Each week during the Pac-12 season, we'll try to hook up with our fellow SB Nation sites across the conference. This week we're going up north to the Farm in Palo Alto and chatting with Stanford's great SB Nation site, Rule of Tree. Tim Eckert-Fong is one of their authors and he was kind enough to share his insights on Stanford's weird start, their great run since, and the prospects of The Big Game being a really really Big Game.
Bruins Nation: So what happened at Northwestern and then what happened between there and Southern Cal?
Rule of Tree: There are so many factors in play from Week 1 to Week 3. Firstly, rankings are always a little screwy to start the year as Northwestern looks like a very solid team (Michigan drubbing aside) and USC looks a long ways from its #6 ranking. Playing an away game with a 9:00am pacific start is a tough way to start the year, especially when the opponent is no slouch. Against NU, the offensive line didn't gel, both starting receivers were out, and David Shaw David Shawed his way to 45 two yard runs up the middle and six points.
Since then, the playbook has been opened wide up and the offensive line has looked line a unit from the Andrew Luck days. Against NU, Stanford threw the ball farther than 20 yards just one time. Now, the offense is stretching the defense on most plays and is utilizing its many weapons. It really just comes down to Stanford being aggressive and not punting from the opponent's 37 yard line.
BN: The defense had to replace nearly its whole starting lineup from last year. Any growing pains there so far?
Rule of Tree: There have definitely been growing pains in 2015. The defensive line is the anchor of most defenses and was key for Stanford's 2014 success. This years line is extremely talented and has been effective, but its lack of depth is cause for concern. A single injury could devastate the whole defense. Teams have been able to run the ball with some success against a tired line, causing Stanford to dedicate more linebackers to the run. This can help open up the passing game as Stanford's secondary is solid but not elite.
That said, there has been improvement from game to game in both the line and secondary. I look for the Card to take another big step forward against a potentially elite passer in Josh Rosen. Make no mistake, UCLA will get their yards and score some points but Stanford can put up a fight.
BN: Your Pac-12 opponents were pretty relieved when Andrew Luck finally left the Farm, but then Kevin Hogan didn't leave them relaxing for long, and I don't think he's gotten the credit he deserves during his career compared to some of the other Pac-12 QBs. What makes Hogan such a quality quarterback?
Rule of Tree: Kevin Hogan is one of the most accurate quarterbacks I've ever seen, with the caveat of he needs time for his long delivery to be successful. I have no doubt that Hogan will be in one of those weird, third tier NFL prospect ESPN combines and he will absolutely dominate.
In a lot of ways, Hogan is a pretty perfect college quarterback. His legs require teams to leave a backer close to the line of scrimmage, helping the receivers. His deep ball is perfect, further opening up the middle. The last 7 games or so, he's made excellent decisions without forcing the ball like he did at the beginning of his career. After 4 years here at Stanford, Hogan has matured into an extremely smart quarterback with underrated physical skills. He will go down as an all time great at Stanford.
BN: The Cardinal has beaten U.C.L.A. an embarrassing seven times in a row. Help us out a bit please, and let us know where Stanford has some weaknesses on offense and defense this season.
Rule of Tree: Offensively, there aren't many. This is a dynamic and talented team that should be able to use its many different talents to put up solid numbers against any college defense. There's always the chance that David Shaw will punt on first down from your 25 yard line, but the offense will roll as long as they don't get in their own way.
Where the Cardinal can be beat is on defense. With a thin D line, teams can take the old Stanford approach of running the ball to tire out the defensive line. Stanford has been able to avoid this issue by getting ahead, forcing teams to be predictable and throw the ball, dedicating its safeties and linebackers to the pass. Should UCLA be able to jump out to a two score lead and continue to pound the ball, Stanford's D could be in trouble. Also, an accurate quarterback like Rosen might be able to pick apart Stanford's secondary. The unit isn't bad, but there is definitely room for an elite quarterback to have his way.
BN: Coach David Shaw may not be the most dynamic or aggressive in-game coach, but he builds a great system and game plans so well and his teams just push opponents around nearly every week. What makes him so effective and would you trade any of that for a bit more of a gambler on game days?
Rule of Tree: For all the (much deserved) flak he's drawn for his conservative nature, David Shaw is an amazing coach. He's recruited some of the best classes in Cardinal history which can be seen in the lack of drop off from season to season. Even as the offense has opened up, Stanford has controlled the clock and ended games in dominant fashion, weakening defenses and running the ball up the gut for big gains.
The NU loss was put firmly on Shaw's shoulders, namely for being overly conservative. He has opened up the playbook since then but if he reverts back to the playcalling of just a few weeks back, Stanford fans will be pining for a gambler.
BN: Ok, yes, I'm jumping ahead a bit, but right now, the clear class of the Pac -12 North is not Oregon (who many people picked), but Stanford (who most of the rest picked)...and Cal (which almost no one outside of the most myopic Berkeley denizen picked). As a Stanford fan and de facto Cal hater, is there a part of you that is excited to think the The Big Game might decide the Pac-12 North and become a nationally prominent contest this year?
Rule of Tree: To be honest, I've really enjoyed the stress free Big Games of the last 4 or so years but the rivalry could definitely use an injection of an important, competitive game. The last few Big Games haven't been near a sellout and have felt more like season openers than rivalry games. The thought of a Big Game with national implications is definitely appealing and would be great for the conference as a whole.
That said, I'll take another blowout, please!
Our thanks to Tim and the crew at Rule of Tree for joining us this week. You can see their Qs and our As here and then check out the rest of their great site for all the best news on Stanford athletics. You can also follow them on twitter at @RuleOfTree.