Midseason report: Stanford

There was a time, not so long ago, when Stanford would be thrilled with a 5-1 record and a No. 13 national ranking.

Those times are gone.

Stanford (5-1, 3-1) came into the season with clear national-title aspirations, but they vanished into the thin Salt Lake City air with a 27-21 loss to unranked Utah on Saturday.

Now, instead of plowing new ground, the Cardinal will look to follow the path it took to Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships a year ago, when it rebounded from a puzzling early-season loss to Washington.

For that, it’s already ahead of the game. At this point a year ago, Stanford was 4-2 and ranked No. 22.

This year’s team remains difficult to figure out.

Before the season, defensive end Ben Gardner said he wanted the defense to be in the conversation for the best unit in the country. And with eight returning starters from a dominant defense, Gardner wasn’t alone in those expectations.

It hasn’t played out like he’d hoped. The defense is still a strength, but it has statistically regressed across the board from a year ago. The 379.7 yards a game Stanford allows places it No. 48 nationally -- behind Arizona and Arizona State.

Thanks in large part to the play of receiver Ty Montgomery, Stanford’s offense has a new, more explosive look to it. It still runs power run plays out of seven- and eight-linemen packages, but new offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren has shown more willingness to take vertical shots with an upgraded group of receivers.

With No. 9 UCLA coming to Stanford on Saturday, the Cardinal has an opportunity to jump right back into the top-10 and renew interest in the Nov. 7 tilt with No. 2 Oregon. If Stanford loses to the undefeated Bruins, its run of three straight trips to BCS bowl games will be in serious jeopardy.

Offensive MVP: Montgomery. After an injury-riddled sophomore season, Montgomery is clearly Stanford’s best offensive weapon with 31 catches for 514 yards and five touchdowns. The Cardinal lost its top five receivers in terms of yards from a year ago -- including three players to the NFL -- but Montgomery’s emergence has the team more explosive through the air. He ranks No. 1 in all-purpose yards per game among players from BCS conferences (196.5) and has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: OLB Trent Murphy. On a defense certainly not lacking in talent, no one has made an impact like Murphy. Of his 22 tackles, eight have gone for losses totaling 48 yards. He leads the team with five sacks and returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown against Washington State.