Where to begin......
With so many mental mistakes, poor plays from experienced players, and questionable decisions by the coaching staff, it's hard to pinpoint one facet of the Cardinal's 16-6 loss at Northwestern that was the most disappointing. An early start time could only be a used as a partial excuse for the Cardinal's sluggish start, as the team was dominated in nearly every phase of the game by the underdog Wildcats.
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After Stanford's opening drive, the team struggled to move the ball on offense, while the defense could not stop Justin Jackson and the Northwestern ground game from eating up sizeable chunks of yardage. Although the contest was not truly decided until Kevin Hogan's interception late in the fourth quarter, it was readily apparent from as early as the first half that Northwestern was the better football team Saturday.
Probably the most disheartening aspect of the loss was the anemic Stanford passing attack, led by a forgettable performance from Hogan in his 33rd start as a collegiate quarterback. With Hogan's experience and the returning receiving talent, the passing game was supposed to be one of the strengths of the 2015 Cardinal. But Hogan looked out of sorts for most of the contest, and completed 20 of 35 passes for just 155 yards.
Hogan was certainly not the sole reason for the lack of offensive execution. There were several dropped balls throughout the game, most notably by Michael Rector on a perfect strike from Hogan in the fourth quarter. Additionally, Stanford was hurt by the absence of their two most experienced receivers for major portions of the game. Rector did not see action in the first half likely due to a disciplinary issue, and Devon Cajuste played sparingly until late in the contest as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.
The offensive play calls were also very underwhelming throughout the game, and contributed heavily to the six-point effort. For a team with such an expansive playbook, many of the formations gave away the intent of the play to even an untrained observer. It was also striking how few times Stanford passed the ball down field until their comeback attempt in the fourth quarter. Without a balanced passing attack, Northwestern was able to play aggressively and break up many of the Cardinal's short and mid-range passes.
Although the season is not over after one disappointing performance, there are a myriad of issues Stanford will have to correct before facing UCF next week, and even more improvements will be needed for the Cardinal to be competitive against USC the week after.
For the meantime, below are some additional notes from Stanford's 2015 opening game loss:
- One bright spot for the Cardinal was the performance of two new starters on special teams: punter Alex Robinson and kicker Conrad Ukropina. There were question marks around the consistency of the kicking game after the losses of Jordan Williamson and Ben Rhyne, so it was nice to see Robinson and Ukropina perform well in their place. Robinson averaged 46 yards on his seven punts, while Ukropina nailed both of his field goal attempts, including a 37-yard field goal into the wind that kept Stanford within striking range late in the game.
- Christian McCaffrey had a solid performance in his first game as the feature back, running for 66 yards on 12 carries and catching five passes for 23 yards. The sophomore fumbled the ball in the second quarter after a hard hit by Wildcats linebacker Drew Smith, but overall showed flashes of the speed and elusiveness that had Stanford fans excited a season ago. Still, the running game overall had an unspectacular debut, as the offensive line was inconstant in opening up running lanes for McCaffrey and Co. Averaging 3.1 yards per carry will probably not be enough to win a lot of Pac-12 game this year, no matter how poorly the conference preformed in the first week of the season.
- The depth of the defensive line was tested early with the loss of defensive tackle Harrison Phillips to an apparent knee injury. The sophomore played well before getting hurt, and the defensive line struggled to penetrate into the Northwestern backfield after he left the game. Still, the defense was expected to go through some growing pains with nine new defensive starters, so although 225 rushing yards allowed is troubling, holding Northwestern to 16 points on the road is not a terrible overall performance.
- The Stanford secondary was not tested much on the day, as freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson struggled with his accuracy throughout the game. However, dropped passes were also a problem for the Stanford defense, as three times Stanford defenders could not reel in passes thrown right at them.
- Both the Stanford offense and defense struggled with their third down execution, as Stanford's 3-15 versus Northwestern's 12-22 conversion rate was a big discrepancy in the game, and led to a three minute time of possession advantage for the Wildcats.
- David Shaw is well-known for calling a conservative game, and it does not look like that style will change in 2015, as Stanford consistently ran the ball on third and long situations. Although the seemingly defeatist attitude of those play calls was irritating, the reasoning behind them was defensible within the context of the low scoring game and the struggles of the Stanford offense. But deciding to punt the ball on a 4th and 5 at the Northwestern 37-yard line? It's hard to justify that choice, especially when the Cardinal, down seven, had begun to develop a little bit of an offensive rhythm at the start of the second half. The decision looked even worse after Robinson's punt carried into the end-zone for a 17-yard net gain.
- Finally, two illegal substitution penalties and a timeout called on the first play of the second half. No reason those should ever happen, even in the first game of a season.