Nobody around the country could have expected Stanford vs. UCF to be a matchup of two 0-1 teams.
And yet, after twin disappointing and confusing performances — Stanford against Northwestern, and UCF against Florida International — this matchup, all of a sudden, has taken on a whole new meaning for both teams, giving Saturday’s game between the Cardinal (0-1, 0-0 Pac-12) and the Knights (0-1, 0-0 American) an air of unexpected urgency.
For two teams that are virtually mirror images of one another on the playing field, the objective on Saturday is simple: Execute better on offense.
“We have to do everything better,” said head coach David Shaw. “It sounds so cliche, but when you look at it, there was not one glaring problem. One play was protection. One play was a dropped pass. One play was a missed block on a running play. One play was a fumble.
“If we just do what we’re supposed to do and play hard and play smart and protect the football and try to get turnovers instead of giving away the ball, we have a chance to win. It’s going to take that kind of effort this week.”
Shaw and the coaching staff are adamant that it was a lack of sound execution that doomed the Cardinal on offense last weekend at Northwestern in an anemic 230-yard performance that yielded only 6 points for Stanford.
This week, after having practiced with the bitter taste of defeat in their mouth and with the return of top wide receivers Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector to major roles, the Cardinal are looking for a major bounceback performance in front of their home crowd in order to pick up momentum before arguably their toughest test of the season at USC.
Shaw certainly feels that they’re ready to make a statement.
“I’m always in awe of our guys,” he said. “The players are so much more resilient than we give them credit for.”
However, a very understated UCF defense might prove to be a tricky obstacle to that endeavor.
The Knights have fielded a national top-15 defense in three of the last five years, including a stellar effort last season in which they allowed 299 yards per game — fifth in the nation — en route to a second consecutive AAC title.
Although UCF graduated its entire starting secondary after last season, the Knights return most of a front seven that held opponents to just 104 yards per game on the ground last season (sixth in the nation) and sacked opposing quarterbacks 36 times.
That deep front will try to keep Stanford’s offensive line and running back from establishing a steady rhythm throughout the game, which has seemingly been a key to stymieing the Cardinal offense as a whole. However, the Knights were decisively inconsistent defending the run against more talented opponents last season, a trend that the Cardinal offensive line would love to continue.
Meanwhile, fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan should have a matchup advantage against a young UCF secondary that allowed 260 passing yards to Florida International last week, particularly with Cajuste and Rector set to return to prominent roles in the Cardinal’s passing attack.
Hogan struggled with his timing and accuracy last week at times against a stiff Northwestern secondary that played sound coverage all afternoon, meaning that Saturday will likely provide him an opportunity to regain his footing and find his rhythm.
If Hogan can re-find the deadly accuracy that made him such an effective quarterback down the stretch last season, Stanford should be much-improved in arguably the most disappointing area of its offensive game last week: third downs.
“Third down offensively we were not very good, and third down defensively we were not very good,” Shaw said. “Forget about everything else; if you’re not good in those two spots, it’s hard to win a game because you don’t stay on the field long enough offensively to score points, and you don’t get the defense off the field enough for the offense to get the ball back.”
The UCF offense, meanwhile, will just try to get any semblance of a rushing attack going in order to balance out the efforts of promising quarterback Justin Holman. Although Holman has shown good accuracy and arm strength throughout his career, he has been held back by an abysmal running game that ranked among the bottom 25 in the country last season and only mustered 46 yards on 30 carries against Florida International a week ago.
For the second season in a row, UCF has expected William Stanback to be its long-term solution in the backfield, and for the second season in a row, he was replaced by Dontravious Wilson, who led the team with 34 yards on the ground. However, an injury to Wilson opened the door for Stanback to provide a disappointing performance (6 yards on 10 carries).
The lack of success on the ground has meant that opposing defenses have been able to stop the UCF run with just their front sevens for the most part, freeing up the safeties to help in pass coverage. Given that Stanford’s defense has played as well as any in the country against one-dimensional defenses, the Cardinal seem confident that their secondary can limit the Knights’ passing attack on Saturday.
“[The DBs] played well [last week],” Shaw said. “Once again, not perfect. We let a couple of things get outside of us… If we clean up a lot of things, we’ll be even better. I expect both sides of the ball to make a big improvement this week, but I expect all these new guys [in the secondary] to really improve steadily throughout the year.”
The lack of a running game is also fortuitous for Stanford’s defensive line, which is still reeling from the season-ending injury, a torn ACL during the Northwestern game, suffered by sophomore nose tackle Harrison Phillips. The Cardinal will likely play Jordan Watkins and Nate Lohn, and potentially Luke Kaumatule, in Phillips’ vacated rotation spot.
But whether it’s rebounding from a lost key contributor on the line or from a tough season-opening loss, Shaw has faith that Stanford can still persevere and play through adversity to fight its way back into the national picture.
“People forget we have a lot of guys on this team that won a Pac-12 Championship; a lot of guys on this team that won a Rose Bowl,” Shaw said. “Those guys are leaning on those experiences, because those seasons weren’t perfect. We haven’t been undefeated, but we found a way to get ourselves back after a loss and try to go on a run.”
Stanford will try to start another one of those runs in its home opener against UCF at Stanford Stadium on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and the game will be aired on Fox Sports 1.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.