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Stanford Scores Late, Survives First Road Test: Analysis and Report Card

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Arcega-Whiteside’s Winning Grab
pac-12.com

The Stanford football program and fan base can all sing the 1979 hit from Gloria Gaynor in unison: “I Will Survive.”

The Cardinal survived their first big test from the UCLA Bruins, with a 22-13 dramatic, come from behind victory to stun the Rose Bowl crowd on Saturday evening.

This will be the first in a brutal stretch in the 2016 season for the Stanford Football program, and Cardinal Head Coach David Shaw knows that there are several issues on both sides of the ball that need to be addressed going forward.

To many observers, you could compare the Cardinal game plan to the Republican National Convention – ultra conservative.

Head Coach David Shaw still has not taken the training wheels off of the offense; he and Andrew Luck Director of Offense Mike Bloomgren continue to call plays that will chew up yards, and clock; but also frustrates the fan base yearning to see the Cardinal expand the game a bit.

Does Head Coach David Shaw have full faith in QB Ryan Burns at QB?

Many would argue that he has faith that Burns will not make any big mistakes; but does not have anywhere near the trust that he had with former QBs Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan to make the big plays down field.

After the game, Coach Shaw made a direct point that “Burns did not have a good game; but made the plays that he felt most comfortable with at the end.”

Will Coach Shaw make a change at QB much like he did in the middle of the 2012 season when he replaced Josh Nunes with Kevin Hogan, and launched the Cardinal towards their first PAC 12 title under his guidance? Or will he continue with Burns and have faith in his progression under center. Only time will tell.

Junior Christian McCaffrey had another stellar game with 26 carries for 138 yards, but he cannot be the only piece of the attack, or the Cardinal will wear him out before the end of the season.

The Cardinal defense played very well after being down their 2 top CBs due to injury, and held the “Chosen One”, QB Josh Rosen of UCLA in check for the bulk of the night.

Junior Solomon Thomas is a force along the defensive line for the Cardinal, and will surely be playing on Sunday’s at the next level in the not-so-distant future. DL Harrison Phillips, otherwise accurately described by the ABC broadcast by his Twitter moniker as “Horrible Harry” returned to the lineup and dominated the UCLA offensive line all night. When these two DLs are in the game is when the Cardinal Defense is at its most dominant.

Stanford has a lot to work on with a short week upcoming; and it will be interesting to see where Coach Shaw makes his adjustments on both sides of the ball before they face off against the upstart Washington Huskies on Friday night.

Here is a report card by position from the game on Saturday evening:

Offense

QBs: C

If Ryan Burns did not lead that tremendous 2-minute drill to victory at the end, there would have been a much lower grade given out from the game. Burns has struggled with accuracy, and has made several errors on intermediate length passes the last two weeks. The play of Burns reminds many of former Cardinal QB Josh Nunes that struggled to take the reigns after such a vaunted QB led the Cardinal in 2012. Burns has a long wind-up with his throwing motions, and tends to stare down his receivers too much. QB Keller Chryst was given one drive and played well, but his drive was stalled when TE Dalton Schultz dropped the ball on a third down pass. Will Burns be the man under center the entire season, or will Coach Shaw make a change a la the 2012 season, and put the ball in the hands of another QB? We shall see.

RBs: A

RBs Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love both played fantastic on Saturday night. The duo combined for 189 yards on the ground, and kept the offense afloat after the struggles of Ryan Burns at QB. McCaffrey has shown this season that not only does he have breakaway speed and a penchant for the big play, but that he is a patient runner that uses his cerebral ability to wait for the play to develop and take the road to the open field. Love hits the holes with tremendous power speed and agility; he is not afraid of contact and will surely be a big piece of the offensive puzzle for years to come.

WRs: A-

WR Trenton Irwin showed a national audience that he is a legitimate threat on the outside and can as one scout described Irwin’s play with the statement “That kid can catch a cold in the desert”. Irwin hauled in 7 catches for 81 yards on Saturday night, including 3 big receptions on the last drive. The man of the hour, Sophomore JJ Arcega-Whiteside used his size and great hands to gather in the fade pattern at the end, and possibly kick start his 2016 season. Stanford cannot seem to get senior Michael Rector more involved in the offense this year, and will need his contribution for the team to be successful this season.

TEs: D

Stanford has been known as “Tight End U” due to the fact that there are so many talented TEs at the next level in the NFL. This year, the TEs are not being utilized as they were in years past, and when they do get the opportunity, they drop passes. TEs Greg Taboada and Dalton Schultz have been relatively been non-existent this season, and have been relegated to just being an additional blocker on the line. Are they not open, or is QB Ryan Burns not able to get the ball to them? The usage of the Tight End is crucial, and right now, the TEs for Stanford are nothing more than extra blockers on the line.

Offensive Line: C

Head Coach David Shaw made the switch this week of moving Casey Tucker back to his original Right Tackle position, and the young Tackle still struggled in pass protection. Tucker has great size and strength, but always seems to be blocking like he is on skates, and misses blocks that cause plays to never develop. The team did rush for 207 yards on the ground, but several missed blocks caused for plays that could have broken huge, to become short gains. The line will be heavily tested this coming week against the speedy and powerful Washington front.

Overall Offense: C-

The conservative offensive game plan should be nothing new to Stanford fans as Coach Shaw has applied this approach for years. Its just hard to see when you have one of the best offensive skill players in the country, and putting him in the wildcat several times – especially when it was not effective – that fans will become restless. Coach Shaw employs the ground and pound approach – we get it – but its also ok to open it up a bit when the defense is employing 8 and 9 players in the box because they do not respect the ability to pass into the open field.

Defense

Defensive Line: A

What more can you say about the job of Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips other than “Well Done.” Thomas and Phillips were in the face of Josh Rosen on every snap, and the “Rush-men” up front held the Bruins to only 77 yards on the ground; including a fumble recovery for a TD by Thomas on the last play to cap the victory. As long as Phillips can remain healthy, the Stanford front 7 is a dominant as any front in college football.

LBs: A-

The Linebacker corps played their best game of the season for the Cardinal, including the huge sack made on Bruins QB Josh Rosen by LB Joey Alfieri to seal the victory for the Cardinal. The Cardinal LBs are a work in progress, still learning their identity, yet they have improved each week. The LB corps will surely be tested this week by the speedy Huskies and their much-improved offense.

Secondary: A-

The Cardinal were hit by the injury bug early in the contest when Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks both went down; but the team showed their depth and held the Bruins high flying pass attack in check for most of the game. CB Terrence Alexander played well in extended minutes, and Safety Zach Hoffpauir was being compared to Eric Weddle with his ability to make the big tackle when necessary. It is yet to be known if Meeks or Holder will be in the lineup this coming week, and if they are not available, it will be as Coach Shaw always says, “next man up.”

Overall Defense: A-

The Cardinal defense has improved since week 1, and has become highly leaned upon due to the fact that the offense has not been very electric the last few weeks. This week will surely be a huge test for the Cardinal as the Huskies play at “break-neck” speed and will try to put up numbers on the board. Health will play in as the most important factor for the defense throughout the rest of the year.

Special Teams

Kicking/Punting/Returns: A-

PK Conrad Ukropina has steadily improved every year, and his three field goals kept the Cardinal in the game. If Ukropina keeps developing at this current pace, you will see him get a few looks at the next level. Punter Jake Bailey has boomed kicks all season, and his ability to pin the Bruins deep was crucial. The return game was null and void because UCLA, much like other teams, will not give Christian McCaffrey a shot at a return.

Coaching

Game Plan: C

If you do not know that Coach Shaw employs a conservative approach, then you have not watched Stanford football the last five years. Shaw wants to control the clock, and smash out yards on the ground. Is this infuriating for fans? Of course fans want to see points on the board and big plays. Coach Shaw does not care about that, he would rather see a 12-play drive than a 50-yard reception. The reason his grade is so low, is the utter stubbornness to not go away from certain packages. The continuance of running the “wildcat” and it not working made little sense. Also, if you don’t have faith in your QB to make a 7 or 8 yard throw, then why is he in there? If that last drive did not pan out the way it did, fans would be screaming for a change at QB immediately; but it did so you move on. Fans have to trust that Coach Shaw knows what he is doing, even if it seriously drives you nuts.