Stanford handled UC Davis as expected on Saturday, breezing to a 45-0 victory. The vast difference between the Cardinal's and Aggies' talent was put on display, with the Stanford offense operating at a level that was simply too big, too fast and too strong for the Davis defense to handle.
But despite this big win, and despite the fact that many Stanford starters sat out the second half of the game, a few conclusions about Stanford's 2014 offense can (prematurely?) be reached.
Stanford loved to run the ball in 2013. Only one other Pac-12 team (Arizona) ran more than it passed, and only three other teams who finished the season in the top 15 of the AP poll favored rushing - Auburn, Oklahoma and Ohio State. The 2013 Cardinal did have a stud back of their own in Tyler Gaffney, who picked up 1,709 yards on the ground, good for 8th in the NCAA, and found the end zone 21 times, good for the 5th-most in the country.
But Gaffney's now a New England Patriot, meaning that Stanford will have to find other options for its running game, and against Davis, the Cardinal's running back by committee approach wasn't as dominant as Gaffney was a season ago. No back carried the rock more than the seven attempts given to both Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young. Neither back really appeared to gain an edge over the other, and both finished the game with similar statistics (Sanders: 43 yards, 6.1 per; Young: 37 yards, 5.3 per). Remound Wright also received 4 touches, picking up 28 yards. Ricky Seale also picked up two yards on three carries.
If no back steps up into a feature role, quarterback Kevin Hogan will have to be the man in the Cardinal offense. He stepped up in the opener, throwing for 204 yards and three touchdowns on 16 attempts.
However, Hogan's so-so 2013 campaign did show that he has to improve against more talented Pac-12 competition. The 204 yards Hogan amassed while playing only one drive into the third quarter were more than he passed for in six games last season. Hogan finished 9th in the Pac-12 in passing yardage last season, and 2nd to last among starting quarterbacks who took their team to bowl games. Only Arizona's BJ Denker threw for fewer yards.
A critical area that Hogan needs to improve in 2014 is throwing interceptions. Hogan finished 5th in interceptions in the Pac-12 in 2013 with 10. However, Hogan finished 2nd in the conference in interceptions per attempt, with only Utah's Travis Wilson performing worse in this category.
Hogan's picks cost Stanford at big moments last year, most notably against USC - arguably the worst game of his career. Late in the third quarter, Hogan made a costly error.
Hogan didn't see USC safety Dion Bailey, a critical mistake with his team deep in the enemy red zone. However, that wasn't Hogan's only big mistake of the game. With 3:40 remaining and with Stanford at midfield, USC upped their pass rush and blitzed. Rather than throw the ball away with inside linebacker Hayes Pullard's arms wrapped around his legs, Hogan tried to be a hero and make a spectacular play.
Oops. After this interception, USC got the ball at their 44, marched 27 yards, and won the game with a last-second field goal.
On Saturday, Hogan again threw a pick. This time, against man-to-man coverage, Hogan tried and failed to squeeze a pass into his receiver's hands. Hogan stared down his receiver and delivered the pass too late, allowing the safety to jump the route and intercept the ball.
Although Hogan's mistake was negated by a Peter Kalambayi interception on the next play, he will need to make better decisions than that one. In order for Stanford to make up for the loss of Gaffney, Hogan has to do more - but without trying to force plays. Last year, Stanford could rely on its power running game to drive the offense. However, four-fifths of the offensive line is gone, and the 2014 back committee didn't quite show enough this week - perhaps by design. It's a tough improvement Hogan has to make, and it will decide how the Cardinal fare the rest of the season.