<
>

Road litmus tests approach for Stanford

9/22/2014

The season's second quarter

Cupcake hour is over. Stanford started the 2014 campaign with three straight games at home. Only one, a 13-10 loss to USC, was competitive.

Now, the two-time defending conference champions emerge from their early bye week to delve into the meat of the schedule -- and it's a doozy. Eight battles loom against what's proving to be a deep Pac-12. The only remaining nonconference contest comes in a visit to formidable Notre Dame two weeks from now. Six of Stanford's final nine regular-season games are on the road.

The initial trip comes this Saturday at Washington. This will be the Cardinal's first time playing in renovated Husky Stadium, a venue where they haven't lost since 2003 -- though Washington did hand Stanford a 17-13 loss at Seattle's CenturyLink Field two years ago while the Huskies' on-campus palace was undergoing renovations.

Stanford faces the test of travel

For the Cardinal, then, these two next games carry the feeling of true litmus tests. When Stanford last faced this road-heavy schedule in 2012, Seattle and South Bend were the locations of the team's only two losses. Josh Nunes was still the starting quarterback then. Stanford was unable to score a single offensive touchdown throughout both games -- though it's a good bet that Stepfan Taylor still believes he crossed the plane in overtime at Notre Dame.

The rest was history: Not too long after the losses, Kevin Hogan took Nunes' spot as starting quarterback and Stanford ripped off eight straight wins on its way to Rose Bowl glory.

Now the Cardinal return to the spots that tormented them before that magical 2012 run started, and it's Hogan manning the ship instead. His arsenal of weapons -- though effective in new ways -- is different than Stanford stockpiles of years past. Together, this group is tasked with proving the Stanford offense can, in fact, travel effectively.

The no-touchdown horrors of the 2012 games against Washington and Notre Dame are well-documented, but it's also worth noting that the Cardinal's attack struggled to execute on the road as recently as last season, scoring touchdowns on only 47.8 percent of its trips to the red zone on the road (compared to 65.5 percent of its red-zone chances at home). Of course, this year's epic red-zone struggles at home against USC (10 points in nine trips to the Trojans' 35-yard line) are still freshly emblazoned in memory.

If Stanford proves it can execute at point-blank range against the likes of 340-pound Washington fire hydrant Danny Shelton in the midst of roaring crowd noise, this team will find itself in business. If not, the road burden will remain on the Cardinal's defense, and the path to replicate the past two years' success will become considerably steeper.

Defensively speaking

Of course, David Shaw doesn't want his club's 2014 College Football Playoff chances to heavily rely on its defense. But such a scenario might not automatically summon the apocalypse. The Stanford defense, stocked with younger blue-chip talent that credits new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson's simplified schemes for its fast play, is surrendering a nation-best 4.3 points and 204 yards per game. We'll discuss the impact of Stanford's finally healthy defensive line in detail later this week, but some of its effects have been readily apparent: So far, Stanford has sacked an opposing quarterback on a Pac-12-best 12.5 percent of passing attempts, an even better rate than the record-setting "Party in the Backfield" 2012 unit, which corralled throwing quarterbacks 9.4 percent of the time.

It's now time to see if the Cardinal can pack their bags and travel on both sides of the ball, because the comfortable part of this team's 2014 slate is over. Enter the rigorous 2014 stretch, the one in which the Pac-12 will learn a great deal about Stanford's new-look squad.