This Saturday, the Colorado Buffaloes travel to Palo Alto, Calif. to take on Stanford. The CU Independent collaborated with the Stanford Daily in this week’s Fraternizing with the Enemy. Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero talked to Vihan Lakshman, the football beat writer at the Daily.
Justin Guerriero: Recent weeks have seen Stanford bleed. The team has suffered losses that one wouldn’t imagine the mighty Cardinal to suffer. Is this team a wounded animal backed into a corner? How detrimental would a loss to Colorado at home be?
Vihan Lakshman: There’s no doubt that Stanford hasn’t played well the last four weeks, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Yes, the Cardinal’s dreadful injury luck during this stretch (losing both starting corners, a top-notch fullback in Daniel Marx, two offensive linemen, a tight end, a wide receiver and one of the best players in the country in Christian McCaffrey) has made an impact. That doesn’t fully explain why head coach David Shaw’s crew has struggled so much. All season, Stanford has shown flashes of promise on offense, but for every positive moment, you can point to two or three miscues that bring drives to a screeching halt. Defensively, the Cardinal have been outstanding for much of the season. However, it has also been susceptible to some bad days, giving up over 40 points to both Washington and Washington State.
This season, Stanford is breaking in a number of inexperienced players at key positions and the growing pains are evident. That kind of inconsistency against very good teams in UW and Wazzu will always lead to a blowout loss, and I would consider Colorado an opponent of similar caliber. There’s no reason to think that a loss to the Buffs would be extremely detrimental in my mind. Colorado is a very talented team and Stanford is essentially out of the running for the conference title. What is crucial for Stanford, however, is showing continued improvement. With the return of more key contributors from injury and another week of football under everyone’s belt, I think the chances of building some more consistency are good.
JG: We all know what Christian McCaffrey is capable of. But what is Stanford’s passing offense like? Is this team a one-dimensional offense? It averages 19 points per game. How will it square up against Colorado’s defense?
VL: Stanford’s offense is a physical, run-first operation. There’s no question about that. But I would be careful of calling it “one-dimensional.” Even when David Shaw had “do-everything” quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal remained committed to running the football and used the passing game as a counter to punish secondaries caught peeking into the backfield.
That said, Stanford’s passing offense has not looked good this season. As I mentioned earlier, it hasn’t been one glaring problem but rather rashes of inconsistency amongst the offensive line, quarterback Ryan Burns and his receivers. With Colorado’s veteran-laden secondary, I don’t expect this to be the game where Stanford’s passing attack suddenly comes alive, but Burns and company will have to be serviceable in connecting on throws to keep the Cardinal offense afloat on Saturday. It should be a fun matchup. Stanford has a lot of explosive position players on offense, but I give the edge to Colorado.
JG: In your opinion, what is Stanford’s biggest advantage over the Buffaloes?
VL: I would say that the Stanford defensive line and Solomon Thomas, in particular, have really come into their own this season. This choice isn’t based on any inherent weakness in Colorado, but rather on the promise that Stanford’s front has shown so far. Thomas has already claimed two Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors and has emerged as an absolute force of nature. Harrison Phillips has also been a menace in the trenches and often draws double teams away from Thomas. As Stanford’s secondary continues to get healthier (sophomore cornerback Quenton Meeks returned to action last week and recorded a pick six) the Cardinal will have a little more time to operate, which should make them more dangerous the rest of the way.
JG: What are Stanford’s linebackers and secondary like? Can they neutralize tailback Phillip Lindsay and contain CU’s elite receiving corps?
VL: Stanford’s linebacker situation is an interesting one. Going into the season, many of us thought that the outside linebackers would be one of the premier position groups on this team with returning starter Peter Kalambayi and talented pieces in Joey Alfieri, Mike Tyler and Casey Toohill, but they haven’t quite lived up to those lofty expectations. In Stanford’s 3-4 scheme, the outside linebackers are the primary pass rushers, but the aforementioned foursome have accumulated just seven quarterback takedowns combined.
At the inside linebacker spot, Stanford has tried to replace the contributions of Blake Martinez, the Pac-12’s leader in tackles last season, in the aggregate, rotating in six different inside backers throughout games in consistent pairs. The inside linebackers have been pretty good in run support, but the unit has struggled with coverage responsibilities. Tight ends and slot receivers have had a lot of success against the Cardinal this season. I would also expect Phillip Lindsay to have another good game. Stanford’s run defense has shown promise, but they have a long way to go.
Stanford’s secondary, when fully healthy, is elite. Corners Alijah Holder and Meeks are two of the best in the conference, if not the nation. The return of safety Zach Hoffpauir gives Stanford a lot of options. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, Meeks and Holder played just two full games together before they both went down against UCLA. Meeks is back in action and Holder is close, but his likely absence will put additional pressure on backups Frank Buncom, Terrence Alexander and Alameen Murphy for at least another game. Stanford with Meeks held its own against a deep Notre Dame receiving corps, but I think Colorado’s is even better. With Holder probably out, I give the edge to the Buffaloes here as well.
JG: Who are Stanford’s biggest play makers besides McCaffrey?
VL: With McCaffrey out against the Irish, sophomore running back Bryce Love stepped in and performed very well. He carried the ball 23 times for 129 yards. Love has truly elite speed. Wide receiver Trenton Irwin has also been very impressive this season. The sophomore runs gorgeous routes and has catches nearly anything thrown remotely in his direction. The fact that Irwin hasn’t scored a touchdown in his career is one of the most unfair statistical quirks from this season given how well he has played. I have a feeling he won’t have to wait too much longer if he keeps performing at such a high level.
JG: Stanford’s offensive line vs. Colorado’s defensive line. Who wins that matchup?
VL: I definitely give the advantage to Colorado’s defensive line. The Buffs front ranks 21st in the nation with 19 sacks. Stanford’s offensive line is still very much a work in progress despite making huge strides last week. The Cardinal are still trying to figure out which lineup gives them the best chance to win. It looks like they will be trying out senior David Bright at right tackle again this week. Stanford hasn’t shown dominance in the trenches for sixty minutes this season. I’m going with the unit that’s produced tangible results on the field thus far and that’s the Buffs’ defensive line.
JG: Score predictions?
VL: I like Colorado in this one. Mike MacIntyre has done a wonderful job building that program and the Buffaloes are playing with confidence on both sides of the ball. The return of Sefo Liufau is also a critical boost. I expect Stanford to play well, but Colorado has been the better team up to this point in the season. Against an opponent this good, the Cardinal’s offensive inconsistency will be too much to overcome. I’ll take Colorado 20, Stanford 17, as the season of destiny continues for the Buffaloes.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.
Contact Stanford Daily football beat writer Vihan Lakshman at email@example.com.