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.
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.
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.
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.