It's a make-or-break two-week stretch for the Stanford football as the Cardinal don the Stormtrooper-whites for the first time this season for back-to-back road trips to Seattle and South Bend to take on Washington and Notre Dame.
Regardless of the location of these games, Washington and Notre Dame have always presented a challenge to the Cardinal and this year looks to be no different. The Huskies flashed some firepower in scoring 45 unanswered points in the second half against Georgia State (Chris Petersen just seems to be biding his time before pulling out some of that Boise State magic) and Everett Golson looks decisive, confident, and simply better than ever since taking over the Irish offense after his suspension.
However, we can't ignore the fact that these games are on the road, the one demon that has haunted this team over the last two seasons.
Since going undefeated away from home under Andrew Luck in 2011, the Cardinal has dropped four regular season games on the road. In fact, Stanford's two losses in 2012 came at Washington and Notre Dame. There were times last season when it looked like Stanford might have finally exorcised these road demons-after blowing out Wazzu at the deafening Centurylink Field in Seattle and again after comfortably beating Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The last time we saw Stanford play in a true road environment was in Tempe against the Sun Devils, but the Cardinal's sloppy play at home so far in 2014 suggests that the road struggles might continue this season. The process of breaking in four new starters on the offensive line is no trivial matter, as the Tunnel Workers' Union has experienced growing pains early in the season. With the number of false starts and holding penalties we've seen so far, Stanford fans, spoiled by the stellar veterans of last season, can no longer take the pre-snap process for granted.
The heightened crowd noise will surely put the Stanford O-line to the test, but it might also spell trouble for Kevin Hogan and the rest of the offense. Early in 2014, the Cardinal offense has proven to be at its best when it drifts away from the power running game and picks up the pace - Hogan, in particular, looked at his best while operating the no huddle package against USC. On the road, though, running a no huddle becomes very difficult because of the inability to communicate. Scripted plays at the beginning of the game might be successful, but the loud environments in Seattle and Notre Dame will likely force Hogan and the offense to move away from what they do best.
With that said, here are my three keys for Stanford to avoid the similar fates of the last two years during this critical series of road games.
Limit the Penalties!
I briefly alluded to this earlier when I mentioned the number of offensive line penalties Stanford has seen early on, but the importance of eliminating sloppy play extends to the entire team. Whether it's personal fouls (especially facemasks) or delay of games, penalties on the road have crushed Stanford in the past two years. In both 2012 and 2013, the Cardinal averaged over ten yards more worth of penalties on the road than at home.
With the bye week coming right before this back-to-back road trip, expect David Shaw and his staff to address these issues. Given Stanford's sloppy play in the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium early on, this area presents cause for concern, but I definitely wouldn't bet against one of the smartest, most well-coached teams in the country to straighten out these issues.
Force More Turnovers
I hate to pick on the defense. They've been nothing but phenomenal so far this season under Lance Anderson, recording two shutouts and giving up just 13 points to a USC team that put up over 700 yards the week before. Nevertheless, there's always room for improvement and the Cardinal defense could really turn games around by forcing more turnovers on the road. In 2012, the unit did just that with 14 takeaways on the road, leading to an aggregate turnover margin of +9, but that number dropped to 8 in 2013 as Stanford's differential plummeted to 0.
I really think the defense could benefit from taking chances and being more aggressive, especially with the improved secondary we've seen so far. If the offense sputters in enemy territory, the defense just might have to step up and take matters into its own hands.
Keep it Simple: Exploit the Mismatches
When the going gets tough on the road, Stanford offensive mismatches could really help Hogan get into a rhythm and consistently move the chains. Austin Hooper is a nightmare for opposing defenses every time he lines up - he can block along the line on running plays, he's too fast for most linebackers, and good luck if you try to line up a corner or a safety against his 6-foot-4, 249-pound frame. Hooper has had a strong start to the season with 12 catches for 173 yards, but he has only found the end zone once. That should change in the next couple of games, especially when Stanford is in the red zone.
Speaking of red zone targets, Shaw seems to be figuring out how to use his other mismatch weapon, Devon Cajuste. The senior wide receiver had a career day against Army with three touchdown receptions and became one of Hogan's primary options in the red zone. The fade to Cajuste may not work against Pac-12 defenses, but that play suggests that Shaw understands his mismatch potential, which will be crucial when the offense needs to get something going.
Which Stanford will we see on the road come Saturday? The one that raced past Arizona State in the Cardinal's last road trip or the sloppy, stagnant group that has lost four winnable games over the past two years. That questions remains open, but, with a few minor adjustments, this team certainly looks equipped to play well on the road and pick up some key victories.