On the Other Sideline: 5 Questions with The Stanford Daily

Devon Cajuste Ty Montgomery

The Utes travel to Palo Alto on Saturday for a matchup with Stanford. In preparation of the game, The Daily Utah Chronicle caught up with Winston Shi, who covers the Cardinal for The Daily Stanford, to see if the factors are in place for the Utes to take another game from the Cardinal.
R: How much, if any, will the revenge factor play in this game? And how tough is Stanford Stadium to play in for opposing teams?
W: Stanford cares about beating Utah, but honestly, it’s a clear-cut rebuilding year, and Stanford cares more about getting bowl eligible at this point. I expect Stanford to make a bowl (5 wins with 3 games to go), but none of the Cardinal’s remaining opponents (Utah, Cal and UCLA) are pushovers. On the bright side, although Stanford Stadium is a notoriously quiet stadium (we did get loud against Oregon last year, though), David Shaw’s only ever lost two games at home as opposed to nine on the road, so there’s pretty clearly something about Northern California.
The Cardinal were a national championship caliber team last year — I firmly believe this — but after losing to USC and Michigan State, their desire for revenge on Utah has got to be a bit dulled; it’s not like Utah sunk their season. Pride is going to be a much more important motivator than revenge on Saturday, especially after getting barbecued, braised, seared, charbroiled and utterly fricasseed by Oregon. (Now there’s a team that cared about revenge.) They’ve had an extra week to rest up, and hopefully the Cardinal can finish strong this season.
R: The Stanford offense recently changed. What are the biggest differences in what they are doing now as opposed to the beginning of the season? How is the Cardinal offensive line? How do you see the line faring against the Utah pass rush?
W: People call this a big shift to the spread, and there’s some truth to that, but it’s more a difference in play calling. Stanford’s trying really hard to get the ball to the outside, which widens the opposing safeties and opens the middle of the field for Stanford’s deep shots down field. For whatever reason — probably due to Stanford replacing four starters on the offensive line, including three all-Pac-12 performers — power running isn’t the Cardinal’s bread and butter anymore, and the play calling has reflected that. The coaching staff have known the power run game wasn’t working that well for a while now — Kevin Hogan’s been throwing the ball from the shotgun spread on third and short a lot — but only recently have they resigned themselves so conclusively to that fact.
Stanford’s offensive line has been better in pass protection than in the run game, for the most part. When Kevin Hogan has time to throw he plays well, and he was on fire for most of the first half against Oregon. But like nearly all quarterbacks, he isn’t elite under pressure. Stanford has the athletes on the offensive line to take on most programs, but, as in the run game, their chemistry is off, and while the line can handle a bull rush pretty well, the line has had some trouble handling stunting defensive linemen this season. I don’t know whether Utah is a big stunting team, but they would do well to stunt against Stanford.
I respect Utah enough to assume they’ll get some sacks, but will Utah need exotic blitzes to get them? Stanford’s offensive performance will hinge not on sacks but on whether Utah can get consistent pressure on Hogan.
R: What are the biggest weaknesses of the Stanford defense? What will Utah’s offense have to do to be effective against the Cardinal? Will Devontae Booker have room to run?
W: Until two weeks ago I would have said, “Play good defense and keep Stanford’s D on the field.” That’s how Arizona State beat Stanford — Jaelen Strong is outrageously good, to be sure, but ASU didn’t exactly light up the Cardinal. Then Oregon lit up the Cardinal.
What more can I say? Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost were pitch-perfect play callers that night. Oregon responded to every counter Stanford had on defense, and it’s not like Stanford’s defensive play calling collapsed ­— I thought it was a reasonably good job, considering the circumstances. But Stanford’s defensive line is incredibly thin this year, and the team depended so much on them. The team could win a conference championship with healthy defensive linemen; without these linemen, the Cardinal are struggling to get bowl eligible.
Still, though, if Stanford wants to shut down the run they’re going to shut down the run. They have that talent still. Even against Oregon, the Cardinal generally did well stopping the Duck run game when they were still comfortable using their standard defensive strategies. Do what Oregon did — pass to set up the run; don’t run to set up the pass. Stanford will give up holes in zone coverage, so if Utah can be methodical and avoid turnovers and sacks, they can find success. At the same time, we should remember that so far, only Marcus Mariota has actually managed to pull that off.
R: Stanford’s season has not been as good as expected — what are the reasons behind this? Have you seen improvement over the course of the season? How confident/motivated is the team right now?
W: I think I’ve covered the first part of this question above — but have I seen improvement? The offensive line hasn’t really made the leap yet. The offense as a whole is looking better and better, but while Stanford has excellent receivers and tight ends, a lead running back still hasn’t emerged; dynamic playmaking RB Christian McCaffrey is getting more and more runs in recent weeks, but he didn’t get to play much against Oregon because the staff was concerned about his pass blocking, and considering Kevin Hogan’s tendencies and traits as a passer, pass blocking is pretty important. Defensively, we’ve seen some improvement from some players, but no major leaps in terms of either team or individual play. Injuries have been the real story there.
One thing I really didn’t like about the Oregon game was that Stanford lost composure at the end. Nobody’s going to enjoy getting annihilated on national television, but while I think Stanford will bounce back, you rarely see the Cardinal mentally breaking down like that in the first place.
R: What does Stanford have to do to win? Prediction?
W: Stanford needs to run plays that force Utah to blitz less, and they need to win their battles in pass protection. The Cardinal have the weapons to march up and down the field — if they can use them. They don’t have to drop 50 on the Utes, but they have to score enough points to win. I’m pretty confident that the Stanford defense will turn in a solid performance, especially with the Utes’ injuries on offense — I feared Dres Anderson, and he won’t be playing on Saturday.
At the end of the day, Utah’s a ranked team and Stanford isn’t. I try to pick Stanford in every game in which the Cardinal have a fighting chance, but I’m not comfortable picking Stanford this week until I see that the Cardinal can bounce back from their worst loss in years. Let’s say Utah 17, Stanford 14.
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