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2015 Stanford football: Stanford vs. UCF - Keys to the Game

Ben Leonard dishes on his keys to beating UCF

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Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, you'd chalk up UCF, a team that just lost to the juggernaut that is FIU (3 FBS wins last season) as a W. Stanford used to eat average-ish teams like UCF for breakfast, but now it seems they might have trouble swallowing. Especially at home, the keys to the game should be to put the game in the refrigerator by the end of the first half.

But Stanford punted from the 37-yard line, ran up the gut twice on third and 13, and lost arguably their best defender in Harrison Phillips for the season — so now they have to treat UCF like they're USC at the Coliseum. The Cardinal will have to make adjustments very quickly, and if they don't, they could find themselves 0-2, something they haven't done since 2006 (!!!). Elite company, am I right? Here's what Stanford has to do to avoid getting in such vaunted territory:

Key Stats:

20: Number of seniors UCF lost from last season

4: FBS Teams that have scored fewer points than Stanford this season

163.97 vs. 130.13: Kevin Hogan's quarterback rating at home vs. on the road last year

20% (3 for 15): Stanford's third-down conversion rate against Northwestern last week

Lock Down Justin Holman and UCF's Receivers

He's no Blake Bortles, but second-year starter Justin Holman has been an adequate replacement for the current Jaguars' quarterback. Even with a running game miles worse than Stanford's last week behind him to support him (Yes, that's possible), he threw for 249 yards on 23 of 34 attempts. With such a weak running game that managed just 1.5 yards per carry against FIU, Holman will likely be the focal point of David Shaw's defensive game plan.

Stanford's secondary will have a little easier time guarding UCF's depleted receiving corps than they will with Juju Smith next week. Before Saturday, no receiver on the Knights' roster had scored a touchdown, and two were quarterbacks to start the year. Before you get too confident, 6'3, 237-pound receiver Jordan Akins had a big-time performance on Saturday, hauling in two touchdowns and nine catches for 104 yards. Sure, FIU isn't exactly a tough test for an offense, but Ronnie Harris will have to pay close attention to Akins.

The Cardinal secondary was probably the only good unit last week against Northwestern, stalling Northwestern's solid aerial attack. With UCF running such a one-man show on offense, Stanford needs to exploit such a mismatch if they want to return to form. Harris and the rest of the new-look secondary will have to continue their success to help out the ‘streamlined' (Tanks are streamlined, too) offense.

Establish Downfield Passing Game Early and Often

I don't intend this to sound self-important, but David Shaw, if you're out there, READ THIS. You can't just wait to throw the ball downfield until you're in desperation mode in the fourth quarter. Throwing downfield isn't as risky as David Shaw thinks, with a quarterback in Kevin Hogan that doesn't turn the ball over too much. Pushing the ball would get Hogan in a rhythm that he wasn't able to establish in the Northwestern game. Hogan needs to settle in and feel comfortable throwing more than just dump-offs and five-yard outs, so Stanford needs to give him the chance to build confidence with medium to deep passes on the first drives.

And it shouldn't be too challenging of a task — just last week against FIU, UCF's secondary was torched by a quarterback who posted an adjusted QBR of just 22.5 last season (Tavita Pritchard-like numbers), giving up 260 yards and ten passes of 12+ yards. Maybe FIU is off to do big things this year, but it's more likely that UCF and its secondary are truly weak. Look (Or not) for David Shaw to try to exploit this mismatch and instill some confidence in Hogan with downfield balls early and often.

Move On Without Harrison Phillips

The Cardinal recently learned that star defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, one of the only guys who played well against Northwestern, tore his ACL and will miss the rest of the season. Solomon Thomas will replace Phillips up the middle, with Brennan Scarlett and Aziz Shittu manning the ends. The Cardinal will have just two reserve lineman to work in the rotation as the fourth lineman, Jordan Watkins and Nate Lohn.

David Shaw spoke to the media on Thursday about the situation, saying it wouldn't be just ‘one guy' taking that spot, but rather a combination of Watkins and Lohn, who "did some good things this week" in practice. Shaw noted that after "throwing around" former tight end Luke Kaumatule so much, it wouldn't necessarily be "fair" to put him at a new position on the defensive line so early.

Regardless of who ends up taking that role, someone will have to step up and make plays like these:

Saturday should be a good way for the Cardinal to ease guys into their new spots, with such a weak UCF running game. But never take anything for granted with this team, especially when nearly every facet of the team was in shambles last week. Expect the unexpected.