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Talking Stanford with Rule of Tree - How Good are the Cardinal?

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Another week, another big-time showdown in the Pac-12 for the Huskies. This week they head down to Palo Alto to take on 5-1 Stanford, so we talked with SBN blog Rule of Tree to get to know the Cardinal better...

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We talked with Tim Eckert-Fong of SBN sister blog Rule of Tree to get to know the Cardinal better:

Q: Stanford's offense has been on a roll since the tough loss in game 1 at Northwestern.  What's been the key to this surge?

A: As you mention below, the OL has come a long way since week 1. Against NU, Stanford was anemic running and throwing the ball as the O Line was unable to create holes or give Kevin Hogan enough time to throw. Stanford also had numerous dropped passes which is disastrous when combined with the sometimes stubborn and conservative ways of David Shaw.

Since then, things have improved mightily. After a slow start against a baddddd UCF team, the line found ways to create holes for Christian McCaffrey and have been off and running since. Running is still the key to the offense and McCaffrey's emergence as a Heisman contender has forced defenses to key in on the run. This allows Stanford to focus on their other talents like tight end Austin Hooper or speedster Bryce Love. The playbook has also been opened substantially and a now dynamic Stanford team can adjust to defenses when necessary.

Q: Kevin Hogan's numbers are the best of his career.  What stands out is the big increase in yards/completion - is he throwing downfield more often?  Are his big receivers picking up more yards after the catch?

A: I think there are a few reasons for those eye popping numbers. With McCaffrey's success, defenses are putting more guys in the box allowing for more 1/1 coverage and deeper throws. The yards/completion number has also been helped by numerous underneath throws turned big gains. Stanford's backfield is now loaded with speedsters, and guys like McCaffrey and Bryce Love have turned easy throws and screens into big gains.

Against UCLA, Hogan threw the ball just 15 times. With the success of the running game, Stanford has really been able to pick and choose when to put the ball in the air. These often come in 3rd and long situations or low risk/high reward situations, both of which result in big gains if completed.

I gotta give Hogan credit as well. After a fairly rough 2014, the guy has bounced back to be extremely efficient in 2015. Hogan throws one of the prettiest and most accurate deep balls you will ever see and when given the chance to air it out, he has been flawless

Q: After a pedestrian year (by Stanford standards) from the OL last year, it appears they are once again a top-shelf unit.  Can we credit experience, or are there any other factors for their improvement?

A: I think experience plays a huge role. Going into 2014, the line returned a single starter but was loaded with talent. Likely due to much of the line not seeing a meaningful snap before 2014, the group struggled until late in the year. Fortunately for us, the majority of that line returned and has been nearly unstoppable since the opener.

Experience is definitely the key, but I'd be lying if I didn't attribute much of the success to recruiting wins. Per Rivals, each lineman was ranked in the top 5 at his position with the exception of Johnny Caspers, who has been very solid this year. Stanford also employs jumbo formation with Ogre linemen frequently, giving the offense yet another talented, highly rated blocker to help pave running lanes.

Q: Talk to me about the DL - what's the injury situation there and how is the depth?  Are the Cardinal still relying on Shittu, Scarlett and Thomas to take most of the reps?

Q: The DL is definitely a make or break point of this team. Nose tackle Harrison Philips has already gone down with an ACL tear, depleting an already shallow line. Shittu, Scarlett, and Thomas are definitely taking most of the reps and while all three are immense talents, they can't do it on their own. Nate Lohn, Jordan Watkins, and Torsten Rotto have all seen some time, but none have garnered major playing time. Stanford linebackers are helping more in the run game than they have in years previous to make up for this lack of depth, a change that's left the rest of the defense more vulnerable.

Q: Related to the above, after multiple years of big-time defensive players graduating, the Stanford defense finally appears to have taken a modest step back.  What do they do well, and where can they be exploited?

A: Stanford seems to be solid but not great at all three levels. With the explosive offense, Stanford has been fortunate to be ahead in all of their games this year, save Northwestern. These leads force opposing teams to throw the ball, which helps mitigate the lack of depth on the defensive line. If UW is able to get ahead and stay with the run game, it's possible the defensive line could be run down by game's end.

The lack of depth on the line is also forcing more help from the linebackers and safeties. Stanford's linebackers Peter Kalambayi and Blake Martinez are very capable of helping in the pass game but are spending more time in the box defending the run. This puts more pressure on the cornerbacks to play with less help and while the group is solid, it's not great. There have been a few instances of quarterbacks picking them apart as we saw to an extent last week with Josh Rosen.

Q: More than a few outside observers assumed there would be some longer-term drop-off from Harbaugh to Shaw, and last season gave some ammunition to that thought.  But Shaw has recruited at a high level and the Cardinal again appear to be in a good position to win the conference - what's your take on his ability to keep the Cardinal humming at a borderline-elite level?

Q: 2015 is a key year for Shaw's resume and in spite of a rough start, things are looking good. The biggest criticism against David previously was his conservative nature. The 2014 offense was almost the same group as the 2015 high scoring machine, but points were scarce until late in the year. Most attributed this to Shaw (and OC Mike Bloomgren)'s lack of creativity and stubborn ways. The Cardinal ran the ball at the same rates they did with Toby Gerhart and Tyler Gaffney but the team lacked a dominant line or back.

This year has been much different which bodes well for Shaw's legacy. Shaw has an offensive background, so it's great to see such a polished product on the field. The creativity on offense has created a strong team and quelled the worries many Stanford fans had about Shaw. Recruiting seems to be going better and better each year so the players are definitely in place for the Cardinal to stay a top-tier team.

I will note that Shaw will never be able to remove himself from the Harbaugh connection, and rightfully so. It can't be understated how much Harbaugh did for this program: it has become one of the most enticing places to play college football and Shaw has certainly reaped the benefits.

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Thanks again for Tim for taking the time to answer our questions, and be sure to visit Rule of Tree for all your Stanford sports needs.