One of the elite Stanford beat writers gives us a terrific look at the Cardinal from the inside out. Hank Waddles was born in Detroit but grew up in California and has been following Stanford football since arriving on campus as a student in the fall of 1987. He's been writing about the team at GoMightyCard.com since 2010.
We asked him and he obliged with some great bullet point analysis of the Cardinal!
1. There's a definite divide in the fanbase here. Even though it was only seven years ago that Stanford was one of the worst teams in college football, there are some who look at this season as a missed opportunity, or even as a failure. If the team had avoided that awful loss to Utah and the surprising defeat at the hands of USC, the Cardinal would've been in the national championship picture and would probably playing next week instead of this week in Pasadena. But no season that ends in the Rose Bowl can ever be seen as a disappointment, and I think people have realized that. Stanford fans are definitely looking forward to the game, and even though I'm sure the Spartan fans will fill more of the stands than Badger fans did last year, I'll still be stunned if the stadium is 75% green.
2. This is the best defense in the Pac-12, and almost certainly the best defense in Stanford history. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason (soon to be a hot NFL candidate, unfortunately) employs a 3-4 scheme and preaches the importance of his "top down" philosophy. This means that the defensive backs are coached to keep everything in front of them in order to eliminate big plays. (This is how Stanford has finally gotten the upper hand on Oregon.) As a result, the defensive backs, especially safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards and cornerback Alex Carter, are amongst the heaviest hitters and surest tacklers in the nation. Carter is the top cover corner, but he also does a great job supporting the run. The strength of the defense, though, is the front seven, led by inside linebacker Shayne Skov. From everything I've read about Michigan State's Max Bullough, it appears that he does everything for the Spartans that Skov does for the Cardinal. He has an uncanny ability to time snap counts and often appears to be in the backfield before the quarterback is out from under the center. Beyond his impact on the field, he is the emotional leader of the team. In short, he's our Max Bullough. The defensive line is the key to Stanford's outstanding run defense. Henry Anderson, Josh Mauro, and David Parry do a great job absorbing blocks to allow the linebackers to make plays, and make plays they do. Because the line is so strong, Stanford ranks near the bottom of the nation in blitz frequency, but the 3-4 scheme allows them to send their rushers from different spots to keep the offensive line guessing. Without question, this is a championship quality defense.
3. Skov gets much of the publicity, probably because he's been great for four years, but Trent Murphy has actually been a more productive player this year and should've been the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. A consensus All-America at outside linebacker, Murphy led the nation in sacks and was close to the top in tackles for loss. He's a freakish athlete who uses his speed and strength to get to the quarterback, but he's also smart enough and agile enough to back out of his pass rush to defend screens and swat passes out of the air. In fact, both last year and this year he came up with pick sixes by knocking down a pass at the line, recovering to gather it in, and racing untouched to the end zone. He's a force of nature.
4. Kevin Hogan is one of the more perplexing players in recent Stanford history. When he took over in the ninth game last season, he changed everything about the Stanford offense and eventually propelled the team to a surprising Rose Bowl berth and victory. Because of that stunning run, expectations were high for him this year, probably too high. Part of the problem is that the memory of Andrew Luck is still too fresh, and Stanford fans still expect our quarterback to convert every third down, hit every open receiver, and always check into the correct play. Hogan doesn't always do all those things, so some have wondered if perhaps the coaches should look farther down the depth chart next season. This is nonsense. Hogan does most things really well, and even though you can expect him to make one or two big mistakes in every game, he does enough to counter act those errors. He's a good enough passer to make teams pay for stacking the box, and he's recently gotten much better at the read-option, something I think we'll see a lot of against the Spartans. Kevin Hogan isn't Andrew Luck, but who is?
5. Hogan's top target is definitely Ty Montgomery. Montgomery arrived three years ago with lots of hype, and this is the year that it's all come together for him. Here's what I wrote about him last week in my season review:
He is the one player on the offense that opposing defenses must account for on every play, and the coaching staff has taken advantage of this by moving him around. He's usually split out wide or nestled in the slot, but at least three or four times a game he'll line up alongside Hogan in the backfield. Montgomery has become a dangerous runner this season, either on a sweep directly out of the backfield or on a jet sweep from the typical alignment, accounting for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
As a receiver, Montgomery can be whatever the down and distance calls for. On 3rd and 5 he's fast enough to sell the defender on the deep threat before breaking back for a seven-yard gain, but he's also strong enough to run a simple slant across the middle. (His strength also makes him an excellent downfield blocker.) On earlier downs he's benefitted greatly from the Cardinal's play action game, but he's also been good enough to get open on his own, and he and Keving Hogan appear to have developed the connection often seen between a quarterback and his top receiver. When Hogan sees Montgomery with single coverage, he sees him as open and trusts that his receiver will be able to make the play to get the ball. More often than not this season, Montgomery has done just that.
One of the things that I look forward to on game day is watching Montgomery go against Darqueze Dennard. Aside from Montgomery, Hogan will also look to Devon Cajuste, a large-bodied receiver who will work over the middle like a tight end, and the speedy Michael Rector.
6. If there's one Stanford player who's gotten a lot of press in the lead up to the Rose Bowl, it's running back Tyler Gaffney. After taking a year off from football to play minor league baseball, Gaffney returned to Stanford this summer and the expectation was that he'd provide depth in the backfield. Instead, he turned in one of the greatest single seasons of any running back in school history. Yes, he benefits from running behind one of the best offensive lines in the country, but he's a tough runner between the tackles and often turns what should be three-yard gains into five or ten yards, simply based on his own effort. He's not a home run threat, but I think that's more because of the design of the Stanford running game and the way teams are forced to defend it. Gaffney rarely comes around the edge, so even if the offensive line opens a gaping hole from him, he's always faced with the second and third levels of the opposing defense. When the running game is going well, Gaffney is picking up yards in ten- and fifteen-yard chunks. He's also a workhorse, and the coaches aren't afraid to ride him hard, even when it appears the rushing attack isn't working, with the idea that three-yard gains in the first quarter will be eight-yard gains in the fourth as the defense begins to wear down. I think we can look for at least 35 carries from Gaffney on January 1st.
7. Stanford special teams have been tremendous this season, and much of that credit goes to special teams coach Pete Alamar. David Shaw has long believed that the best eleven players for a particular situation or play should be on the field, and that has trickled into special teams where several marquee players play prominent roles in both kick return and kick coverage. Ty Montgomery was a consensus All-America as a kick returner, and he's usually good for at least one big return per game. There have been some question marks surrounding the kicking game, however, as place kicker Jordan Williamson has been battling an injury throughout the second half of the season, but reports are that he should be completely healthy on New Year's Day. Overall, if the offenses and defenses of these two teams cancel each other out, Stanford's special teams will tip the scales in favor of the Cardinal.
8. It's an interesting thing. Once a team begins to enjoy a certain level of success, there will be people who begin to question the head coach. Jim Harbaugh was perhaps the only person on the planet capable of reviving Stanford football, but I don't think anyone connected with the program expected that he would stay any longer than he did. David Shaw, then, was probably the perfect person to take the program to the next level and maintain that success. Even so, there some who wonder if he's the right man for the job. They site personnel decisions (playing Josh Nunes ahead of Kevin Hogan last year) and play calling tendencies (getting away from the run against Utah and USC), but the bottom line is this -- in his three years, Stanford has lost a total of six games, played in three BCS bowl games, and won two Pac-12 championships. We're lucky to have him, and the hope is that he'll stick around for a while. Beyond Shaw, defensive coordinator Derek Mason is a rising star; if he returns after this season, next year will likely be his last on the Farm before he takes a coordinator position in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren was promoted to the position after Pep Hamilton left for the Indianapolis Colts last season, so he should be there for at least a few years. Like most of the top programs around the country, Stanford has become a destination job for head coaches and a great place to build a resume for assistant coaches.
9. I have complete faith in the Stanford defense. Good offenses have typically had some success early on, but the defensive coaching staff has done a great job making adjustments and limiting teams in the second half. I expect more of the same. As for the offense, I'm really looking forward to seeing how they respond to the challenge of the Spartan defense. I think Gaffney will get his hundred yards, but the key will be Kevin Hogan. I think we'll see heavy doses of the read option, and he could have forty or fifty yards rushing himself, which will help to open up the rest of the playbook. I'll say Stanford 24, Michigan State 13.