It will be Friday Night Lights time again this week, and its a Stanford team that already had its ups and downs this season that's coming into Reser, complete with the early lead in the Pac-12 North race.
To get an understanding of what has gone on down on the farm already this season, we got with Sean Levy with Rule of Tree, our brother SB Nation site that covers Stanford.
Here's the look at Oregon State we helped Sean put together.
Hi Sean! Thanks for taking some time our after what's been a hectic start to your season, what with this being the 3rd road trip of opening month.
BTD: We saw Stanford struggle to establish anything against Northwestern, and then come from well back to beat USC, physically dominating the Trojans in the process. Why wasn't the Cardinal ready to go in the opener? What produced such a dramatic change, even by the time Central Florida came to the Farm? Or was the morning game really that big of a factor? (Oregon State fans are certainly familiar with just how tough that trip east for an early start can be, with similar experiences at Michigan and Wisconsin in recent seasons.)
Sean: Watching the Stanford Northwestern game was hard to watch. Stanford looked atrocious and they didn't seem to make any adjustments during the game. It seemed like coach David Shaw had his game plan mapped out and he was going to stick to it no matter what happened. It wasn't like they weren't ready for Northwestern, they just didn't make the appropriate adjustments. The run game was obviously working, but Shaw was calling run plays on 1st and 2nd down when the line was getting over matched.
The reason why Stanford bounced back against UCF was because the Northwestern loss humbled them and realized that these games aren't given and they need to earn everything. I also think their turnaround was caused by playing at home. They were in a more familiar environment and also they were on their regular time. I am not saying that the time change made a huge difference in their play against Northwestern, but I am sure it was good to be home.
BTD:. In the latter part of last season, Stanford turned their season around by injecting much more tempo and spread concepts into their offense to jump start it, beginning with a highly successful introduction of the new approach against Oregon State. Most people expected that to carry over to this season, but Coach David Shaw seems to have gone back to what we were more familiar with from the Cardinal. What changed? What do you expect Stanford to do going forward, and under what circumstances?
Sean: The spread is really to set up a WR or RB in space so they can explode towards a hole or to the endzone. The thing that changed was the personnel on offense. Stanford lost its top wide receiver in Ty Montgomery so this is why they don't run it anymore. Montgomery was just an explosive asset for the Cardinal and the spread was an easy way to make sure he got the ball. Earlier in the year Shaw was calling plays to highlight Montgomery, but these plays were forced and therefore yielded poor results. That is why he switched to a more spread style offense and the reason why they changed back was because of personnel.
I expect Shaw to open up the playbook a little bit more. He is still going to run his ultra conservative pro-style system, but he will add some shotgun runs and go with the wildcat formation on occasion. In the USC game Christian McCaffrey ran some wildcat offense and Hogan sometimes handed the ball off in a read option type play. Overall Shaw is going to stay with his more conservative I-formation HB dives and his off tackle runs.
BTD: Kevin Hogan was an instant sensation as the Stanford quarterback, winning one big game after another against top flight competition. Then he seemed to come back to earth, though the issues with his father were obviously a big component in that. And then we got last Saturday night's performance at USC. Was Hogan back to his old self? And how bad is his ankle?
Sean: I'd admit that Hogan has been hit or miss throughout his career at Stanford, but last Saturday night was the Kevin Hogan Stanford fans expected him to be this whole year. He was making the right decisions, his accuracy wasn't as bad as it had been, and he played tough football. The Hogan all of America saw Saturday night wasn't the old Hogan, it was the older more experienced Hogan people expected from the start of his 2015 campaign.
His ankle is something to be concerned for the game against OSU. On Monday there were reports that Hogan is questionable for the game on Friday and that he won't practice until later this week. If he can't play on Friday, Shaw has stated that backups Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst would combine to take Hogan's spot.
4. If Hogan can't go, or can't keep going, will we see Ryan Burns or Keller Chryst? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of them?
Sean: Burns and Chryst will both play in the game if Hogan is unavailable as we began to discuss. They both are extremely inexperienced, and have combined for only a few real game snaps. Keller Chryst is the younger out of the two quarterbacks, but he has to be the most promising one.
Chryst is the early favorite (at least amongst fans) to take for Hogan. He is clearly more talented and has more tools that need to be developed. His downfall is only being the scout team quarterback and not really playing against the first stringers in practice.
Burns is the more experienced one because he has been with the team longer. He shows his knowledge of the system by going through his progressions at a rapid rate and by making better decisions on the field. His Achilles heel is that he has not started a game in three years. He might be rusty when it comes to defenses that aren't Stanford's or just being a time manager. I fully expect Burns to start, just because of his seniority, but Chryst will play more due to his superior athleticism and advanced arm skills.
BTD: Everyone expected both Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector to have huge seasons. Cajuste got nicked up in summer camp, but why haven't they been the force they have shown at times they can be? Can Stanford get them going?
Sean: This year Stanford's offense won't be focusing in on one or two receivers because they don't have that Brandin Cooks or Ty Montgomery type of receiver. What the offense has been doing this year has been spreading the ball around. I personally love this approach because it keeps the defense guessing on whom their number one option will be.
Against USC, Austin Hooper was clearly someone Coach Shaw wanted to get going and succeeded in doing so. Right now the Card's leading receiver is a true freshman running back, Bryce Love, who gets limited snaps. Their top four wide receivers are all within 50 yards of each other and this approach is kind of like the Aaron Rodger's approach. Get everyone involved and keep the defense on their toes.
BTD: What have you seen that's been most successful at slowing down Christian McCaffrey? What has been least effective for opponents to try?
Sean: Usually the most successful way a defense can slow down McCaffrey is to just completely destroy the running game in general. People saw Stanford's offensive line get completely manhandled by Northwestern and McCaffrey was limited to only 66 yards on the ground.
The most effective way to slow down McCaffrey, in general, is something that defenses can't do; David Shaw is the only one that can slow him down. Over his career McCaffey's career lows have been when he has had less than four carries. When Coach Shaw doesn't call on #5, he has been a non factor.
I know this sounds obvious, but it is true. When McCaffrey has more than five carries in a game he has averaged around 80 yards per game. Last week, Shaw fed McCaffrey 26 times for 115 yards and for his first time rushing over 100 yards in a game. Expect McCaffrey to keep getting more and more carries and designed plays, until someone can physically dominate the Cardinal in the trenches.
BTD: Do you trust the Stanford defense? How deep and healthy (that was a HUGE issue last spring, and to a degree during camp) are they?
Sean: The first game of the season there was a season injury to DE Harrison Phillips, and that was a huge blow to an already depleted defensive line. He was the only injury that has happened this current regular season, but they can't afford anymore on the line.
They are so shallow (and when I say "very shallow" I mean a puddle not even deep enough to get your feet inside some chacos wet) that some of their starters are also backups to other positions. Do I feel confident in this defense? That is a tough question because they gave up over 300 yards to USC, but barely any to UCF. They have faced two extremes of a great offense and a poor one, in doing so they have performed as people had expected. I am impressed by the way they only gave up 31 points to one of the more complete offenses.
BTD: (Thankfully), we will be spared a visit from the Leland Stanford Jr. Marching Band Friday night. Does their absence as a disruption to the opponents' sensibilities make matters tougher for the Cardinal? Or are they as concentration disrupting for your guys as they are everyone else?
Sean: I think their absence is a travesty to Stanford. Their enthusiasm for football and their dedication to winning is unrivaled. I consider them as the "Best Damn Band in the Land" because of their constant effort to give Stanford the upper hand. Their absence will definitely be missed by the football players because if opposing teams can't communicate clearly with their teammates or their coaches then that gives the Cardinal a huge advantage in their home or away games.
BTD: What's your prediction of what will happen Friday night? Remember, we don't have Coach Riley around to get out-coached by Coach Shaw anymore. [I still haven't forgotten the last visit by the Cardinal 2 years ago, where Stanford made Oregon State pay dearly for every game management mistake they made, or last year's total surprise of a Cardinal game plan that evoked no adjustments whatsoever from a shocked coaching staff.
Sean: My predication for the Friday Night Lights game all depends on who is starting for Stanford. If Hogan starts and is fine, health wise, I can see Stanford winning 45-21. If Hogan is not healthy, but still comes in to play then I can see the game being much closer. They would need to rely heavily on the run game and that being Oregon State's defensive strong suit, expect Stanford to struggle early. The more likely scenario is that Chryst and Burns play. In this case Stanford will still win, but it will be a close game and David Shaw will resort to his old conservative ways.
Thanks again Sean, lots of interesting insight we haven't usually gotten into Stanford.
Be sure to keep checking in at Rule of Tree for the latest as game day approaches.