As Ohio State clearly showed last year, an early out-of-conference loss isn’t necessarily a great indicator of a team’s eventual success. However, with perhaps the worst offensive showing of the David Shaw era and DL Harrison Phillips suffering a season-ending injury, Stanford’s 16-6 loss to Northwestern last weekend in some way feels like it couldn’t have gone any worse. What is the appropriate reaction to Stanford’s Week 1 performance? What could the team do against UCF this weekend to show it is moving forward? Daily Sports writers Andrew Mather, Winston Shi and Michael Peterson share their thoughts.
Andrew Mather: The Stanford program is built too well for there to be panic after any one result, but any reaction should include a hefty dose of alarm. If football games are war, Stanford’s performance against Northwestern amounted to that of a failed state – the team didn’t just lose, it looked straight-up dysfunctional in its loss. It’s simply inexcusable for a veteran offense to put up six points against any opponent, and doing it against an unranked Northwestern side that surrendered a combined 95 points to Illinois and Iowa last year just adds insult to injury. To have any respect for the Stanford program, you need to be a little shaken by how poorly things went.
The important thing to remember with all this alarm, however, is that in its very nature it comes from the fact that Stanford should be a very good football team. The talent, the players, the coaching (for the most part) – it’s all where it needs to be. The only thing that really seems to be missing from the days when the Stanford offense looked its best is the mental belief that the team can come together and be better than its opponents. This lack of faith may be part of the reason why the team doesn’t have a true come-from-behind win since 2012 despite landing many talented players in the NFL draft after each season.
The best thing that Stanford can do for itself going forward is to build more trust and put it on display. Have Kevin Hogan air the ball out a little more and give him responsibility on big plays. Let the offense go for it on fourth and short. Don’t use the punter inside the 30-yard line. As soon as Stanford starts believing that it can come through in the most important situations, it just might accidentally find itself starting to do so.
Winston Shi: I’m not saying panic, but there’s something that we should all be panicking about. Stanford just released its depth chart for the UCF game, and only four defensive linemen were listed. Four! Now, that depth chart doesn’t mean that there are only four defensive linemen on the roster — versatile linebacker Kevin Anderson is probably going to have to put his hand on the line more than ever, and his understudies Mike Tyler and Lane Veach (both of whom played defensive end in high school) may be forced to do the same. Nate Lohn and Torsten Rotto may well see some game time, and I think David Shaw’s going to have to burn Dylan Jackson and Wesley Annan’s redshirts in order to save this season. So there are options. But the situation’s not good. Offensive linemen may be forced to play nose tackle. Luke Kaumatule might switch positions again.
As I’ve said before and will say again, on paper Stanford should beat the Golden Knights. It has recruited too much talent to not expect to out-talent this opponent. But Stanford needs its front seven to be great in order to take the pressure off an extremely green back four, and it doesn’t look like the kids will have that luxury. So that’s what I want to see — a Stanford defense that can prove that it can present a solid defensive front. Guys like Lohn and Rotto and Tyler and Veach need to step up and become contributors before any of us can be confident in the coming season.
Michael Peterson: As our colleague Do-Hyoung Park argued earlier this week, the sample size for Stanford’s inept offense is not one week, but rather a year and a week. What we saw against Northwestern is exactly what we saw against USC, Notre Dame and Arizona State last season — poor offensive execution, mental mistakes and a lack of in-game adjustments. Stanford fans can rightly be worried about the state of the offense and what it means for the team’s hopes for the season.
At the same time, David Shaw and the team did show that they are able to bounce back from turmoil at the end of last season, reeling off big wins in the final three games. The question now becomes whether Shaw and Stanford can adjust faster than they did last year in order to save the season before the team loses five games like it did in 2014.
Like Shaw always says, improved execution is the key for Stanford. If the Cardinal can execute against UCF and avoid the silly mistakes, like dropped passes, penalties and errant throws, that plagued them against Northwestern, then they may begin to restore fans’ faith. That and winning the battle in the trenches would go a long ways to firmly entrenching themselves as Pac-12 contenders.
However, one way to increase the likelihood of successful execution is by simplifying the playbook and reducing the decisions players have to make instantaneously on the field. I’d love to see Stanford do just that — make the game easier on Hogan and the offense by reducing the offense’s complexity and do what Stanford does best: win through physicality. We’ll see whether Shaw feels the same way.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu, Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu, and Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.