Seven games into the season, the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal (6-1, 5-0 Pac-12) sit atop the division as the only team undefeated in conference play. After a series of dominant and powerful performances, there isn’t a whole lot to talk about by means of improvement, so we instead decided to take a step back and ask our football writers Neel Ramachandran, Sandip Srinivas and Vihan Lakshman about their picks for Stanford’s midseason (plus one game) MVP. For the sake of varying the discussion, we decided to take Christian McCaffrey out of the running.
Neel Ramachandran: Joshua Garnett, Senior, Left Guard
While Stanford seems to be clicking in every facet of the game, it’s the offensive production that has been truly remarkable this year, and that production stems from the men in the trenches. Senior left guard Joshua Garnett has anchored the Tunnel Workers’ Union this season and is worthy of the Cardinal’s midseason MVP honors.
The Washington native grew up less than 50 miles away from his predecessor on the Stanford offensive line, David DeCastro, who is now excelling for the Steelers. Garnett possesses the size and athleticism to do the same, if his obliteration of a Washington defender on Saturday is of any indication. Garnett was on highlight reels nationwide after the play, and through his consistent performance all season the senior has quietly emerged into one of the best run-blocking guards in the country.
Garnett is a key component in Stanford’s base running play: the power run, as the big man pulls from the back side of the formation to clear the way for whichever talented tailback Stanford chooses to employ. Without Garnett, Stanford’s run game does not average 5.04 yards per carry, and Christian McCaffrey does not find himself in the Heisman conversation. Without the run game, Kevin Hogan does not post the best stats of his career, with the fourth-highest passer efficiency rating among Power 5 conference quarterbacks.
Stanford’s explosive offense has been a joy to watch this year, but it all starts with the dirty work in the trenches, and you can thank Garnett and the rest of the unsung heroes on the offensive line for that.
Sandip Srinivas: Austin Hooper, Junior, Tight End
People might be outraged that I’m picking a player that has touched the ball just 18 times this year, and some of that outrage is probably justified. But quite frankly, I think no matter how much praise you give the junior tight end Austin Hooper, he is always worthy of more, given how well he plays. And that’s something that goes far beyond the box score.
The Stanford way has always been to groom tight ends to be strong blocking assets, and Hooper has become that and more. In the Arizona game, despite not catching a pass, Hooper laid down countless crucial blocks and helped play a part in conquering the tricky 3-3-5 base defense.
And when he has caught the ball? He’s become Kevin Hogan’s favorite receiver, leading the team in receiving touchdowns and placing second in receptions. Austin Hooper has become the Zach Ertz-type player that Hogan was looking for last year and has made the entire offense much better as a result.
Vihan Lakshman: Blake Martinez, Senior, Inside Linebacker
How about some love for the defense?
Despite losing nine starters (and really 10 if you count Kevin Anderson’s injury), Lance Anderson’s unit has remained one of the top defenses in the conference, and the beating heart of this group is the man in the middle: senior inside linebacker Blake Martinez.
Currently sitting fourth in the nation with 11.4 tackles per game, Martinez is involved on nearly every play for the Cardinal. His instincts for sniffing out offensive schemes and converging on the ball are uncanny, and, along with his leadership in organizing the defense, make him an essential cog in the Stanford engine.
When Martinez went down with an injury near the end of the first half against UCLA, Craig Jones and Jordan Perez did an admirable job of filling in. But you could tell that something intangible was missing with No. 4’s absence. Ultimately, Martinez is the spark that allows this defense to run at full-throttle, providing more value to his team than just about anybody in the country.
Contact Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu, Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu, and Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.