For this week’s “Five Questions, Five Answers” feature, we caught up with Jon Wilner, who covers Stanford and the Pac-12 Conference for the San Jose Mercury News and the Bay Area News Group. You can find his blog here and his Twitter profile here. Many thanks for Jon for his insights.
1. Stanford looked like a runaway freight train in September, opening Pac-12 play with blowouts of Arizona State and Washington State. What’s been most impressive about this Cardinal team so far?
Stanford has continued to do what it did well last year (run the ball effectively, play stout defense) and added a dimension to its offense. It now possesses a downfield passing game. The quick-strike element (three TD passes of more than 30 yards against WSU) means it doesn’t have to grind out low-scoring games week after week. At least it hasn’t thus far. The effectiveness of the aerial game will be put to the test in coming weeks against the Huskies, UCLA and the Oregon schools.
2. Washington, of course, didn’t see much of QB Kevin Hogan last season. Since he took over as the starter, Stanford is 9-0 and the offense looks much more explosive. Where has Hogan improved the most now as a sophomore?
Hogan’s improvement is not readily apparent to the casual viewer. Based on all accounts from coaches and teammates, the difference is his command of the huddle and ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage. In other words, he’s able to get Stanford out of a bad play, and into a good play, more frequently than he did last year. But Hogan’s greatest asset remains unchanged from last season: His mobility.
3. All-American LG David Yankey missed the WSU game for personal reasons. What’s his status this week? And, overall, what’s the state of the offensive line? Is it a typically big, dominant Stanford line we’re used to?
Yankey rejoined the team this week and will play Saturday. The line, which includes Joshua Garnett from Puyallup — his dad, Scott, is a former UW lineman – remains much as it was: big, physical, overpowering. Stanford uses the same core running plays with pulling guards and pulling tackles that it has used in past years. And the Cardinal is not afraid to deploy jumbo lineups with some combination of extra fullbacks, tight ends and offensive linemen. Last week, it threw a pass to a backup offensive tackle, who doubles as a tight end. And it used Garnett, a reserve guard, in the backfield as a blocking fullback.
4. Tyler Gaffney is back after spending 2012 playing minor-league baseball. How big of a surprise has he been? And sophomore Barry Sanders has gotten a lot of attention this week after his first touchdown. Is there a chance we’ll see more of him on Saturday?
Gaffney’s return was the most significant offseason development for Stanford. He’s their starting tailback. Anthony Wilkerson, who also plays regularly – and provides a change-of-pace with his ability to get to the corner — isn’t as good between the tackles, which, of course, is the heart and soul of Stanford’s ground game. Barry Sanders will be used in a limited role. You might see him carry the ball a few times, but he’s clearly behind Gaffney and Wilkerson on the depth chart. The issue isn’t his production with the ball; it’s his ability to pass protect. He’s still learning the schemes and how to recognize blitzes.
5. Defensively, with the likes of Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ed Reynolds, Stanford has held 13 of its last 16 opponents to 20 points or fewer. Most notably, the Cardinal held Oregon to just 14 points in an overtime victory last season. How has Stanford done it? Or is the secret that there are no big secrets — it’s simply solid players make solid, disciplined plays?
The defense does it with physical, smart players who play a style that suits their hard-charging style. Stanford doesn’t do a lot of lateral stunts and blitzes. Everything is pretty much straight ahead. The ends and outside linebackers have long arms, enabling them to hold the perimeter. But the biggest change in Stanford’s defense from three or four years ago is the secondary. The DBs are far more athletic than their predecessors: They don’t get beat for big plays very often, and they tackle well in space. Upgrading the secondary was a point of emphasis for coach David Shaw — he considered it essential to being able to contain Oregon. If you can’t tackle in space, you can’t beat the Ducks. Stanford finally has the players to do it.