In a conversation that shows how far we've come since Dr. Kleinrock started the first online chat between a Bruin and a Cardinal in 1969, I had a chance to exchange some questions with Hank from the great Stanford blog, Go Mighty Card. Hopefully, the Bruins football team lasts longer on Saturday than the fledgling internet connnection did on that fateful day, so to get more details on what we are facing, Hank was good enough to share some thoughts on the upcoming Bruins-Cardinal matchup in Palo Alto. Hank asked us some questions too, presumably out of politeness, and our responses should be up on their site later today. [Update: here is a link to our answers to their questions]
Bruins Nation: Andrew Luck...Wow! It's telling that NFL fans are truly serious about wanting their teams to tank just to get him (I don't think my Broncos will be bad enough, but we do well with Stanford QB's...). How surprised were Stanford fans when he said he was coming back? Do Stanford fans appreciate how good they have it?
Go Mighty Card: You know how they say people of a certain age will always remember exactly where they were when Kennedy was assassinated? I'm guessing most Stanford fans can say the same thing about Andrew Luck's decision to return this season. Some of the things he said in the press room following the Orange Bowl gave me hope that he might come back, but I'd still say I was already wondering about who'd be playing quarterback in his place this year. His decision to come back obviously changed everything. A funny thing has happened, though. People expect so much of him that there's actually been some disappointment in the fan base at times this season. Stanford's balanced pro style offense prevents Luck from having the gaudy numbers of Kellen Moore or Case Keenum, but he's still on pace for a great year. He'll probably finish somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,300 yards, thirty touchdowns, and four or five interceptions, and that's a pretty nice neighborhood. If his team keeps winning, he should win the Heisman by a fairly comfortable margin.
BN: Ok, we all know about Luck. Who else is on the offense? Is the O Line as dominating as last year? How is that affecting your running game?
GMC: The offensive line was the biggest question mark heading into the season, and although they've improved each week, I don't think anyone's ready to compare them to the dominating unit from the past two years. Luck has been sacked a few times (gasp!), and he's felt a fair amount of pressure. Last year it sometimes seemed like he could sit in the pocket and study some of his architecture notes for a while as he waited for his receivers to get open, but he hasn't had that luxury this year. Where the line has excelled, though, has been in the running game. Junior Stepfan Taylor is still the lead back, and he's pretty much picked up where he left off last season. He has 289 yards in three games, but more than half of that came in his last game as he gashed Arizona for 153 yards on just twenty-two carries. One thing to watch against UCLA will be the backup running backs. You'll have to watch carefully, though, because their appearances are few and far between. Even though Taylor was the lead back last year, Jim Harbaugh gave the rest of the guys a lot more carries than Shaw has thus far. It's not clear yet whether this is a difference in coaching philosophies or if Taylor has just separated himself, but we get some answers this Saturday.
But if there's one thing (aside from Luck) that makes the Stanford offense different from almost every other offense out there, it's the tight ends. Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo are simply the best unit in the country, and I can't imagine that anyone else is even close. Fleener is an absolute freak of nature. He's 6'6" and 244, but he's reportedly the second-fastest player on the offense -- faster than Stepfan Taylor. Toilolo is even bigger at 6'8", and he introduced himself to the world two weeks ago with four catches for 102 yards and a touchdown. Ertz is more of a typical tight end, but he's emerged as one of Luck's favorite targets and has caught touchdown passes in six straight games stretching back to last season. As a group, these three have caught nineteen balls for 365 yards and seven touchdowns. Most of the time you'll see them coming off the end of the line like typical tight ends, but they're often used as slot receivers, and Fleener even splits out wide from time to time. They rotate in and out of the game according to which skill set is needed at the time, but you'll also see jumbo formations with all three tight ends on the field at the same time. Don't assume the run, though. Last week Arizona made that mistake and Toilolo broke free for a thirty-four-yard touchdown.
BN: Are there any areas where the offense is even vulnerable? If you were an opposing DC, how would you prepare for the Cardinal offense?
GMC: Here's the weird thing about this offense. In Andrew Luck they've got the top Heisman candidate in the country and a player universally viewed as the best quarterback prospect in at least the last ten or twenty years, but the wide receivers have been mediocre at best. Chris Owusu has the speed, size, and strength to be a game-changing player, and he's made good on that potential during isolated moments this season, but his inconsistency has been troubling. After Owusu there's a huge dropoff. Griff Whalen starts on the other side, but he has only six receptions and doesn't scare anyone. Jamal-Rashad Patterson is one of two or three receivers who came to Stanford as highly-touted recruits but have failed to earn significant playing time. Many fans -- including myself -- are hoping that Shaw will allow true freshman Ty Montgomery to see more time. I think there's an outside shot that he could be the number two receiver by the end of the season.
Even with that weakness, I'm not sure how you stop this offense aside from running the ball well enough to keep them off the field. Luck isn't just physically talented, he's also the most prepared quarterback in the college game today. Rick Neuheisel acknowledged this week that's it's hard to confuse Luck, and he's absolutely right. I've never seen a college quarterback look so comfortable at the line of scrimmage, and he always seems to check into the right play. If the Bruins are going to have a chance on Saturday, they'll have to blitz early and blitz often. Even after just three games, I think Luck has hit the ground more times this year than all of last season. If the Bruins can pressure him consistently, they might be able to disrupt the Stanford offense enough to keep this game close.
BN: I was really sad to see MLB Shayne Skov hurt last game, as I hate to see college kids get injured. Bruins Nation sincerely sends our best wishes to Shane for a speedy recovery. In the meantime, who takes his spot and how will that affect the defense?
GMC: I feel really bad for Shayne Skov. I can't imagine what it would be like to be one of the most dominant players in football one minute, and then find yourself riding to the locker room on the back of a cart the next, knowing that your season is probably over. The Stanford defense did a great job picking up the slack against Arizona. They allowed a touchdown soon after Skov's second-quarter injury, but then they buckled down and shutout the Wildcats the rest of the way. Max Bergen starts at the other inside linebacker position, and he's been one of the biggest surprises this season. Along with outside linebacker Chase Thomas, Bergen has spent an awful lot of time disrupting things in the offensive backfield. We'll likely see a rotation of players in Skov's vacant spot, with the most productive player getting the most time. A.J. Tarpley, Joe Hemschoot, and Blake Lueders are the most likely candidates, and the good news is that all three of those players got lots of playing time in Stanford's three blowout wins thus far. Also, watch for true freshman James Vaughters, the prize of last year's recruiting class. He's played a fair amount, usually in one dimensional situations that limit his decision making. He's been especially effective with his hand in the dirt as pure pass rusher in throwing situations, so look for him to pick up a sack on Saturday.
BN: Your run defense looked really strong against Arizona, while the run game seems to have become U.C.L.A.'s focus, as the Bruins are averaging over 200 ypg on the ground. How do you see this matchup going on Saturday?
GMC: This will obviously be the thing to watch on Saturday, a true strength against strength matchup. Stanford currently has the top-ranked rushing defense in the nation, allowing just thirty-six yards per game and a ridiculous 1.23 yards per carry. The defense has been vulnerable to the pass, but with UCLA's troubles at quarterback, they might be able to focus even more attention than usual at stopping the run. Will the Bruins still stay committed to doing what they do, or will they look to surprise the Cardinal by coming out throwing? Neuheisel has talked a lot about establishing and maintaining an identity as a power running team, so I'm guessing they won't abandon that identity now. The truth is that those defensive statistics I quoted earlier are inflated by two weak teams (San Jose State and Duke) and another who simply refuses to run (Arizona). This will be the Cardinal's first true test, and I'd have said that even if Skov hadn't been injured. I'm really looking forward to watching it play out. If the Stanford defense can hold the Bruins to less than 150 yards rushing, it promises to be a long day for UCLA.
BN: Before the season, I told you I was curious if we would see the same Stanford team this year with all the coaching changes. Well, so far, so good. Are you seeing any differences in the locker room or on the field with this team under Coach Shaw as compared to last year under Coach Harbaugh?
GMC: When you look at the outward demeanor of David Shaw, he couldn't be more different from Jim Harbaugh. He celebrates touchdowns with his players, but it's usually just with a smile and a quiet conversation as opposed to the full tilt celebration we usually saw from Harbaugh. Most analysts felt like Harbaugh's departure would leave the Cardinal without an edge, whatever that means, but I'd argue that Shaw's even-keeled approach has served his team well. There was a moment against Arizona when it looked like everything was about to disintegrate. Fleener was out with a concussion, Owusu was sitting on the bench, his shoulder wrapped in ice, and Skov was screaming in pain, hiding behind a phalanx of teammates. Arizona had scored to pull within three points, the Arizona crowd was going crazy, and suddenly everything was in question -- the national championship, the Pac-12 championship, and even Luck's Heisman. One loss would spell the end of all that, but when the cameras found Shaw on the sidelines, he stood calmly, betraying not a hint of anxiety. I have to believe that his players noticed that quiet confidence and drew on that as they slowly regained control of the game. Does that mean that Harbaugh would've launched into a tantrum, inducing team-wide panic and crippling any hopes for a victory? Certainly not. He just would've gone about things in a different way. Shaw and Harbaugh worked together to return Stanford football to national prominence (well, I don't think you can really return to a place you've never been), but they're two very different coaches.
BN: Is it too soon to ask you about Oregon? Ok, yeah, I thought so. So I'll just ask about Saturday's game. Any chance the Bruins catch you looking ahead to Colorado?
GMC: The Oregon game is certainly huge, and there's also a big game at USC two weeks before that, but I don't think this team is looking past anyone. Both Shaw and Luck have expressed concern about the sluggish first halves the offense has played in each of the first three games, so I'm betting they both do their best correct that trend on Saturday. Look for the Cardinal to come out firing on all cylinders Saturday night as they build an early lead. After that, they'll rely on the offensive line to punish the UCLA front seven as Stepfan Taylor and company take control of the game. Stanford 41, UCLA 13.
Thanks to Hank from Go Mighty Card for his time and thoughts in answering our questions. Well, except for that prediction. Dang, how come our internet link didn't cut out before that one? Oh, well. It appears that the Cardinal does not plan on being a very kind host. This is likely to be the best team we play this year by a long way, and we certainly have our work cut out for us. But that doesn't lower our expectations. Here's hoping our Bruins can find what we all believe is there, and show both Stanford and the U.C.L.A. fans what we have been waiting for. Go Bruins!