The 15th-ranked Stanford Cardinal bring their stingy defense to Boulder in an attempt to tame the hapless Colorado Buffaloes in a Pac-12 conference matchup Saturday afternoon.
Although the 24-17 score indicated a close game, the Cardinal really dominated the line of scrimmage in their win over Washington State last weekend. Stanford held the Cougars to minus-16 yards rushing which was the third fewest yards rushing allowed by a Stanford team in school history. Even with that effort, head coach David Shaw knows his team was not at its best as the Cougars racked up 401 yards through the air.
"We played to about 70-75 percent of our capabilities," Shaw said. "We did not play as well as we practiced. We played hard, but the execution was lacking."
The Cardinal are now 6-2 overall and in the Pac-12 title race with a record of 4-1 in league play.
Colorado would more than likely trade for the type of effort that Stanford had last weekend over what the Buffaloes have been putting together week-in and week-out. The Buffaloes lost their fourth straight game in blowout fashion last weekend, getting run off the field in a 70-14 loss to No. 2 Oregon. It was the fourth straight loss of at least 28 points for Colorado and the fifth this season. Colorado is only 1-7 overall.
Last season these squads squared off for the first time since 1993 as Colorado made its debut in the Pac-12. Stanford's victory gave the Cardinal a 4-3 series advantage all-time.
Shaw is an old-school coach that likes to pound the ball on the ground and play solid defense, which is just what Stanford has been this season. In a conference filled with offenses that pick up yards at a torrid pace, the Cardinal are near the middle offensively, ranking eighth in total offense (366.0 ypg) and sixth in scoring (27.0 ppg). Stanford has relied more on the run with 298 rushing attempts to 234 passing attempts.
When you have a running back like Stepfan Taylor to rely on, running the ball often is a solid game plan. Taylor has rushed for 904 yards and six touchdowns while taking on the bulk of the team's rushing responsibilities with 196 carries. No other player has more than 26. Taylor was bottled up against Washington State though, rushing for only 58 yards on 21 carries.
Quarterback Josh Nunes has needed to have a reliable run game to lean on this season. Although Nunes hasn't been awful by any means he hasn't been particularly good either. Nunes has completed only 52.6 percent of his passes for 1,620 yards and has just three more touchdown passes (10) than interceptions (7). Nunes has been much more of a game-manager under center as evidenced by his 7-for-15 passing effort for 136 yards and a touchdown last weekend.
Nunes has relied most heavily on tight end Zach Ertz in the passing game. Ertz leads the team in just about every receiving category including receptions (32), yards (525) and touchdowns (3). Taylor has contributed in the passing game as well with the second-most receptions on the team (22).
The second ingredient to Shaw's gameplan is strong defense and although Stanford is only the fifth ranked team in the conference in total defense (354.2 ypg), the Cardinal have still been able to control the pace. Stanford has been almost impossible to run against, with the Cardinal allowing a conference-low 523 yards, while ranking second in points allowed (18.6 ppg). Stanford's front seven has been devastating, tying for conference-highs in tackles for loss (76) and sacks (32) with Arizona State.
Linebacker Chase Thomas is the leader of the defense and not just with his team-high tackle total (48). Thomas is one of four players to have at least 9.5 tackles for loss with 9.5 exactly. Usual Amanam (10.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks), Trent Murphy (11.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and Ben Gardner (11.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) have made the Cardinal a nightmare for opposing offensive lines.
November might not seem like the right month for a quarterback controversy, but for a Colorado team that has been unable to find answers, trying something out of the ordinary isn't a crazy idea. Jordan Webb has been the starter all season, but Nick Hirschman came in last week and completed 7-of-16 pass attempts for 64 yards which topped Webb's performance (7-for-11, 31 yards).
"We will look at that," head coach Jones Embree said of the chances Herschman could start next week. "I thought Nick played well. He did some things that were decent. We've got to get better with some ball placement. We can help him out too by catching it."
Embree is right about that, as Colorado's receivers have been less than stellar as a group. Nelson Spruce is the team's leader but he certainly hasn't blown away with his production, averaging 38.3 yards per game. Overall he has 29 receptions for 306 yards. Tyler McCulloch (22 receptions, 273 yards) is the second option. Nick Kasa has been a reliable pass-catcher near the end zone with seven touchdowns on only 17 total receptions.
Christian Powell is the leading rusher with 471 yards, while Tony Jones has had 259 as Powell's backup. The two have probably been the best offensive weapons Colorado has had with the pair each having games of 100-yard rushing this season.
Colorado is ranked last in the conference in total offense (319.4 ypg) and last in scoring offense (18.1 ppg).
The Colorado defense has been no better, ranking last in both total defense (505.0 ypg) and scoring defense (46.0 ppg). That's not the only spot where Colorado has been last in the conference, with the team also posting the worst marks in opponent red zone conversion rate, with teams scoring at an incredible 94.1 percent clip.
Chidera Uzo-Diribe gives Colorado a solid pass rusher with six sacks this season and 30 tackles overall. Terrel Smith (65) and Derrick Webb (64) have been the team leaders in tackles. Each is averaging more than eight tackles per game.