What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Sean from Rule of Tree, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Stanford.
1) As usual, Stanford was an active participant in #Pac12AfterDark this year, so a lot of their games went down after Iowa fans had fallen asleep (or, uh, passed out). So give us the scoop on what Iowa fans should know about Stanford this year. What are the key things we should know about the Cardinal on offense and defense?
SEAN: Iowa fans should know that this isn't the traditional type Stanford team. Those teams were usually led by staunch defenses and a mediocre offense with conservative play calling. This year the offense runs the show and coach David Shaw has been opening up the playbook a little bit more. He has been calling more creative plays such as reverses, double throws, and HB options. Francis Owusu's catch was a double throw and Christian McCaffrey had a passing touchdown against Colorado. As well as calling more imaginative plays, Shaw will take a chance on getting the ball into the endzone instead of playing it safe for a field goal. In the past, Shaw would run the ball on a third and eight with the ball on the 20-yard line, instead going for the first down or the endzone. This year contrasts his conservatism because he will call 10-yard slants in hopes of continuing the drive by picking up the first down. In my opinion, I think he trusts his personnel more and therefore calls gutsier plays.
A key for Stanford's offense is the AP Player of the Year, Christian McCaffrey. The games where McCaffrey (relatively) struggled were against, Northwestern and Washington State. Washington State came one missed field goal away from beating Stanford and Northwestern beat Stanford in their first contest of the season. If teams can cut down on McCaffrey's touches, then they have a chance to beat Stanford. The key to this defense is the secondary. They are the youngest positional group on the whole team and also the weakest. They have only forced 7 interceptions all year which has them ranked 106 in interceptions in the FBS. They also rank #70 in passing yards allowed per game and #85 in total passing yards allowed. The Cardinal secondary is key for success against any team.
2) Surprisingly, Stanford and Iowa have never played one another in their respective football histories. Stylistically, though, this is a match-up that felt like it needed to happen, especially since the Cardinal renaissance began under Jim Harbaugh. Iowa seem awfully similar stylistically: both teams are very hard-nosed and physical, both teams are built around their lines and rely on strong defenses, both teams prefer to run pro-style offenses with a strong emphasis on the running game. Does playing Iowa feel a bit like looking in the mirror for Stanford?
SEAN: Watching Iowa play against Michigan State, was basically rewatching the 2014 Rose Bowl. The game was centered around defense and the trenches. Fans will always remember this final play, and how the Spartan defensive line won the game for them. This game will be played just the same way. The Stanford O-line, led by Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett will lead the attack against Iowa's staunch D-line. The only difference is; Stanford's offense has been carrying the defense this year. This isn't the traditional defensive led squad, but they are still built around the offensive and defensive lines. This game will be won in the trenches just the way both Stanford and Iowa like it.
3) OK, we have to cover this at some point: Stanford-Northwestern: what the hell happened there? The Wildcats ended up being a good team this year (and had a very good defense), but that result is still one of the most head scratching results of the entire season. So what went wrong for Stanford in that game?
SEAN: The Wildcats surprised us all being a top 25 team, but this shouldn't be an excuse. Stanford came out incredibly flat and put up their lowest point total since 2007 against Arizona State. The offense wasn't clicking at all and wasn't helped out by the fact that Coach Shaw was calling was a bit on the conservative side. He was calling back to back run plays on first and second down constantly which brought Stanford to third and long quite often. He didn't seem to make the adjustment at halftime either, it seemed like he was going to win by playing his game and he wasn't adapting to what Northwestern was giving him. It appeared to me that Stanford wasn't prepared for the game, which is unfathomable. Shaw normally does a good job preparing his teams, especially in the first game of the season. As the season progressed Shaw made changes in his game plan, which was evident in the win against Washington State, and has proven that she can prepare his teams in big time games.
The blame isn't solely on Shaw's play calling or lack of adjustments it is on the offensive line. They hadn't meshed together as a unit yet and it was clearly visible. Stanford only rushed for about 85 yards and being able to establish the run game is essential for Stanford's passing attack. When Hogan was dropping back to pass, he wasn't getting enough time to throw which would lead to rushed throws on third down. The Cardinal converted on a mere 10% of their third downs. Anything that could go wrong in that game did go wrong for Stanford. Stanford has moved past that loss, as they should, and the offensive line has been great the rest of the season.
4) Christian McCaffrey has been must-see TV for football fans across the country this year. Purely as a fan, what's it been like to watch him this season? As an Iowa fan, one of my fondest memories is of watching Shonn Greene pulverize opposing defenses week in and week out in 2008, but McCaffrey's on another level in terms of rushing ability. How much fun has it been to watch him do his thing this year? And is there anything Iowa can do to try and slow him down?
SEAN: Watching him play has been a treat for anyone who has tuned in. His ability to take any play and make it a touchdown has been electrifying. It gets to the point where I hold my breath every time he touches the ball and my heart starts pounding. There are two plays that stick out for me this season. One moment that has etched itself into my mind was his touchdown pass against Colorado. That touchdown was a statement to the whole country, that McCaffrey was the ultimate all purpose yards' player. He doesn't throw a lot, but out of his two completed passes both of them were touchdowns.
The other moment was the classic Heisman moment that every candidate has to have. This Heisman moment came against rival Cal, where he broke two tackles and juked out of another. It was such an electrifying play and it was a great moment since it came against Cal. Watching McCaffrey play this year has been a great experience, but thinking about watching him again next year, makes me feel tingly inside.
Is there anything Iowa can do to try and slow him down? There have been some teams who have contained McCaffrey, such as Northwestern, Washington State, and Notre Dame. In the Northwestern game, the beast had not been unleashed yet. People knew McCaffrey was a good player, but no one knew he was this good. In the Washington State game, McCaffrey only ended up with 133 rushing and receiving yards. What WSU keyed on was limiting McCaffrey's rushing yards and made Stanford beat them in some other way. They stacked the box all throughout the first half and most of the second. That could be one way to slow down McCaffrey, but a way to beat it would be send McCaffrey out on a passing route getting the LB-RB mismatch. USC tried to put eight or nine in the box in the Pac-12 Championship Game, but Stanford easily beat that be sending McCaffrey out of the backfield to catch passes. Notre Dame slowed down McCaffrey by having elite defensive prospects in LB Jaylon Smith and DL Sheldon Day. Unless Iowa has a future top five pick in Jaylon Smith or a second round pick in Sheldon Day on their front seven, Notre Dame's strategy isn't going to work. So here is my advice to Phil Parker: Stack the box, but not on every play. Give Stanford's offense different looks and try to make David Shaw use anyone else on offense, but when McCaffrey gets the ball WRAP UP.
5) Stanford has had some excellent quarterbacks in their history, including serial winners and NFL superstars like John Elway and Andrew Luck. Kevin Hogan isn't on their level, but he is an extremely experienced quarterback and one of the winningest active signal callers in the college ranks. What's made him so good for the Cardinal? What are his strengths? What weaknesses could Iowa look tto exploit?
SEAN: Hogan has been excellent in his career at Stanford and actually he and Luck had the same number of wins in their first three years at the helm. There could be so many arguments on why Hogan has been so good over the years, but for me it is his mentality of needing to get better in the off season. He has been knocked by draft analysts for his lack of accuracy, but every year he keeps on getting more and more accurate. His completion percentage has been increasing ever since his sophomore year. He has increased his total yards gained every year as well and his yards per attempt has drastically increased too. The fact that Hogan gets better every year is the testament to his hard work in the offseason.
Some of his on the field strengths are his ability to limit mistakes, his pocket awareness, and his overall accuracy. As Hogan progressed through his college career, he has gotten smarter and smarter every year. This football IQ has led to him minimizing his mistakes and has led to taking care of the football. He has decreased the amount of interceptions every year he has been on The Farm. Another great part of his game is his pocket awareness. He knows when the pocket is about to collapse and makes great decisions on either throwing the ball away or trying to run for some yards. His pocket awareness is already NFL-ready and is one of Hogan's greatest assets.
Now Hogan isn't the perfect QB -- he has some weaknesses. One weakness is his accuracy on his long balls. His overall completion percentage and accuracy has gone up, but long ball accuracy has eluded him this year. In years prior this was Hogan's greatest asset and now he misses the receiver a little bit more than he should. Sometimes when he throws to those routes the receiver has to adjustment their placement which causes the loss of yards after the catch. Another weakness in Hogan's game is his elongated arm motion. This shouldn't hinder him too much because his velocity, accuracy, and instincts will be able to make up for this deficiency.
6) Stanford games have been a largely turnover-free zone this year: just 12 giveaways by the Cardinal themselves against just 12 turnovers by their opponents. Is that just a statistical fluke? Is Stanford especially good at protecting the football? Or especially poor at forcing turnovers?
SEAN: I think it is a little bit of both. As I have said in the previous answers, Kevin Hogan has cut down on his mistakes all year long. He has only thrown seven interceptions this year which is tied for 20th in the FBS. Counting on Hogan to take care of the ball is just a natural part of watching Stanford games. Since Hogan has only thrown seven interceptions that means the rest of the offense has fumbled the ball, and lost the football, only five times. This is tied for 10th in the FBS, and they are tied for 5th in fumbles in general. They don't really turn the ball over too often. They are usually smart with the football, so teams have to force them to punt if they want the ball back.
On the defensive side of the ball, Stanford hasn't really forced any turnovers. Coming into the season, the biggest question was Stanford's secondary. They had just graduated almost all of their starters in the secondary and they were replacing them with all sophomores and freshmen. Needless to say, Stanford wasn't going to be forcing interceptions with this young secondary, so that just leaves us with fumbles. Stanford was the 9th worst team in the FBS at forcing fumbles. So I guess it is a little of both, Stanford's offense was smart and careful with the ball and the defense couldn't touch the ball to save their life.
7) Since Jim Harbaugh turned Stanford into a power, defense has been one of their most notable calling cards -- but this year's Cardinal defense doesn't seem quite as formidable as those in years past. Is this a bit of a rebuilding year for the Stanford defense? Who are the key players that Iowa fans should be aware of on that side of the ball?
SEAN: I hate the term "rebuilding year" because it suggests that fans, media, and coaches think that their team is going to be mediocre at best. I would say Stanford's defense is just having a down year. They lost seven players last year either to the draft or to graduation so the defense hasn't been what it has been over the years. There are two key guys on the Stanford defense that Hawkeye fans need to look out for.
The first key player of Stanford's defense is ILB Blake Martinez. Martinez had huge shoes to fill after taking over the ILB role from Shane Skov last year, but he has filled in nicely. This season, Martinez led the Pac-12 in tackles (131) and tackles per game (10). He is all over the field making plays in the back field or out in coverage; whatever Stanford needs done, he's done it. His stats aren't the only reason why he is important -- he's also the QB of the defense and gets everyone lined up and makes sure they are in the right formation before every single play. You often see him out of position before the play to make sure everyone is where they need to be. Blake Martinez is vital to the success of Stanford's defense as a whole.
The other major player on Stanford's defense is safety Ronnie Harris. Harris hasn't been healthy all year, but said he is now 100% healthy for this game. Coming into this year, Harris was the only defensive back to have any starting experience. He is the only veteran in this secondary which makes him valuable in a huge game like this one. Harris leads the team in passes defended, passes broken up, and passes defended per game. Stats also don't just define Harris; Harris is the captain of the defense. The 5th year senior will be playing locked in since this might be his last football game ever. Look for him to make big plays in the secondary to propel Stanford to a win.
8) These two teams look pretty evenly matched in several areas, so this game could come down to little differences or hidden yards. What advantages (or disadvantages) does Stanford have on special teams and how could they swing the balance of the game?
SEAN: Kicker Conrad Ukropina has been stellar all year long which came as a surprise for most Tree fans. He has the 3rd highest kicking percentage in the FBS (89%) and has made all 61 of his extra point attempts. Stanford hasn't had the best luck with their kickers in years past so Ukropina has been a refreshing player all year. Christian McCaffrey can be put in the advantages part of special teams too. He averages 29 yards per KR, which sets up Stanford pretty well. One disadvantage is the kickoff specialist -- Jake Bailey kicks the ball out of bounds far too often and puts unnecessary pressure on the defense. He has kicked the ball out seven times this year, which is the second most in the country. Overall, Stanford's special teams does more good than bad, but they can't kick the ball out of bounds on the kickoff with this Hawkeye offense.
9) Finally, prediction time -- who's going to be waving roses in the air triumphantly on New Year's Day?
SEAN: Both teams are going to want to come out and run the football. Whoever can win the battle in the trenches and wins the time of possession will most likely win this game. This game will be incredibly close and it makes it hard to chose who will com out on top. I predict Iowa will come out prepared against Stanford's defense, but on the last play of the game Hogan to McCaffrey will put the Cardinal up 24-21 with no time remaining.
Thanks for being a good sport, Sean, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped on Friday. You can check out the ROT crew at Rule of Tree. You can also follow ROT on Twitter at @RuleofTree.The Iowa-Stanford game (aka, the FREAKING ROSE BOWL) is in Pasadena, CA on Friday, January 1, and is scheduled to start at approximately 4:00 pm CT, with TV coverage from ESPN.