Hank Waddles from the Stanford - Go Mighty Card - Blog was kind enough to do a little Q&A with us this week in advance of the game.
John - You have a new head coach this season in David Shaw. How does he differ in his coaching style compared to a Jim Harbaugh?
Hank - If we're talking about sideline demeanor, Shaw and Harbaugh couldn't be more different. Harbaugh was known to rage at officials, celebrate touchdowns by leaping into his players' arms, and celebrate wins by climbing into the stands. Shaw is much more even-tempered, though he did show some anger last week in response to a non-call on a helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in a mild concussion to wide receiver Chris Owusu. As for what you see on the field from the team, there are only subtle differences, and at least part of those changes can probably be directly attributed to the continued maturation of Andrew Luck. Shaw's been able to add a no-huddle look with Luck calling the plays, and he's also added a few other wrinkles like the occasional flea flicker, that pass to Luck, and the Sequoia formation, Stanford's version of the wildcat. The main thing, though, is that the offensive philosophy has remained the same. (This shouldn't be a surprise. Shaw was the offensive coordinator under Harbaugh.) This is a team built around the run -- they also just happen to have the best quarterback in America, which is nice.
John - You graduated three huge blocks of granite off your offensive line. How are the three new starters doing so far?
Hank - The three new starters are Sam Schwartzstein, Cameron Fleming, and David Yankey, and they've exceeded expectations. Although Luck felt a bit more pressure in the early going than he had been used to, he's only been sacked twice in six games, which is kind of ridiculous. The run blocking has also been solid, as running back Stepfan Taylor is on pace for a second consecutive thousand-yard season.
John - Are you as strong defensively this season as you were last season?
Hank - We'll obviously know more once we get into the meat of the schedule over the next four weeks with Washington, USC, and Oregon, but so far I'd say the defense has actually improved a bit over last year. Even with the loss of linebacker Shayne Skov, the defense has only allowed 11.2 points a game, and they're yet to surrender a single point in the first quarter of any game this season. The key has been the defensive line, especially Terrence Stephens and Ben Gardner. They've only allowed 59.5 yards rushing per game, good for second in the nation, and they dominate enough blocks to allow the linebackers to flow freely as they pursue the ball down (or behind) the line of scrimmage. Watch for linebacker Chase Thomas, who's probably the leading candidate for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. I'm a bit concerned about the defensive backfield this week, as they'll be playing without strong safety Delano Howell, one of the biggest hitters in the conference. Free safety Michael Thomas is a playmaker, though, so hopefully they'll be able to hold their own. We'll see.
John - Can you explain how the Stanford offense creates mismatches against opposing defenses?
Hank - It obviously starts with Andrew Luck and his complete control of the offense. I've never seen a college quarterback direct an offense as efficiently as he does, whether he's just calling an audible at the line of scrimmage or calling plays in the no-huddle package. Stanford is a run-first offense, but with Luck behind center, teams have to decide whether they're going sell out to stop the run or drop people back in coverage to defend the pass. Luck will never force anything; instead, he'll take what the defense gives him, and he almost always finds the mismatch. Also, watch for the tight ends. Coby Fleener is a freak of nature. He's 6'6" and 245 pounds, but somehow he's the third fastest player on the team. He's not the biggest tight end, though. That would be the 6'8" Levine Toilolo. Zach Ertz is a more typical tight end, but all three will see considerable playing time and there are certain packages that feature all three on the field at once. They've combined for 44 receptions, 837 yards, and 12 touchdowns through the first six games.
John - Is this the year you get the monkey off your back and beat Oregon?
Hank - For the record, the Oregon monkey has only been hanging on for a year. The last time Oregon came to Stanford in 2009, they were spanked by Toby Gerhart and company, 51-42. Oregon's speed on offense is terrifying, but I think Stanford's 3-4 scheme is a bit better than it was last year. Chase Thomas and company should be able to slow them down, and I don't think there's a defense in the country that can slow down the Stanford offense. Plus, the home field advantage will help. Yes, we'll beat them.
John - What is your prediction for Saturday's game?
Hank - This is the Cardinal's first real test this season, but I think they'll pass. Luck and the offense should be fine, and I expect that the defense will be good enough. Stanford 38, Washington 21.