If you can recall Arizona State's first meeting with Stanford, it's probably safe to say the Sun Devils still have plenty to learn about Cardinal football.
In preparation of the Pac-12 Championship, we brought in Jack Blanchat, Jacob Jaffe and Darius Tahir of Rule of Tree and Hank Waddle of Go Mighty Card for a comprehensive Q&A.
Below is the first installment:
Q: What are some things you've learned about this Cardinal football team since Stanford and Arizona State last met?
Jack Blanchat: I think the thing I've learned is that the Cardinal isn't quite as explosive or as dangerous - particularly on the road - as I initially thought. Week 4 is now quite a long time ago, and the Stanford offense hasn't been overwhelming in about 6 weeks now (Cal game excluded). The defense has played good football all year long, but the Stanford offense has been only so-so, and often very bad on the road.
Jacob Jaffe: The Stanford offense is not nearly as reliable as expected, so seemingly every game comes down to the wire. The Cardinal scored four offensive touchdowns in the first half alone against ASU, but has managed four offensive touchdowns in just one of its last eight games.
Darius Tahir: Offensively, Stanford's changed its tune a bit: against ASU carries split evenly between Gaffney and Wilkerson. But Gaffney has gained strength while Wilkerson has stagnated, so you might well see 30 or even 40 carries from Gaffney. We've learned that Hogan is very erratic, especially on the road. It's possible he might put things together for the Pac-12 championship game -- he's got a pretty solid record against good teams -- especially if the coaches choose to run him more frequently, which they tend to do against stronger teams.
The defense is the defense. Nothing was learned, nothing needs to be said.
Special teams were a big edge against ASU. While they're still very good, they've regressed to the mean a bit. Additionally, Jordan Williamson is injured and doesn't handle kickoffs anymore, which makes the kickoff return coverage a smidge worse.
Hank Waddles: It's definitely been an interesting season, and the biggest revelations have been Tyler Gaffney and Kevin Hogan. When Gaffney decided to return from his year playing minor league baseball, I think the general feeling was that he'd add some depth to the position, but not much more than that. We expected to see a platoon of running backs sharing the load, but instead Gaffney emerged to have one of the best season's by any running back in Stanford history. His numbers sit comfortably alongside anything accomplished by Darin Nelson, Tommy Vardell, Toby Gerhart, or Stepfan Taylor -- the Mt. Rushmore of Stanford running backs.
As for Hogan, the revelation hasn't been positive. After he invigorated the offense last season and led the team to the Rose Bowl, I think he was almost universally expected to make a great leap over the off season and emerge as one of the conference's best quarterbacks. That clearly hasn't happened. Although he's been much better over the past few games, when he's been at his best he's been a game-manager who doesn't make big mistakes (disregarding his downfield success against Cal, one of the worst defenses you'll ever see), and that wasn't what we expected. Even so, he just might lead the Cardinal to another Rose Bowl.
Q: In Stanford's last three road games, the team is averaging 19.3 points per game, more than 13 points less than their season average. Can you shed some light onto this? Is the offense just falling off at the wrong time?
JB: Most of that is missing red zone opportunities. The Cardinal missed a field goal and failed to score at the end of regulation in the Utah game and missed several field goals and threw a pick in the red zone against USC, so that's the main thing that's depressing those numbers on the road. Simply put, Stanford has to do a better job of turning possessions into points, especially when the defense gives them a short field.
JJ: On the road is where you need solid quarterback play, and Kevin Hogan just has not stepped up his play this season. In crucial situations - third downs and red zone trips - Stanford doesn't seem to know what to do, and those areas had been the Cardinal's bread and butter over the past few years.
DT: It's a variety of factors. Hogan's play drops off the cliff on the road. The offensive line, for whatever reason, is not quite as effective. Then there are some strange one-off factors. Against Utah and Oregon State the Stanford offense lost four fumbles and recovered none (if I recall correctly). That's probably poor luck, and certainly costs the team some points. Against USC Ty Montgomery decided to leave his hands in his travel bag. Play-calling is blamed too often, but there's no question Stanford went too far away from the run against Oregon State. It's a wicked problem, and I'm not sure there's a good explanation for it. I suppose a dramatic outlier is possible.
HW: The Cardinal has definitely been weaker on the road. The odd thing about that is that Hogan played so well on the road last year. His first sustained action was at Colorado, he then did a good job in his first road start at Cal, and he was instrumental in the big road win over Oregon. Stanford's road troubles are most glaring when they get into the red zone, but it's hard to know if that's simply coincidence. I wish had a deeper answer, but it's all really quite mysterious.
Q: Stanford had no trouble marching down the field the last time these two teams met. Do you think the Cardinal will have similar success Saturday or are there any particular matchup concerns you're worried about? (Offensively speaking)
JB: I think Stanford should largely be able to move the football, but I am concerned a bit about the passing game. It sputtered out a little bit in the second half against Notre Dame, but I don't see any reason why the Cardinal shouldn't move the ball a little bit. Perhaps not at the same pace as the last meeting, but I don't see this run game being shut down.
JJ: I don't know that Stanford will match its output from the first meeting, but the offense can succeed if there is some semblance of balance. If Hogan has early success through the air (as he did in the first meeting with two early TD passes), it takes some of the load off Tyler Gaffney's shoulders. The Cardinal offense loves pounding the power run late in games, but that only works when there has been some variety early in the game.
DT: Who knows? I think a lot is dependent ocn the ASU gameplan, which was solid at stopping Stanford's base power running game, at the cost of a lot of their other defense. As I recall, Stanford was very effective using its aggressiveness against it -- with screens, reverses, etc. I'm not sure you can use the same trick twice. On the other hand, if that trick dulls the Devil's effectiveness even a bit, it helps with the power running game -- and maybe it's an overly casual impression, but it seems to me ASU has some trouble defensively against power running teams.
HW: My biggest concern continues to be Kevin Hogan. As Stanford fans, we were terribly spoiled by Andrew Luck, and most of us understood it. It wasn't just that he was so physically gifted; the biggest thing was that he almost always made the right decision. He knew which plays to check out of, he understood when to force a pass and when to throw it away, and he understood when to stay in the pocket and when to tuck it and run. Hogan is still learning all this. I've come to accept that at least once or twice a game he will make a potentially game-altering decision by throwing a ball that should never be thrown. So my biggest worry for Saturday's game is that Hogan might make one of those poor decisions at exactly the wrong time.