David Shaw

Does Stanford have the QB, RBs, and defense to avenge last year’s loss to USC?

I learned nothing about Stanford football last week. I already knew they were miles better than UC Davis, and the only question was whether the Aggies would even score — and they didn’t. (Only got across the 50 on the last play of the game.)

We’ll know a whole lot more about the Cardinal after this Saturday. They have a rare Week 2 conference game, against USC down on The Farm (12:30 PT, ABC), a game that could very well be a Pac-12 Championship Game preview. And at this point, why not think of it that way? The Cardinal are the two-time conference champs, and the Trojans looked much better last week than preseason South Division favorites UCLA. Quarterback Cody Kessler was named Pac-12 offensive player of the week after tossing four touchdowns, running for another and having 394 passing yards. The Trojans also set a school and conference record by running 105 total plays.

In my mind, the Trojans clearly have the edge at quarterback. Actually, calling it an “edge” is an understatement, it’s more like a clear aisle in my mind. Stanford’s Kevin Hogan has not shown he is an elite quarterback. Look, I know it was just UC Davis and the game-plan was super vanilla and not geared toward the passing game at all, but Hogan only threw for 231 yards last week. There are 12 teams in the conference and that performance didn’t even crack the top ten. When Stanford was upset by Utah last year, head coach David Shaw as much as admitted that they lost because they threw the ball too much. The reason USC upset them last year was because Stanford threw the ball too much in the second half. During Hogan’s first two years he’s been effective because they’ve had a phenomenal running game — Stepfan Taylor had 1,530 rushing yards in 2012, third on the school’s all-time list, and last year all Tyler Gaffney did was rush for 1,709 yards, second on the list.

Despite an impressive name in Barry Sanders (junior) on the roster, none of Stanford’s running backs are even close to as experienced as Gaffney and Taylor. Sanders led the team with 43 yards last week. Kelsey Young, a junior making his first start, had 37 yards. Even against a defense like the Aggies, the Cardinal had 149 yards rushing. I know it was UC Davis, I know they didn’t want to give USC anything good on film … but 149 yards? Super senior Ty Montgomery had more yards than that by himself! Monty had 159 total yards — 77 receiving (including a 44-yard touchdown) and 79 on returns (including a 60-yard punt return for a score).

Adding this up, that’s a quarterback who has yet to prove he can win without a superior running game, a suspect running game, a one-man wrecking crew … and a new defensive coordinator with his first huge test. Although Lance Anderson has been part of the Stanford defense for many years (as linebackers and line coach) and is credited with co-designing the scheme, this is his first season actually calling the plays. And I would be concerned trying to stop an offense that had 701 total yards the week before even if I had been a defensive coordinator for 10 years. Anderson’s in his second game and trying to hold the Trojans down. Also on the line is Stanford’s 24-game streak of allowing fewer than 30 points.

If that streak continues, then the Cardinal probably beat USC. Despite the edge USC seems to have, especially on offense, the Cardinal are still favored by three. That’s Vegas-speak for “the Trojans could very well win this game, but we give the nod to Stanford because they’re at home and are two-time defending conference champs.” Which sounds about right to me. We’ll know a lot about Stanford’s running game, passing game, and defense after Saturday, and whether they have a chance to three-peat. We certainly don’t know anything about it yet.

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