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Q & A with Rule of Tree: Talking Stanford Cardinal Football

We reached out to the Stanford SBN blog to learn more about the Cardinal football program... and that puzzling tree mascot

Earlier this week we talked with Matt Vassar (@CardinalVassar), editor for the SBN blog Rule of Tree regarding this week’s matchup with Stanford.

Here's what we learned in our Q&A:

UWDP: Ryan Burns hasn’t been overly impressive in Stanford’s first three games. Burns has definitely struggled with accuracy, but did engineer the game winning TD drive last week. How close are fans to wanting a change to QB Keller Chryst? More importantly, how long is David Shaw’s leash with Burns?

Matt: Truthfully, I haven't heard anybody calling for Burns to be replaced as starting QB.

Burns started off the season going a perfect 10-for-10 and, as you mentioned, his most recent drive was nothing short of brilliant. After Stanford trailed for nearly the entire game, he put together a near-perfect two-minute drill that found JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the end zone for the game winner with only 24 seconds to spare.

And did I mention that he did this playing on the road. In the Rose Bowl. For his first career road game.

But you're right that what's happened between Burns' first ten passes and his most recent drive hasn't always been pretty. Even so, his adjusted QBR (ESPN) across the first three games is 72.9, which is slightly higher than Kevin Hogan's in 2012, the same year that Stanford won the Rose Bowl for the first time in 41 years.

UWDP: Stanford (aka Tight End U) always seems to have a wealth of 6-6, 250 lb bookends at the TE position who catch a ton of balls and score touchdowns. So far in 2016, Greg Taboada and Dalton Schultz have combined for only five grabs and have yet to find the end zone. Are these two not up to par with their predecessors, or is it really more a product of the limited passing attempts and quarterback struggles?

Matt: Part of it is that Greg Taboada has been out since the season opener against Kansas State, and is questionable against Washington. If we account for Taboada's absence, I don't think we're seeing all that much of a reduction in targets to tight ends; thus far, tight ends are responsible for 5 out of 38 receptions (13%), compared to last year's 49 out of 213 receptions (23%). I'd say that Taboada's absence would account for most of the reduction that we've observed.

UWDP: Death, taxes, and Stanford will have a dominating O-Line and D-Line. True again in 2016?

Matt: From my perspective, the offensive line isn't quite there yet. Don't get me wrong; they've been very good at opening up holes for Christian McCaffrey on running plays, but I haven't yet seen them protect the quarterback at the level of past offensive line units. Last Saturday, UCLA sacked Burns twice. Before that? UCLA hadn't sacked a Stanford quarterback since 2012.

The defensive line, on the other hand, has come better than advertised. DL Solomon Thomas was just named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. And the entire defensive line currently averaging four sacks per game is just insane. This is definitely the Party in the Backfield that Stanford was once--and is now again--known for.

UWDP: How would you rate the special teams and the Cardinal kicking game? Any good return men? Yep, we made you wait this long to gush about #5.

Matt: Wait. Stanford has somebody noteworthy on special teams?

Ah, you must be talking about punter Jake Bailey, who has downed seven of his ten punts inside the 20 yard-line and three of them inside the five.

No? Oh, I got it now! You're talking about kicker Conrad Ukropina, who has the school record for highest field goal percentage (86.7%), having made his last ten field goals in a row. Last year he was also a Lou Groza semi-finalist for best kicker in the country.

That was who you meant, right? Right. Nailed it.

Oh, and by the way, Christian McCaffrey also can be found fielding punts and returns. In the game against UCLA, he just surpassed Ty Montgomery for Stanford's fourth-place leader in career all-purpose yards. And being only 95 yards off of third-place Troy Walters, it seems likely that he'll move further up the record book in the game against Washington.

UWDP: DBs Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks both went down with injuries in the UCLA game. What is their status for the game? Any other injury concerns for Stanford?

Matt: Both of Stanford's starting corners will be out against Washington. The game against UCLA was absolutely brutal from an injury perspective, and Stanford lost four starters in that one game alone (the other two are WR Francis Owusu and FB Daniel Marx). All four are expected to miss the game against Washington; additionally, both TE Greg Taboada and OG Brandon Fanaika are questionable.

These are pretty significant injuries on both sides of the ball. Losing both starting corners will make it harder to keep up with Washington's explosive WR corp, which of course includes Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, but also includes one of the fastest deep threats in the conference, John Ross. On the other side of the ball, losing Francis Owusu along with three potential blockers for McCaffrey is also worrisome.

UWDP: With both teams ranked in the top 10 and Washington playing in front of a fired up capacity crowd, what are the Tree faithful’s expectations for Friday night? Any change in the difficulty of this game from Stanford’s perspective after UW’s struggles with Arizona a week ago?

Matt: Most fans I've encountered seem very optimistic about the game. I'll confess that I'm not as optimistic, and really do think this game can go either way (even after UW's game against Arizona).

Road games have been the Achilles' heel for Stanford in recent years, with Stanford's national title hopes derailed by road losses (2015 Northwestern, 2013 Utah, and--yes--2012 Washington).

Here's a crazy fact: as good as Christian McCaffrey has been, he's still never scored a touchdown on the road. And as you mentioned previously, up until the final two or so minutes, we saw Ryan Burns struggle in his first road appearance, too.

So, yes, there is reason for the Stanford faithful to be concerned about playing in front of a fired-up crowd at Alaska Airlines Field against a very talented Huskies' team.

UWDP: What is your prediction for this game?

Matt: Gosh, can I just go 21-21 for my final game score prediction? No? Okay, I'm going to play homer and say Stanford 24, Washington 21.

UWDP: Finally, what the %$@# is up with the tree mascot?

Stanford's mascot was once the Indian. In 1972, however, the university dropped the mascot in response to objections from Native American students.

At that point, Stanford had no official mascot (which is still true to this day), and Stanford was subsequently known as the Cardinal, which refers to the school color. Without a mascot, though, the Stanford Band pounced and put on a halftime show facetiously suggesting a bunch of new mascots, including: the Steaming Manhole, the French Fry, and the Tree. (Why the tree? Because the city nearest Stanford is called Palo Alto, which literally translates as "Tall Tree." Portola camped underneath El Palo Alto before he discovered the San Francisco Bay. El Palo Alto was subsequently used as a landmark to guide other pioneers to the newly-discovered San Francisco Bay, and El Palo Alto itself still stands to this day. It is California Historical Landmark No. 2).

But I digress: The Band's version of The Tree got so much positive attention that they reprieved the ridiculous mascot and it eventually became a permanent fixture of the Stanford Band. Nowadays, each year the Band selects a new Tree, during what they call "Tree Week." Students who audition for The Tree do outrageous public stunts on campus, and the current tree selects a successor based on who entertained him/her the most with the stunts.

Incidentally, you may have noticed that every year The Tree looks different; this is because the current tree is responsible for designing his/her own costume.

UWDP: Well, now we know.

Thanks Matt and good luck (kind of) to the Stanford Cardinal Friday night.