Colorado v. Stanford – Preview

Stanford is 6-2 on the 2012 season, but still habors hopes of a Rose Bowl berth. The Cardinal is 4-1 in Pac-12 play, tied with Oregon State for second place in the Pac-12 North. With the North now a three-team race (other than Stanford and the Oregon schools, no team in the North has a winning record), Stanford still controls its own destiny. Wins over Oregon State next week and against Oregon the following week would set the stage for No. 15 Stanford to vault into the top ten nationally, and into the Pac-12 championship game on November 30th.

Colorado, meanwhile, has no such aspirations. The Buffs are 1-4 in Pac-12 play, tied with Utah at the bottom of the Pac-12 South. Dreams of a bowl game died before the calendar even turned to November, with the Buffs now left to play for respect … or at least to find a way to keep an opposing offense under 50 points a game for the first time since September.

Here are this week’s “T.I.P.S.” for the Colorado/Stanford game …

T – Talent

Buff fans rejoice!

The October meltdown against high-powered offenses has finally come to an end. Not only has the calendar changed, but the style of offense the Buffs will face has also changed. Stanford’s offense, unlike those of USC and Oregon, is not of the point-a-minute variety. The Cardinal has scored over 50 points twice this season – against Duke in September, and then in an overtime shoot-out against Arizona four weeks ago. Stanford, which is averaging 27 points per game overall (69th in the nation) has only averaged a CU-like 18 points per game in its other six games. In Stanford’s three road games to date, the Cardinal has yet to surpass 21 points, averaging 15.6 points per game.

Reason for hope?

With starting quarterback Josh Nunes struggling to consistently move the offense, Stanford coach David Shaw said Tuesday that he plans to play backup quarterback Kevin Hogan more. Hogan will take about 12 to 20 snaps at Colorado on Saturday, putting pressure on Nunes to improve after several sloppy starts. Hogan, a red-shirt freshman, played only about six downs in each of the last two games. While most of that time has been as a read-option or wildcat-style quarterback, expect more passes and packages soon.

Whoever is behind center, look for them to give the Buffs large doses of running back Stepfan Taylor. The senior running back is 96 yards away from his third straight 1,000-yard season – a feat never before accomplished at Stanford. Taylor has 33 career rushing touchdowns, third all-time at Stanford, and rushed for a career-high 189 yards two weeks ago in the 115th edition of the Big Game against Cal.

Stanford’s passing game is just as anemic as that of Colorado – 205.3 yards per game for CU; 204.4 yards per game for Stanford. The only real threat comes from the tight ends, with the tandem of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo combining for 47 receptions, 813 yards, and six touchdowns this season.

So, how is the Cardinal managing to win games? Why is Stanford 6-2 and ranked 15th nationally?

Because of its defense.

The Stanford defense is 2nd in the nation in rushing defense, giving up only 65 yards per game. The Cardinal’s 3-4 defense is first in the nation in tackles for loss, with an average of 9.5 such plays per game. Seventeen different Stanford players have recorded a tackle for loss in 2012, with four defenders ranked in the top 15 in the conference in tackles. Last week, Stanford sacked Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel ten times, a school record. Overall, with sacks included, Washington State rushed for … wait for it … minus-18 yards.


Stanford’s makeup leads Buff fans to change their usual question – can we hold a team to less than 50 points? – to a new question:

Will the Buffs be able to score, avoiding the first home shutout since 1986?

I – Intangibles

Both teams may play two quarterbacks this weekend, with Josh Nunes and Kevin Hogan splitting time for Stanford, and perhaps Nick Hirschman starting for Jordan Webb for Colorado.

Does the issue of preparing for two quarterbacks play a role in the outcome? Not real likely. The Cardinal will have enough film on Nick Hirschman to know what he can do. Kevin Hogan hasn’t had much in the way of snaps for Stanford, but, as noted above, Kevin Hogan has been kept fairly vanilla to date, and that is not likely to change this weekend.

Stanford is making its first trip to Boulder since the Buffs’ national championship season of 1990. In that game, the Buffs came from behind, scoring on a (controversial) fourth-and-goal with less than a minute to play to post a 21-17 victory, the first of ten straight regular season wins on their way to the Orange Bowl. Offensive coordinator, who scored the winning touchdown (here is a link to the story of that game) would like nothing better than to be in position for a similar score this weekend.

If the Colorado defense can keep the game close – a big “if”, admittedly – then the advantages start to turn towards the home team. Stanford has won 28-3 in its last 31 home games, and has won 18 of its last 19 at home. Still, when the game is close, Stanford has not been as dominating, posting a record of only 13-11 in its last 24 games decided by a touchdown or less.

P – Preparation / Schedule

Buff fans may grouse about the early (12:05 MT) start time, but it’s even earlier for the Cardinal players, who will be facing a body clock time of 11 a.m. Colorado has fallen behind early of late, allowing USC to score in the first 50 seconds of the game two weeks ago, then watching as Oregon posted two touchdowns before the CU offense ever took a snap last weekend.

If Stanford is like Oregon and USC, they will want the ball to start the game. Most teams defer if they win the coin toss, but Buff opponents take the ball, hoping to put CU down early, hoping that the Buffs – and their fans – will quit early.

So, first piece of advice to Colorado coaches … if CU wins the coin toss, take the ball. Yes, it’s unconventional, and you are asking a struggling offense to take the field first against the nation’s No. 2 rushing defense, but … if you are ever going to have a chance to catch the Stanford defense napping, it will be at 11:07 PT on Saturday. Otherwise, you are putting a defense onto the field which has already given up 112 first quarter points this season, and giving the disgruntled CU masses a chance to boo your team before the offense ever takes the field.

Trust me, after the last two starts, even a short drive to start the game, with a few minutes shaved off the game clock before Stanford has a chance to score, would be an improvement.

There is also this … while Colorado’s season is over, the Stanford players can still look ahead.

And look ahead they should. The next two games on the Cardinal calendar are against Oregon State at home, then on the road against Oregon. Win those two games, and the Pac-12 North will be theirs for the taking. Colorado is just a warmup (see: tinkering with starting quarterbacks, above), a game not be taken seriously.

So, Stanford players would be forgiven for not taking this game seriously.

The real question, then, is how serious the Buff players will take it …

S – Statistics

Unlike the past two weekends, there are a few blemishes on the opponent’s resume.

Stanford is 90th in the nation in both passing offense and total offense – yea! So, while the Cardinal is looking at Colorado as an opportunity to pad its resume, Buff players should be looking at Stanford as a team with which it can compete. As noted, Stanford doesn’t score in bunches on the road (13, 13, and 21 points so far this season), so an opportunistic Buff defense could help make this a real game.

Which brings me to turnovers. Remember three games ago, when Colorado played Arizona State, and the Buffs came into the game with a minus-four in turnovers on the season, while the Sun Devils were a plus-four in turnovers? Well, three blowout losses later, Colorado is now minus-eight in turnovers, while Stanford is a plus-eight. A heavy underdog, at home, with a struggling offense … this is a statistic which must be reversed for the Buffs to have a chance.

If the Buffs can create some breaks, there are some promising numbers here.

As noted, Stanford is in the bottom third in the nation in passing offense and total offense, and is 110th in pass defense. Running the ball is not a great option (Stanford No. 2 nationally against the run), but teams have been able to average 287 yards through the air. The stage is yours, Mr. Hirschman.

Stanford is also a far from stellar 102nd in the nation in third down conversion offense, and 86th in red zone scoring percentage (offense). Translation: stop giving up the “explosion” plays of 25 yards or more. Make the Stanford offense work for every first down; every score. If the Buffs can, well ….

It would be nice to see Colorado be competitive in a game, something which hasn’t happened since the Washington State game (unless you count the ten points scored in the last minute of the first half against Arizona State, giving Buff fans a misguided halftime’s worth of hope). Against a ranked team, though, that doesn’t seem real likely.

At least the record streak of 50+ points against should stop at three games …

Stanford 33, Colorado 7.

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