The opponent wasn’t the best and the win wasn’t the most impressive of the year. Not by a long shot.
It was just typical Stanford.
The Cardinal don’t win with flash. What they do is win and with their recent 31-14 triumph over lowly Washington, Stanford has proven that it is the best team in the Pac-12.
Coming into the contest, Stanford was ranked 10th in the nation and that ranking will definitely go up after Utah came back down to Earth against USC.
Stanford boasts a senior quarterback in Kevin Hogan, a dynamic running back in Christian McCaffrey and a defense that not only wants to stop the opponent, but maybe wants to literally rub dirt in their face as well.
And that’s a good thing.
Stanford wins the old fashioned way, with tough, hard-nosed football. Jim Harbaugh started it when he arrived in Palo Alto back in 2007 and it has continued even more so under David Shaw.
Stanford always boasts a big physical team, especially along the offensive front. Hogan gets plenty of time in the pocket to do what he pleases and McCaffrey runs behind the big uglies long enough to burst through a hole they create for an important first down.
Like the team itself, Hogan isn’t flashy, but efficient. His efficiency rating is sky high at 174, thanks to 67 percent passing and 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions. His 225 yards per game isn’t going to win any awards to be sure, but he might be the one winning a playoff game, or two, in January. Hogan can be that good because of that offensive line.
Hogan has been the best quarterback in the conference since that 16-6 defeat in Evanston against Northwestern in Week 1. And McCaffrey has not only been dynamic, he’s been versatile. It seems like McCaffrey can go from being a speed back to being a tough back that will run over a defender in the course of the same play.
Not only is McCaffrey Stanford’s best running back, he might be one of its best receivers or at least has the capabilities of being one of its best. Against Washington, he pulled double duty. McCaffrey rushed for 109 yards and managed to rack up 112 receiving yards against a premier defense in the Pac-12 in the Huskies.
The starting offensive line, that is made up of four seniors and a sophomore with an average weight of 301 pounds, is also the reason why Stanford is 7-of-8 in fourth down situations. Shaw isn’t afraid to trust that line to push the defense back just enough to convert a fourth down.
While going on fourth down (and converting 88 percent of the time) gives the Cardinal confidence, it also destroys the will of the opponent and that goes a long way to what Stanford tries to do on the gridiron.
The question mark right now is the defense. It’s a good unit, but not great and a little inconsistent. It has the tendency to play just well enough. Ironically, their best game came in the team’s lone loss. The play just-well-enough philosophy sometimes burns you in the end when the defense has an off night and the offense can’t come back quickly enough.
We have yet to see this type of scenario for Stanford. There may be a time where the defense isn’t running on all cylinders and the offense has to keep up. The Cardinal offensive is plodding and methodical. It isn’t exactly built to be the quick strike type.
But whatever the offensive and defensive units seem to be, this team just improved to 6-1 and 5-0 in conference and most likely be a top 5 football team if it wasn’t for a scratch-your-head type of loss at Northwestern to begin the season. Whatever happened on that first weekend of action somehow clicked Stanford back into focus and now everyone is paying for it.
The Cardinal are not fun to watch. They might be the first ones to admit it. Stanford doesn’t run the spread and it doesn’t change uniforms every other week. It might be one of the reasons it has played late at night for the fifth time this season; it isn’t sexy.
But the Cardinal are winning, and isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?