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“After six games, the Stanford Cardinal football team is 4-2. That win-loss balance is not so surprising to many fans and aficionados conscious of the tough six-game stretch that opened the 2016 campaign: taking on K State, USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State and Notre Dame in succession was certain to be daunting, and at least one to two losses seemed likely. But the journey behind that win-loss balance has been unexpected; and even though the season is now officially half over, there are more questions than answers about the state of the team and the upcoming six games.
The season started out promisingly with a comfortable, if uninspiring win over K-State. As it turned out, the game was a tale of two halves, and many of us were left wondering whether Stanford was actually the team that scored 17 points in the first half, while giving up 3, with Burns debuting as starter with ten straight completions and a long bomb to Rector for a TD. Or whether, in fact, Stanford’s identity was more like the team in the second half that got stuffed by K-State’s defense and, until McCaffrey’s late breaking score in the 4th quarter, had only mustered two points on a safety. Any cursory analysis of the game did have to arouse some concern, however: Stanford managed three offensive TDs, but only one of those came in Stanford’s signature fashion on a long sustained drive. The other scores came on big plays (Rector’s deep reception and McCaffrey’s game-icing run in the 4th quarter).
The USC game did not provide any resolution about the 2016 version of the Stanford Cardinal: the team managed another three offensive TDs, and two again were on big plays. The defense appeared solid, giving up only ten points; and Stanford led from start to finish and never really appeared threatened. For sanguine souls, this appeared to be exactly where the Cardinal wanted to be: 2-0 with a third straight win over their rival from LA. McCaffrey had been Heisman-like in amassing all-purpose yards; and though the offense had not been uber-productive, there was hope that the pieces were coming together, that the O-line would gel and that Shaw had tricks up his sleeves and in the playbook that he had been saving for later, presumably more difficult games (UCLA, Washington). Stanford had outscored their opponents in the first two games 53 to 23, which seemed vintage Stanford: never flashy, always workmanlike, rarely making mistakes.
Then came the showdown in the Rose Bowl with a Bruin team that Jim Mora had declared recast in the image of their dreaded smash mouth rival from the north. It was indeed trench warfare, with costly injuries on both sides: Owusu, Meeks, Holder and Marx all left the contest and would be out for multiple games. And until the final two minutes, Stanford’s offense had three field goals to show for their efforts and trailed 13-9. Then Burns and the receiving corps put together a fabulous two-minute drill to steal the victory, getting their first and only offensive TD on that spectacular fade from Burns to Arcega-Whiteside with roughly thirty seconds to go. The scoop-and-score by Solomon Thomas in the waning seconds was just icing on the cake. The Cardinal had kept the streak against UCLA alive, was sitting at 3-0, was ranked #7 in the nation and, despite the injuries, looked to be every bit the Pac-12 dominator they were predicted to be.
Still, there was trepidation about the upcoming trip north to Husky stadium. The injuries loomed large; the game against UCLA had been very taxing; and the Huskies had beaten up on a bunch of cream-puffs and were healthy. The Dawg offense appeared to be quick and lethal, while their defense looked like a pack of maulers. Sober members of the Cardinal faithful had serious misgivings and saw us dropping this contest in a hard-fought battle by, say, 7 to 10 points. The optimists (I among them) stated that Washington had everything to prove, while Stanford had been on the big stage and knew how to perform under the bright lights. Well, we all know the outcome of that game, which was the worst loss of the Shaw era and exposed massive weaknesses on the Stanford team. Any assessment of the Cardinal to that point in the season needed to be tossed out the window and reconsidered. Yes, the absence of Meeks and Holder really hurt, but the front seven was wholly ineffective at pass-rushing and stopping the run. The O-line was a train wreck; McCaffrey was contained; and the QBs looked silly. Uncharacteristic mistakes hampered any momentum the team could get going. In searching for explanations, pundits and fans could point to an injury-depleted Stanford team getting caught flat-footed against an inspired UW juggernaut in the bowels of a hostile stadium. UW was the real deal, a top five team, and Stanford wasn’t ready. But surely this Cardinal team would bounce back against the Cougs at home.
Wrong. The woes continued. Meeks and Holder were again absent, and Falk brutally abused their replacements. The offense was anemic: McCaffrey was a complete non-factor, even worse than in the UW game; and the QBs showed no spark. The best quarterback on the field was a walk-on, completely outperforming two four-star recruits from the Farm. Now at 3-2 (2-2 Pac-12), the Stanford season appeared to be coming off the rails, with bowl-eligibility suddenly replacing championship aspirations as a 2016 goal.
The ugly win against Notre Dame Saturday has not, unfortunately, resolved any of the challenges the team is facing. The Fighting Irish are on a massive downswing, and many of our weaknesses were amply evident in this contest, as well. The W definitely helps the overall record; and even Jon Wilner, normally very critical of the Cardinal, pointed to the softer second half of 2016 and stated that Stanford could ultimately be a 9 or 10 win team. Maybe.
What we have seen in the first half of the season is nothing new. The patterns are familiar, it’s just that many of them are more extreme than usual and some are happening simultaneously, whereas in the past they might have been isolated. Shaw’s "system" lives and dies with the run-first offense; and that, in turn, lives and dies with an effective O-line. This kind of offense is safe and predictable, measured, allows for high time-of-possession game management, keeps the opposing offense off the field, while keeping the Stanford defense fresh. This is the keyhole through which Shaw’s football universe flows: if it is working, it is brilliant and opens up other possibilities on offense if the opposing defense is cheating up to squelch the run. If it is not working and the keyhole is clogged, everything stalls. Three-and-outs prevail, our defense is cast onto the field to get a stop, they get tired, and if we get behind by multiple scores, we have little flexibility for offensive adjustments (though the two-minute drill against UCLA is a blinding exception to that pattern).
It is often frustrating to see Shaw stubbornly stick to this system when it is clearly not working. Though his system looks so rock-solid and has been the envy of rival programs, Shaw’s way of running it always leaves the team one suspect O-line performance away from defeat. And if the defense is also compromised (i.e., injuries) or rebuilding, you get the lopsided results we saw versus the Washington schools. That Shaw has no plan B for such situations is baffling.
Equally frustrating this year has been the QB situation: who would have expected Stanford to be terrible at this position? Before the season, Stanford was seen as the team with the most enviable situation at QB, with a pipeline of thoroughbreds through the 2020 season and beyond. But the performance of both thoroughbreds has been head-scratching, bemusing and just plain bad. Yes, a weak O-line does not help; and the play-calling doesn’t exactly allow for them to shine. Still, the drop-off from Kevin Hogan has been spectacular; and we weren’t supposed to miss a beat, especially with McCaffrey, Rector, Irwin, Love and others as outlets. UCLA debuted a back-up QB in their loss to the Cougs yesterday; and in his first starting role, Mike Fafaul threw for 258 yards, three TDs and had a QB rating of 72.8. Does being an effective QB need to be so difficult at Stanford? Right now, we appear to have the least enviable QB situation in the Pac-12.
The return of Meeks yesterday showed how much his absence had hurt the defense: with the star corner back in the game, the whole unit performed much better. If Holder can return soon, that will be an added shot in the arm on that side of the ball. That said, the kicking game has been in the dumps recently, with Ukropina doinking balls off the uprights and Bailey shanking his punts. Let’s hope these are just seasonal aberrations.
The challenges going forward remain large, and it is difficult to feel confident that the team will come together to run the table in the second half of the season. But as mentioned, these patterns are not unfamiliar; we have seen them at multiple times in the past; and so far, Shaw and his staff have always found a way to turn the corner and emerge in excellent late-season form. Will this year be different? The race for the north will, in all likelihood, be decided in the Apple Cup this year, so we are out of the Pac-12 championship discussion. At this point in the season, most of us would have considered 4-2 acceptable, with perhaps tight road losses to the top-ten Huskies and Fighting Irish and victories over Wazzu, K-State and our two rivals from LA. Can Shaw and his staff right the ship and get us to double digit wins again? And which bowl game, if any, seems most likely from our current vantage point? The game next week against the Buffs could go a long way to setting the tone for the remainder of the season.”