six-touchdown, 410-yard effort from Connor Halliday. Remembered is a meltdown so inconceivable, the Pac-12 blog still can’t fully comprehend it.

Busted in South Bend: Did he or didn’t he? Stanford fans will swear up and down that Stepfan Taylor crossed the goal line with a second effort. Notre Dame fans are convinced the play was dead and the Fighting Irish had stopped Taylor on fourth down in overtime, sealing a 20-13 victory. The review judge agreed with the Irish. If it’s any consolation, the Cardinal went on to win eight straight games and the Rose Bowl. But that one was a stinger.

Apples and apples: Washington State has been on the good side of a few close Apple Cups. Therefore, by definition, Washington has been on the bad side. There was the 2012 game where Washington let an 18-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter. And, of course, the famed 2008 "Crapple Cup", where winless Washington fell 16-13 in overtime to 1-11 Washington State.

Masoli mastery: Oh ‘Zona Zoo ... you were so ready to storm the field in 2009. Then Jeremiah Masoli hit Ed Dickson on an 8-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left to tie the game at 31-31 before his 1-yard touchdown locked up a 44-41 win in double overtime. Cheers for the Ducks, heartbreak for the Wildcats.

Another Ducking: This one was as slow burn. After California pulled to within 15-13 against the Ducks in 2010, the hurry-up Oregon offense slowed down. The Ducks went on a grinding 18-play, 65-yard drive that even David Shaw would have to fist bump. It lasted 9 minutes and 25 seconds to run out the clock and prevent the Golden Bears -- who put forth a stellar defensive effort -- from ever getting the ball back.

Double Ducked: Oregon wasn’t on the cheery end of all the close games in the last few years. Field goal misses in 2011 and 2012 put Oregon on the sour side of a couple close games. In 2011, it was a missed 37-yard field goal at home against USC that would have tied the game at 38-38 as time expired. The kicking game cost the Ducks again in 2012 at home against Stanford, where a missed 41-yard field goal set up Jordan Williamson’s 37-yard game winner for a 17-14 Cardinal win.

Territorial blues: We can’t mention close games without bringing up the 2010 Territorial Cup. First, Arizona State's James Brooks blocked a PAT that would have given Arizona a 21-20 edge with 27 seconds left in the game. Instead, the game went to two overtimes. And with ASU leading 30-23, David Douglas scored on a 9-yard run for 'Zona. But the PAT was blocked again, by Brooks, again, giving the Sun Devils a 30-29 victory.

Seattle thriller: I can’t think of a single instance of the Pac-12 blog second-guessing a coach’s decision to go for two and end a game. This isn’t one of them. It’s gutsy. So first, I say bravo to Mike Riley. That said, a failed 2-point attempt was the difference in Washington’s 35-34 2OT win in 2010. As it turns out, the Beavers would go on to lose four of their next six and miss the postseason. Washington would finish with seven wins and advance to the Holiday Bowl.

There are more. Of course there are more. There are always more. And I'm sure you'll remind us of them. Ted would love to hear your thoughts.

Links: ASU's big recruiting day

June, 24, 2014
I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was break me
Yeah, you wreck me.

As it becomes more and more apparent that some form of an early signing period has a good chance to work its way into college football, it’s time to caution against unintended consequences.

On the surface, an early period -- whether it's before the season, shortly after Thanksgiving, or at some other point -- has been billed as an opportunity for high school seniors to end their recruiting process so they can move on with their senior years. No more phone calls, no more text messages, no more distractions. And for some of these kids, it’ll work out just like that.

Just don’t confuse the notion that because it’ll help make the recruiting process better for some, that it’ll have that effect on a majority. That’s unfounded.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsStanford coach David Shaw believes that an early signing period would create more problems than solutions for both players and programs.
Stanford coach David Shaw has been one of the most outspoken coaches in the country against implementing an early signing period for various reasons, but he’s particularly wary of how it’ll change recruiting practices.

"The reasoning behind it is really bad," he said. "I think we should let these young men take as much time as they need without coaches forcing them, because that’s what will happen. College coaches will be pressuring these guys to sign early, and I think that’s wrong."

The rebuttal to this concept seems to be something along the lines of "you can’t force a kid to sign."

For the four- and five-star recruits of the world -- the ones whose recruitments are more heavily publicized -- this is probably true. The player, in this case, holds the upper hand, and coaches will always be more willing to invest more time to land potential stars.

It won’t work that way for the less-heralded recruits, though. They’ll instantly become susceptible to conditional offers -- a program might extend an offer good only through the first signing day. Even if a recruit isn’t ready to make the final call, he could feel compelled to sign anyway out of fear he could miss out on what will ultimately be his best, or only, opportunity.

Not all programs will operate that way, but enough will to change the recruiting game.

The bottom-line result here is that more kids will inherently wind up at places that might not be the best fit. And because of that, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which it doesn’t lead to more transfers. Speculating on how widespread these potential pitfalls would be is nearly impossible to do, but they certainly need to be taken into account before the NCAA moves forward on the issue.

What also needs to get ironed out is how strictly the NCAA will enforce those early letters of intent.

The way Shaw sees it, those kids that get pressured into signing before they’re ready won’t ultimately be held to those commitments if they change their minds down the road.

"There will still be guys that sign in that early signing period that will want to change. Whether it’s because of a coaching change or something else happens," he said. "They’re going to want to change, and [the NCAA] is going to let them out of it."

If that’s the case, then what’s the point?

Shaw’s words have always rung sincere, but it should also be noted that a change to the current system would likely affect Stanford more negatively than other schools because of the emphasis the school places on its academic admission standards. Often times, even with some of the most high-profile recruits, the football coaching staff doesn’t get the green light from the admissions office on specific kids until days before the February signing day.

Those in the Stanford football program aren’t confident that process would change with an earlier signing day, and most hold the opinion that it shouldn’t have to.

Then again, this is the NCAA we’re talking about. Why would academics play a role?
It has been 296 days since the Stanford football team opened fall camp to begin preparations for the 2013 season. If that day marks the official start to an athlete’s season then Zach Hoffpauir has been in season for 296 days.

For Hoffpauir, the conclusion of the Rose Bowl meant the beginning of baseball season. One of four Pac-12 athletes to play both sports, he immediately shifted gears and begun preparations for what turned out to be a very successful sophomore season for the safety turned outfielder.

[+] EnlargeHoffpauir
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerStanford OF Zach Hoffpauir, who will battle for a starting safety spot this fall, is a big reason why the Cardinal advanced to the Super Regional.
And thanks to a walk-off home run from freshman Tommy Edman on Monday against Indiana, the Cardinal, who were the No. 3 seed in the four-team Indiana regional, advanced to this weekend’s Super Regional at Vanderbilt. Hoffpauir was 5-for-19 in the series including a 3-for-5 performance with a home run and a triple in a 10-7 win against Indiana on Sunday.

Balancing the academic workload at Stanford with both sports is a challenge, but he’s in a unique position in that both head coaches -- David Shaw (football) and Mark Marquess (baseball) -- were multi-sport athletes as students at Stanford. Shaw made brief cameos with the track and basketball teams in addition to his role as a wide receiver in football, while Marquess also pulled off the football-baseball double.

“When your coaches are supportive of [playing both], it relieves a lot of pressure,” said Hoffpauir, who ranks second on the Cardinal with a .332 batting average and seven home runs. “It’s nice to have both coaches that have done it too, so they know where I’m coming from.”

When Hoffpauir went through the recruiting process, he sought out a place that would not only allow him to play both sports but provide an environment conducive to being successful in both. Stanford stood out immediately. John Elway in the 1980s, Toby Gerhart a few years back and, most recently, Tyler Gaffney are a few notable examples of how it has worked in the past.

“Stanford was really only program [recruiting me] that had repeated success of two-sports athletes,” Hoffpauir said. “Was I just being told I could do both or is there evidence that it had worked in the past? It was a big part of why I chose Stanford.”

All three of those players had professional baseball opportunities -- Elway and Gaffney both played minor-league baseball before returning to football -- and if things play out the way Hoffpauir hopes, he will too. He’ll be draft eligible after next baseball season, and if the price is right, he said he’d be open to going the Gaffney route and leaving for the minor leagues.

Like Gaffney, Hoffpauir didn’t redshirt during his true freshman football season, which would allow him to step away from football for a season -- essentially redshirting his senior year -- then return to the football team the following year if he’s not sold baseball is the correct permanent fit.

“Things worked out pretty well for Gaffney,” Hoffpauir said.

Gaffney was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft after rushing for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns upon his return.

Projecting how Hoffpauir’s chances at a career in professional football factor into that equation are difficult. Through two seasons, he’s been a special-teams mainstay, but has sat behind Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards on the depth chart at safety. With Reynolds off to the NFL, Hoffpauir is one of four players who will compete to start alongside Richards next season.

The Cardinal moved receiver Kodi Whitfield and quarterback Dallas Lloyd to safety before spring practice to bolster the competition that also includes Kyle Olugbode. Hoffpauir knows he missed out on important reps that could theoretically play a role in who starts, but he isn’t overly concerned by it.

“Yeah, you want to be out there, but I came here and wanted to play both,” he said. “You really earn your spot in fall camp. Once you get to fall camp, whoever is going to make the plays is going to play the position.”

When he had time, Hoffpauir would still sit in on meetings with the football team during the spring and has a specific workout regimen designed to allow him to bulk up but remain flexible.

When Hoffpauir officially returns to football, there will be a new position coach to waiting for him. Duane Akina was hired to replace Derek Mason, who coincidently left for the Vanderbilt job, as the secondary coach following Stanford's first session of spring practice.

Take 2: Toughest Pac-12 schedule

May, 29, 2014
Much of the talk this summer has been about scheduling, whether it be FCS teams, number of conference games, or scheduling a conference game and then counting it as a nonconference game.

But the Pac-12, as usual, will play some pretty tough schedules, and Ted Miller and Chantel Jennings are discussing which team they think has the hardest road through the league in 2014.

Chantel Jennings: I’m going with Oregon State. I certainly don’t envy Mike Riley. Yes, he has a weapon in Sean Mannion, but Mannion is going to have some pretty big tests throughout the season as he searches for his new safety blanket with Brandin Cooks down in New Orleans.

For starters, the Beavers begin their Pac-12 season with a trip to Los Angeles to play USC. Steve Sarkisian hasn’t been there long at all but if his record at Washington against Oregon State is any indicator (a very convincing win last season, 3-2 in five years), it’s going to be a tough one.

After that opening, the road gets smoother. Really, from Oct. 4 through the middle of November Oregon State has a pretty favorable schedule, with the major exception of a trip to Stanford on Oct. 25. I’d take the Beavers at home against Utah, Cal and Washington State and a road trip to Colorado shouldn’t be too terrible for Mannion and Riley.

But the last part of the Beavers schedule just gets brutal. And by brutal I mean uphill both ways without shoes on broken glass.

Yes, the Arizona State and Oregon games are at home, but those games are going to be tough. And a road trip to Washington sandwiched in the middle could be very bad as well. Early in the year, a visit to Seattle might not be that terrible but I’d imagine that by the end of November, Chris Petersen is going to have the Huskies clicking on all cylinders and that isn’t the friendliest of stadiums.

The Beavers should be bowl eligible by then (and if they’re not, Oregon State might not be seeing the postseason in 2014), but ending the season with that kind of a three-game stretch -- and a very possible three-game skid -- is rough.

Ted Miller: Stanford played the nation's fourth-toughest schedule last year, though it ranked only fourth in the Pac-12, and the Cardinal's 2014 slate is even tougher, at least from a preseason perspective.

For one, Stanford plays six road games, including five in conference play after having five at home in 2013. Five of those games -- Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA -- will be against teams likely inhabiting the preseason top 25. Oregon and UCLA are top-10 teams.

Then there are the Pac-12 misses: Arizona and Colorado. The Wildcats again look like a bowl team and the Buffaloes are improving, but Stanford's competition in the North Division have far more advantageous misses. Oregon, to note the Cardinal's chief rival, misses Arizona State and USC.

Speaking of USC, the Trojans visit in Week 2, sandwiched between Stanford's only easy games -- UC Davis and Army. After a bye, Stanford then travels to Seattle and Notre Dame on consecutive weekends. The season concludes with road games at rival California and UCLA, the South favorite.

This schedule is unrelenting. It's the best reason to favor Oregon in the North Division.

But if the Cardinal finishes 11-1 or even 10-2 and then win the Pac-12 championship game, you'd have to think they will be squarely in the hunt for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Pac-12's lunch links

May, 23, 2014
Happy Friday!


David Shaw Talks Stanford Signing Day
Stanford coach David Shaw joins ESPN's Matt Schick to discuss the Cardinal's 2015 recruiting class and its top positional needs heading into the spring.