By Matthew E. Milliken
There’s no doubt about it: Saturday’s 26-10 loss at Arizona State was a demoralizing defeat for Stanford football. The team hadn’t lost a game by more than four points since a 53-30 blowout home loss to the Oregon Ducks on Nov. 12, 2011.
That matchup was a battle of top 10 teams — Oregon was ranked third, and Stanford, which was led by all-world quarterback Andrew Luck, was sixth. How far the Farm gridders have fallen since then. Entering the ASU game, Stanford was ranked 25th. After the loss in the desert, voters rightly dropped the Cardinal (now 4-3 overall, 2-2 in conference) out of the Top 25.
That ended a school-record streak of 72 weeks of having been ranked by Associated Press voters. The string started in September 2010 after the Cardinal opened its glorious Orange Bowl season with a 52-17 blowout win over Sacramento State. Stanford, which went 12-1 that year, scored 31 or more points in every game that year except for a 17-13 win at…Arizona State.
Stanford is still capable of scoring more than 30 points these days. Unfortunately, it can’t rack up that kind of offense against decent opponents. Against lesser foes this year, the Cardinal is 3-0, having won 45-0 over U.C. Davis, 35-0 over Army and 34-17 over hapless Washington State.
But the team is just 1-3 in 2014 when facing a quality squad. There’s been the 13-10 home loss to USC, the 20-13 road win at the University of Washington, the 17-14 loss at Notre Dame and now this 26-10 humiliation at ASU.
The Cardinal defense is still excellent, ranking second nationally in points allowed (12.3 per game) and total defense (255 yards/game) even after the ASU debacle. But it’s increasingly clear that the defenders can’t cover for the anemic offense. It certainly isn’t able to lead the team to victory when both the offense and the special teams units are playing mistake-prone football, as happened last weekend.
It’s obvious that the Cardinal must revive its rushing attack, which accumulated only 76 yards in the ASU game (and an appalling five yards before intermission). The passing attack under Kevin Hogan is adequate, if barely so: The senior was 19 for 39 on Saturday with 212 yards; on the season, including a smattering of play by backups in blowouts, Stanford averages 235 yards a game, which is 63rd out of 125 teams.
It’s frustrating to see Hogan stare down receivers, as he seems to do constantly, and to watch him throw off-target passes, as he seems to do at least once every three times, if not more frequently.
But the running game, or lack thereof, is what truly seems to be crippling Stanford’s offense. It averages 140 yards per game, good for 92nd nationally. (And remember: Those numbers include rushing totals from the romps over Davis and Army.) Without a running game, Stanford is one-dimensional — arguably one-half-dimensional, given Hogan’s ever-more-apparent limitations — which is why the team is converting only 38.2 percent of its third-down opportunities (NCAA rank: 85th).
Reviving the running game is going to be a tall order. Even if Shaw finally abandons his commitment to relentlessly rotating running backs, the team still has an offensive line that appears to be much more comfortable pass blocking than run-blocking.
About that rotation. Remound Wright racked up 40 yards on nine rushes for a respectable average of 4.4 yards per carry. But the only other running back to get more than two touches was Barry J. Sanders (four carries, 17 yards). Fullback Patrick Skov had two carries; Kelsey Young, Ricky Seale and Christian McCaffrey had one carry apiece. (McCaffrey was the only running back to make a catch — once, for five yards.)
Unfortunately, one of the two times Hogan was sacked was evidently due to poor blocking by Sanders. Some Cardinal tweeters noted that that kind of performance is why Sanders doesn’t play more.
Like I said, revamping the running game, and the rest of the offense, will be no small feat.
The last time Stanford had three regular-season losses, the team was stumbling to an exhilarating 8-5 Sun Bowl campaign in 2009, which was Jim Harbaugh’s third year. This year, Shaw’s fourth season, a 6-6 regular season record now seems more likely than not. That would be a huge disappointment given the caliber of the defense, the quality of players Shaw has purportedly recruited, and the potential (and past accomplishments) of the offense’s skill players.
Shaw and his staff must step up — must find an effective set of changes somehow, some way. I’ve defended Shaw before, but now I wonder: Will he be able to do it?
The results of the next few weeks will be very very telling. And not just for the team.
Ever since the finish of Shaw’s first season in 2011-12, when the coach made some questionable decisions at the end of the Fiesta Bowl loss (and Luck’s final game as a Cardinal), fans have groused about Shaw’s in-game decision-making. For much of the past three seasons — the post-Luck era — there’s been grumbling about his management of the offense.
While Shaw has been very successful, some of the complaints have been justified. Still, I think the expression of unhappiness is a bit exaggerated, given that in Shaw’s first three seasons as head coach, the team went 23-4 — a winning percentage of 85.2 percent — with two conference championships and three major bowl appearances. (With one bowl victory.)
This is all my roundabout way of leading up to this challenge to Cardinal Nation: Don’t be a fair-weather fans. If you don’t endure the hardship of supporting the team in bad times, you don’t deserve the reward of supporting it in good ones. It’s OK to be disappointed with mediocre to poor play, it’s OK to criticize the coaching staff and it’s OK to criticize the players (within reason).
But it’s not all right to flat out abandon the team, even when it’s in a downward spiral. In fact, that — especially with a home game coming up — is precisely when the team needs the most support.
Let’s be honest: We’re less likely to see Stanford appear in the inaugural national playoffs than we are to see pigs fly. But if the Cardinal wins the rest of its regular-season games, it would still win the division crown and have a shot to earn its third straight Pac-12 championship.
Again, I doubt this will happen; sadly, a 6-6 record seems more likely. But the team still has a chance, and true fans don’t abandon their team when hope remains.
So buck up. Stiff upper lip. Be firm, be faithful, be true, Stanford fans. The pursuit of glory continues. You now have a great opportunity to claim a prime seat on the bandwagon!