Stanford coach David Shaw has gone to great lengths to give credit to Utah for upsetting his then-fifth-ranked Cardinal last weekend. When you ask him what went wrong in the 27-21 defeat, he first points to what went right for the Utes.
"The natural feeling is that something had to go terribly wrong as opposed to the other team playing better than us," Shaw said. "And they did. They outplayed us. They played better and smarter."
There must be some truth to that. The Utes took 5-1 Oregon State to overtime before losing, and the week before besting Stanford they lost a barnburner 34-27 to now-No. 9 UCLA, keeping things tight despite six interceptions from QB Travis Wilson.
Despite the Utes’ tough play, the Cardinal has some issues that need to be quickly solved because that same unbeaten UCLA team is coming to Stanford Stadium on Saturday with intentions of throwing itself into the national title discussion. While the Stanford defense has underperformed, it's the recent regression on offense that is most notable.
That first falls on the quarterback. Over the past two games, Kevin Hogan's quarterback rating has dropped from sixth in the nation to 27th. Against Washington and Utah -- two A-list defenses -- his numbers were well below average (50 being average on a scale of 1 to 100): 36.5 against the Utes and 29.9 against the Huskies.
"It's hard. He's still a young player," Shaw said. "He missed a couple of throws [against Utah], but at the same time he made some unbelievable throws to get us back to where we had a chance to win the game. He's got the ability to play at a really high level. The charge for all of us is to play at a high level the entire game."
The offensive issues aren't all on Hogan, by any stretch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. First of all, Stanford's typically potent power running attack has not been as effective.
In their first four games, the Cardinal averaged 218 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry. They gained 41 percent of their rushing yards after contact. In the last two games, Stanford has averaged 161 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per carry. The Cardinal gained 27 percent of those rushing yards after contact, the second-lowest percentage by a Pac-12 team in the last two weeks behind Oregon State (25 percent). They had season lows in rushing yards, yards after contact and runs of 10 yards or more in the loss at Utah.
The running game struggles are due, at least in part, to defenses not worrying about the Cardinal's downfield passing game, which was supposed to be greatly improved this fall.
Defenses loading the box? On average, the Cardinal has faced 7.5 defenders in the box on their running plays in the last two games. There were 32 runs on which the defense had eight of more defenders in the box. That's a big deal. That is more eight-man box alignments than eight Pac-12 teams have faced all season.
Defenses can get away with this because Hogan hasn't found a secondary passing target after receiver Ty Montgomery, who leads the offense in receptions (31), receiving yards (514) and touchdowns (5). The Cardinal's next three top receivers, Devon Cajuste, Kodi Whitfield and Michael Rector have flashed ability at times, but they've only combined for 27 receptions.
In the last two games, Montgomery has accounted for 54 percent of Stanford’s receiving yards, but only 36 percent of their targets. During that stretch, Hogan is averaging 11.0 yards per attempt when targeting Montgomery and 5.3 when targeting any other player. Hogan completes 64.7 percent of his passes thrown at Montgomery but just 53.3 percent thrown at someone else.
During Stanford’s 4-0 start, Hogan averaged 8.6 yards per attempt when targeting any player other than Montgomery and completed 60 percent of such attempts.
To have some success against a UCLA defense that is vastly improved from a year ago, Hogan needs to make some downfield passing plays to someone other than Montgomery. That should open things up for the running game, as well as loosen things up for Montgomery, a major home run threat.
Of course, that's easier said than done. The Bruins only feature perhaps the nation's most dangerous pass-rusher in outside linebacker Anthony Barr, and the front-seven as a whole is rugged.
So it won't be easy for Stanford's offense to regain its traction in this critical matchup. But little in the Pac-12 this year is.