By Kit Ramgopal
Stanford football escaped South Bend, Indiana, with a nail-biting victory over the Fighting Irish on Saturday, where Stanford’s defense recovered from the past two weeks, keeping Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer without a passing touchdown. Looking forward, Stanford’s troubles still loom ahead, as the Cardinal will play host to the highly talented Colorado Buffaloes who come to the Farm after their deconstruction of Arizona State in Tempe. Desk editor Kit Ramgopal, senior staff writer Do-Hyoung Park and COO Andrew Mather discuss things to watch and key matchups in this upcoming test for Stanford.
After getting upset by the USC Trojans, the Buffs went on a tear offensively against the Arizona State Sun Devils, rushing for 315 yards and ending the day with 580 yards of total offense. What do you think will be the key for this Stanford defense in order to at least halt this steamrolling Colorado offense?
Kit Ramgopal (KR): Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau can hit his targets, and he’s got a lot to choose from. Defensively, the Cardinal have got to keep an eye out for wide receiver duo Bryce Bobo and Devin Ross, who have continued to come through for the Buffaloes in high pressure moments this season. However, mid-season standout statistics for the Colorado offense have been on the ground recently. Tailback Phillip Lindsay just tallied 26 carries for 219 yards against Arizona State, including three breaks into the end zone and a 75-yard touchdown run. Granted, these stats are the exceptional outliers amidst an otherwise strong season for Lindsay, but they’re worth noting especially because Arizona State’s rush defense was fifth in the nation before its clash against Colorado. ASU head coach, Todd Graham, even went as far as telling reporters post game that Colorado “ran the ball unlike anyone has ever run it the whole time I’ve been at Arizona state.” Colorado’s offensive coordinators have a strong hand of cards, and their consistently unpredictable strategies have defied football analysts throughout the season so far.
Aggression from the Cardinal defense made all the difference in Stanford’s win against Notre Dame, holding the Fighting Irish to a low-scoring 17-10 loss with no points in the second half. Sophomore cornerback Quenton Meeks returned from injury for a 50-yard pick-six in addition to a third-quarter safety, while defensive lineman Solomon Thomas tallied 12 tackles, 10 of them solo. The big change last week was that the Cardinal upped the pressure on third-down conversions, which halted a 10-0 Notre Dame lead at halftime to give the Stanford offense some crucial gifts in the second half. IF the Stanford defense channels its aggression and dominates the trenches in addition to ending drives on crucial third down plays, then the Cardinal might have a chance to slow down this overpowering Colorado offense. Rest assured, Stanford’s offense needs all the cushioning it can get against Colorado, especially while Christian McCaffrey looks questionable for Saturday.
Do-Hyoung Park (DHP): For me, the biggest key on defense is winning third downs. After finishing in the national top 50 in opposing third down conversion percentage for six straight years during 2010-15, the Cardinal have plummeted to a stunning 105th this season, allowing opponents to convert on 45.8 percent of their third-down opportunities. Whether it was by losing the battle at the line of scrimmage or losing contain on the quarterback, Stanford looked lost on third downs against Washington but made marked improvements against both Washington State and Notre Dame, at least in part due to the return of cornerback Quenton Meeks to provide tighter coverage and the resurgence of the team’s pass rush.
Stanford needs to see those positive trends continue against the Buffaloes, who rank third in the conference in third-down conversions thanks in part to breakout seasons from wide receivers Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo filling in for the loss of standout receiver Nelson Spruce to graduation. Key to that will be continuing to dial up blitzes against quarterback Sefo Liufau, who will make his second start since his return from injury and thus might not be as comfortable in the pocket as other quarterbacks would be at this point in the season, and taking advantage of good coverage from Meeks and Frank Buncom on the back end. Since the Stanford offense is scuffling, they’re going to need as many opportunities as they can get — and that involves the defense getting off the field.
Andrew Mather (AM): I feel weird saying this, but I really don’t think that stopping Colorado in a sustained manner with Liufau at quarterback is within the realm of possibility. Heck, the Buffaloes were tearing through Michigan’s defense before Liufau got injured, a unit that is by basically every metric the best in the nation. Even with a few players back on the roster and a little bit of momentum under its feet, I think about the best that the Cardinal defense can hope for is to make some big plays and try to shift the momentum of the game in its favor. Only if Meeks, Thomas and the rest of Stanford players hit their full potential will the Buffaloes start seriously having trouble moving the ball on Saturday.
Buffs running back Phillip Lindsay had a monster of a game last weekend against ASU, posting his first 20-plus rushing attempts this season along with 239 total yards on the night. With star running back Christian McCaffrey looking doubtful for this upcoming game, will Bryce Love and the Tunnel Workers Union be able to outrun their conference rivals, or will Lindsay’s over-performance in Tempe continue at the Farm?
KR: Lindsay’s tough, but he’s not unstoppable. Last weekend’s game was arguably the best performance of his career — it’s the first time he’s had more than 20 carries in a game and the first time he’s run for more than 100 yards since September 2015. That’s not to say that Lindsay’s hot streak won’t continue into this weekend, of course. No one is arguing that Stanford defense won’t have its hands full if it’s going to stifle Colorado’s running game. However, I do believe Lindsay is not categorically unstoppable in the same way that Christian McCaffrey tends to be.
However, there’s no certainty of McCaffrey to parallel Lindsay this week. Instead, the focus is on sophomore Bryce Love, who enjoyed his first career start against Notre Dame. Love is one of my favorite players to watch on Stanford football, and I’m excited to see how he adapts to step into McCaffrey’s vacuum. Love displayed new level of field confidence against Notre Dame, showing increased ability to read the defense as a result of consistent field time. While McCaffrey hits (and probably defines) the gold standard for the college football running game, Bryce Love certainly has the skill to be the spark plug for the Stanford offense in his absence. His mix of physicality and speed allows him to run through tackles and push the pile with strength wildly disproportional to his size. Meanwhile, consistent field time helps him to read routes, find a rhythm and take on more hybrid roles. However, Bryce Love’s talent will be lost against Colorado if the offensive line does not pull through. The Buffaloes defense are allowing 314.1 yards per game, the 15th fewest in the country. After getting embarrassed by McCaffrey last year, the Buffaloes have an eye on Stanford’s running game. They’re not ready to let a younger, less prominent running back repeat history.
DHP: Stanford’s defense is really hard to get a read on right now. It got pushed around against Washington and Washington State, but were the heart and soul of the victory over Notre Dame last week — against some really strong Notre Dame offensive talent, at that. My sneaking suspicion is that a defensive line anchored by Solomon Thomas isn’t going to be down for long, and I expect Lindsay and the Buffs having a surprisingly difficult time running the ball against Stanford’s front seven. That said, stopping both Lindsay and Sefo Liufau is a completely different animal, and as strange as it is to say, Colorado might present the most well-rounded offensive attack that the Cardinal will face this season — and stopping Lindsay will be key to holding up.
That said, I think an energized Stanford secondary, bolstered by the return of Justin Reid for a full game, will continue to cover well (they weren’t exactly covering all too badly in the absence of Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks, either) and present a stiffer challenge than Liufau and company are expecting. The Stanford offense actually moved the ball reasonably well against Notre Dame and Washington State, too, but was just done in by some costly mistakes, like fumbles and missed field goals. I’m expecting another big game from Bryce Love, who really showed his potential on Saturday, and improvement in the red zone from Ryan Burns and the offensive line, which finally seem to be coming together after a long stretch of mediocrity.
AM: I don’t think Lindsay’s as versatile of a back as Love or McCaffrey, but it does seem that this year he’s got a much better front to run behind. Colorado’s year-over-year improvement in basically every position group is honestly pretty staggering, and its offensive line is no exception. Lindsay basically went untouched through a lot of the holes that this group opened up against an Arizona State run defense that was at least nominally one of the better statistical units in the country, and Stanford’s front seven is going to have to show a lot of life just to keep their team competitive in terms of yards gained on the ground.
As for establishing the run for themselves, I think the best thing that could happen for the Cardinal is to see some improvement from quarterback Ryan Burns. Colorado’s cornerbacks are good to a point that they’re really not going to need a lot of help on the outside, so I expect to see the Buffaloes really stack the box against whomever starts in the backfield for Stanford. If Burns can utilize his talented receiving corps to force Colorado to back off a bit then I think the Cardinal might really be able to get things going — if he can’t, Saturday could be another long afternoon for the Stanford offense.
Contact Kit Ramgopal at kramgopa ‘at’ stanford.edu, Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.