Sports

Stanford using lessons learned from opening week loss

 

Each week, it becomes more evident that Stanford has been strengthened by its season-opening loss to Northwestern.

Sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey wouldn't admit a loss could be positive, but did offer that, "the morale of our team is stronger because of that game."

He added, "It's allowed us to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize who we are and what we have to do to win games."

No. 9 Stanford (7-1 overall, 6-0 Pac-12) approaches a Pac-12 Conference contest at Colorado (4-5, 1-4) on Saturday on a seven-game winning streak.

The Cardinal recovered from the 16-6 loss at Northwestern, by rediscovering its' running attack and creating explosive plays both running and passing.

"Every good team has something that they overcome," Stanford's Director of Football David Shaw said. "The teams that don't end up being good are the teams where something bad happens and they don't learn from their mistakes. We're still not perfect, but that game has been a rallying cry to a certain degree, because we didn't play our best football, and we didn't find a way to win.

"I am a firm believer on learning from mistakes, from bad experiences as well as good ones."

McCaffrey said Saturday's 30-28 comeback victory over Washington State was a great example.

"The first half of this past game was a lot like the first half of the Northwestern game," McCaffrey said. "We couldn't get into a rhythm. I think we went back to that Northwestern game, looked back at where we came from and said, 'It's not going to be us.'

"We remembered what that felt like. We knew we had to come together. It was a good thing for us. We always look back at that game."

Hogan's turnaround

Quarterback Kevin Hogan went from a four-sack, two-turnover nightmare of a first half against Washington State to leading the Cardinal to victory in Pullman.

Hogan fumbled, threw an interception, and had another apparent interception returned for a touchdown before the catch was overturned by replay. But through it all, Hogan could be seen on the sidelines encouraging his teammates, taking the blame and never getting down. Never once did Hogan walk off the field hanging his head or pointing a finger.

The comeback brought to light many things about Hogan: his athleticism even with a lingering ankle injury for sure, but also his football knowledge, ability to lead, and his importance to the Cardinal. He is 31-9 as a starter and is tied with Andrew Luck for the most victories by a starting quarterback in Stanford history.

"Hogan doesn't blink an eye," McCaffrey said. "That really carries over to us. We see a guy who just threw a pick and he's just, 'We're good, we'll get it next time, next drive's ours.' He didn't flinch. He rallies us and we rally with him."

The Washington State defense took away much of the running game by stacking the box, and was especially effective against the pass while building a 15-3 third-quarter lead. That's when the gameplan changed. Using play-action and misdirection to exploit the Cougars' overpursuit of McCaffrey, Stanford found holes up the middle for Hogan. He ran for 112 yards on 14 carries and scored two touchdowns.

"He understands the game of football as well as any player in college football right now -- offenses, defenses, blitzes, coverage structures," Shaw said.

When Shaw was with the Oakland Raiders staff from 1998-2001, head coach Jon Gruden instructed his coaches to create a sheet to write down the characteristics most desirable for each position. Shaw continues to do that today.

"For quarterbacks, No. 1 is leadership," Shaw said. "I added, 'show it every single day.' The same with toughness. The leadership and toughness have to be there and be felt by the team. The guys have to feel his passion."

At Stanford, they certainly do.

Stanford-Duke connection

Miami's eight-lateral final-play kickoff return to beat Duke, 30-27, on Saturday invited comparisons to "The Play," Cal's five-lateral kickoff return to beat Stanford in the 1982 Big Game. However, there was another connection to Stanford: Duke's Max McCaffrey, who wasn't on the field for the decisive play, is the brother of Christian.

"I actually called him right after our game," Christian said. "I was still in the locker room, to see how he did."

"Did you see the finish?" Max asked.

"No," Christian replied.

"You will."

Ranking? What ranking?

The season's first College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled Tuesday -- Stanford is No. 11 -- and Shaw was decidedly nonplussed.

Asked Tuesday morning whether he would watch the rankings show on television, Shaw said, "I won't watch the first show, the second show, or the third show, or how many shows there are. I've got a lot of stuff to do, let's put it that way."

Eventually, Shaw would like to see an eight-team playoff, but is fine for now with the four-team format, with the conference championship games acting as an unofficial first round.

"I'm a big fan of leaving it the way that it is for a couple of years because I still think we need to iron out a bunch of things," Shaw said. "But don't get me wrong, it's still 100 times better than what we had before."

Palo Alto's own

Outside linebacker Kevin Anderson's presence was felt Saturday in his first action since missing four games to injury. In particular, he cleaned up Kodi Whitfield's open-field tackle on a Cougars' fourth-quarter two-point conversion pass, preventing a reach across the goal line.

"Typical Kevin Anderson, he gave great effort, a lot of second-effort plays," Shaw said. "His hustle on the two-point play was phenomenal."

Though Anderson didn't have game fitness yet, he was effective and his presence allowed Stanford to rotate both outside linebacker spots with different players, allowing them to stay fresh as the game wore on -- a huge benefit against an up-tempo team like Washington State, and Colorado this week.

Faster forward

Colorado ran 114 plays and kept the ball for 41 minutes during a 35-31 loss to UCLA last week. However, don't expect the Buffaloes to do the same against Stanford under normal circumstances.

"If a team runs that many plays, you're helping them," Shaw said. "You're either not keeping the ball long enough on offense, or you're not getting stops on defense. It doesn't matter what tempo they run, if they have the ball that many plays, we're not doing our part."

Safety first

Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd were question marks coming into the season as former offensive players, and seniors, who moved to defense and are starting as safeties.

Their ability to call coverages, line players up properly and provide leadership has been vital to the growth of a young secondary.

"Those two guys are underappreciated," Shaw said.

Whitfield was a wide receiver who owns a spot on the highlight reel with a one-handed catch in the end zone two years ago. Lloyd came to Stanford as a quarterback.

The scariest day

Ralphie the bison -- or rather, Ralphie the series of bison -- has been a regular at Colorado home football games since 1966. For those given a close-up look at the 1,000-pound mascot, which runs a loop around the field before each home football game with five handlers in tow, it can be a frightening experience. That was the case for a young David Shaw, then a freshman suiting up for his first game, in the 1990 season-opener at Boulder's Folsom Field.

"I would refer to it as my most terrifying experience as an athlete," Shaw said. "Back in the day, the cage used to be right outside the locker room.

"This was my first game, so I was really excited. We come out of the locker room, and for some reason, I want to be the first guy out. They open the locker room doors, I step out, turn toward the field and here's this Volkswagen with horns just dragging these human beings, and it seems to be running right at me.

"My natural instinct is to go back in the locker room, but I have 79 other guys coming out of the locker room. So, I'm trying to go back in, and they're all coming out. It's probably 20 yards away, but it feels like five feet, where they finally turned it into her cage.

"I don't think my heart stopped pounding until the ball was kicked off. To see a large fast animal coming right at you . . . This week, I'll be staying in the locker room until she's in her cage."

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