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Oak Trees: Can the slugfest strategy carry Stanford?

John Cordes/Icon Sportswire

The Stanford Cardinal stand on the shoulders of a flinty defense — and a head coach’s reliance upon it, as documented by Today’s U national columnist Kyle Kensing.

The big question facing David Shaw’s team this Friday night in Seattle: Can Stanford replicate the winning formula it used against UCLA?

This is a multi-dimensional question, in the sense that Stanford doesn’t have to answer with a “yes” against the University of Washington in the Pac-12 North’s likely game of the year. Stanford can answer with a “no” and still beat the Huskies, who appear to be the Cardinal’s main obstacle in the division now that Oregon has lost at home to Colorado.

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The piece above by Kyle Kensing is an excellent one — not just because it gets deep inside the mind of David Shaw, but because it unearthed the inherent contradiction in his line of thought against UCLA. Shaw professed to value both defense and running the ball, but by punting on fourth down with half a yard to go — and Christian McCaffrey in his backfield — Shaw displayed a lack of trust in his running game.

That’s not a bad answer; it’s merely an inconsistent one. Shaw did reinforce his emphasis on defense, but powering the ball up the gut in short yardage is also vintage Stanford under its current head coach. Shaw was caught between competing desires against UCLA. It is telling that he sided with his defense.

Stanford scored 56 points against UCLA last year, and 41 twice in two meetings against Pac-12 South Division champion USC. The Cardinal flourished on offense while their defense adjusted and played “containment” football — not in a narrow X-and-O sense, but in terms of being “okay” on defense and avoiding a Texas Tech-level open-floodgate disaster. As long as Stanford’s defense was decent last season, the Cardinal were fine… with the exception of “the body clock game” at Northwestern in Week 1.

This year, Stanford scored just 16 offensive points against UCLA, 40 fewer than in 2015. The Cardinal were held under 30 by USC at home. They didn’t eclipse 20 points until the fourth quarter against Kansas State. McCaffrey has been held in check by opposing defenses. He’s making a number of clutch plays, but he’s hardly running wild. Quarterback Ryan Burns is starting games (first and second drives) with great confidence and clarity, but 60-minute masterpieces have eluded him in his first full season on the job.

Shaw trusted his defense because he doesn’t yet fully trust his offense.

Going up against Washington — and more precisely, returning to Husky Stadium for the first time since 2014 — he might think he needs to continue to rely on his defense to win.

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In that 2014 Stanford-Washington game in Seattle, UW coach Chris Petersen was in his first season as the Boss Dawg after his legendary run at Boise State. Petersen realized that fake punts don’t work as easily in the land of the big boys. Stanford smothered a fourth-quarter fake punt to score a 20-13 victory.

On that day, Washington’s offense scored just six points. The Huskies grabbed seven other points on a defensive touchdown which was also the product of poor officiating.

Given the memory of that afternoon in Seattle, Stanford and Shaw might choose to plant their flag on defense once again. It might be the right choice to make, but no matter what the Stanford staff’s expectations are for this game, the Cardinal might have to win a game played in the 20s and not the teens, as they did against UCLA.

Washington’s defense is talented, and for the better part of three quarters last Saturday against Arizona, it played well.

The fourth quarter was another story:

The missed two-arm sack attempt was bad enough, but the blown assignment and mistimed ball in the secondary were just as bad if not worse.

Stanford-Washington is a clash of weaknesses, if viewed through this narrow lens: Ryan Burns gets worse as games go on, but Washington’s defense got weaker as the second half continued versus Arizona. Stanford never really overpowered UCLA’s defense, instead scrambling for a late touchdown to win. Against Washington, the Cardinal might need to surge on offense and get into the mid-20s if they want to feel comfortable.

Maybe Stanford can win another 16-13 (type of) game. Maybe the Cardinal’s defense is good enough to stand tall, much as it did two years ago against Washington. Maybe Stanford can score 30 points this time and show that Washington is inferior to UCLA, not nearly as much of a test as the rankings currently indicate.

Stanford’s slugfest strategy doesn’t have to be used; the main point of fascination heading into Friday is simply this: If the Cardinal have to rely upon it again, can they make it work again?

Oak Trees: Can the slugfest strategy carry Stanford?

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