Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, November 6, 2015

2015 CU vs Stanford Football Preview

Everyone see "The Gospel According to Mac" this week?  Pretty sweet, right?  What a powerful image of BuffNation on national television.  Prime time, in the spotlight, there was the best of CU for all to see.  I was especially drawn in by the story of Sal, which has never been told so well.  That and the interviews with the players.  There's so much passion in that group, from Mac on through, and it still shines through today.  Very inspiring.

As much as I liked it, there's an admitted bias.  Further, I will say I kind of agree with this critique of the event.  The show got caught up a little too much in the various narratives of the football story (which isn't itself a linear tale with the '89 Orange Bowl loss) and other side arcs, and lost focus on Mac himself.  I understand this is ESPN, and the football is the draw, but Mac's the crux of the story, and I don't think they really delved into his deal.  You don't have to take a hatchet to the man to tell his story, either - he's a fascinating, influential figure, even beyond just 1989 and 1990 or Promise Keepers.  The dichotomy between the man and the town he thrived in, particularly, was something I would've liked to hear more about.

Regardless, good stuff, and worth any CU fan's time.  I'll be looking for it when it hits blu-ray shelves for sure.


Hype Music for the Week: "Poison" by Bell Biv Devoe
(Alternate version)

Fitting with the mood of the 30 for 30 take on the McCartney-era Buffaloes, I'm throwing it back to 1990, and gifting you the splendor that is Bell Biv Devoe.  Enjoy!


Kick off from Folsom Field is set for, yeesh, 11am in the damn morning.  Get your mimosas and bloody marys ready, 'cause we're back to a breakfast tailgate. Coverage for those not in attendance can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

I had to dig all the way back to 2012 and the height (depths?) of the Embree era for the last time CU and Stanford met on the gridiron.  It'll be a short visit in the WABAC, however, as this game was essentially over before the end of the first 15 minutes.  A pair of turnovers in the opening quarter - the first, a 52 yard pick-six tossed by Jordan Webb; the second, a fumble by Nick Kasa - gave Stanford all the opening they would need, as they bull-rushed CU into oblivion. A 48-0 de-pantsing was the final result, but it was over long before it ever got to that point.
Ralphie ran... and that was pretty much it.  From: the BDC
I didn't even make it to half, walking out of Folsom 30 seconds into the second quarter when Cardinal back Stepfan Taylor plunged into the endzone to make it 14-0.  It was at that moment that I decided to cancel my season tickets, something I haven't re-bought since (although I continue to attend most games).  Can you really blame me?  This effort was the Embree-Buffs at their most helpless, and I couldn't stand it anymore. Out-gained 436 to 76, negative 21 net yards rushing, seven sustained sacks, and only one third down conversion.  Hell, the team never crossed the 50, only punting on their final possession of the game while sitting on that meridian.  Watching grass grow was more spiriting and entertaining than what the Buffs were putting on the field each week. At some point a sane man pulls the rip cord.

Luckily, CU is leaps about bounds ahead of where they were three years ago.  Gone are the days of the helpless struggle, the geeky swings at an upperclassman holding the team at arms length.  The Cardinal, in back-to-back seasons, beat down Colorado 97-7, which appropriately displays the gap between the two programs at the time.  Now, however, the Buffs are better at almost every facet.  No, they aren't 'good' yet (or even really all that average), but neither are they 48-0 or 96-7 bad. We'll see a different exhibition of this series this weekend, and we're all better off for it.

The Cardinal in 2015 - 

Their NCAA statistical profile is here.

What do you think of when you hear the name 'Stanford Football?'  For me, it's powerful, tactical, old-school football played at an elite level.  In an age of cutesy schemes and spreads and read-options, the Cardinal stands alone as a unique variant on pro-style football at the collegiate level.  They play right at you, win the battle in the trenches, and execute you into dust.  They use positions like a fullback and blocking tight end like they were meant to be, and generally look, at all times, like they're playing football, rather than some video game monstrosity.  They're righteously vanilla, against the grain in every way... and I love them for it.
What's more, they're successful with their approach, too.  Stanford is 69-19 since the start of a breakout 2009 season, the successful antithesis of the Oregon machine, and off to a fantastic 7-1 start here in 2015. They haven't lost since their 16-6 stumble against Northwestern on opening weekend - a game that kicked off at 9am PT - and hold a 2.5 game lead over everyone else in the Pac-12 North.  They're running away from what was supposed to be the toughest conference in America, leaving the spread merchants in their wake. Revel in the revenge of the nerds!

It's a little surprising, then, considering their continuing and immediate success, to see them all the way down at 11th in the initial rankings released by the College Football Playoff selection committee.  Sure, the Cardinal struggled last week against Washington State in a rain-soaked 30-28 slobberknocker, but I find it really hard to hold it against them considering their overall body of work.  Solid wins against USC, Arizona, UCLA and UW should have them higher than they are, and that WSU team is a lot better than most easterners give them credit for being.  I'll admit that Stanford should not be in anyone's top-four right now, but I think a solid argument could made for their position on the doorstep; certainly something more than 11th. Realistically, the committee is snubbing them because the rest of the Pac-12 is fighting a losing battle with expectations, which is lame.  Stanford deserves their respect.
It wasn't pretty, but the Cardinal survived in Pullman.  From:
On offense, it's all about running the football out of traditional power sets.  18th nationally in rushing yards per game (a little over 220), the Cardinal has proven effective at controlling the line of scrimmage and the ball.  Unsurprisingly, they're #1 nationally in average time of possession, and grind out clock like you never seen in a much more punishing fashion than CU can with their high-play spread.  It's a style that helps them convert nearly 45% of their third down opportunities, and score more than 36 per.  You have to bring your lunch pail on defense to hang with these guys.  10th in the league in passing, but who really cares?  They're going to run all over the Buffs.

On defense, a lot of the narrative is in the backfield where they're replacing five starters from last season. Luckily, a creative approach to blitz packages out of a front-six and aggressive situational adjustments has kept them viable, and they come in 26th nationally against teams in passing situations.  An inability to really generate turnovers (less than one per game) or pressure the quarterback (90th in total sacks), however, holds them back a bit.  As a result, the team has an overall turnover margin issue, one that could keep them from fully capitalizing on their strong start to the year.  Still, a very good defense - top-35 in most major categories - and one that is more than capable of keeping the Buffs in check this weekend.

Star Players - 

Woah, let me tell you about Christian McCaffrey.  The son of Broncos legend Ed McCaffrey, Christian is a product of local high school juggernaut Valor Christian, and is putting together a sophomore campaign worthy of a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation.  1,954 all-purpose yards, over 244 per game, and eight scores through two-thirds of a season is a ridiculous pace.  That he's nearing a record set by the great Barry Sanders only further underscores his prolific talents.  He is the real deal, a true difference maker on offense and special teams, and a one-of-a-kind talent.  Almost all of the success Stanford has had with the ball this season is built around his skills, and they should be able to ride to a conference title on his back.
Christian McCaffrey is one of the best, most versatile offensive players in the country.  From: the Post.
I'll grant you that he benefits from getting to run behind a superlative offensive line - truly one of the best in the country - but I don't want to diminish McCaffrey's abilities in any way.  He's gained at least 100 rushing yards in each of the last six games, as a running back he leads the team in catches and receiving yards, and as a returner he's one of the most dangerous threats in the West.  How do you stop him?  He can hurt you in so many ways, and the Cardinal are so eager to utilize him, that I just can't see CU containing him.  We've seen good runners break off back-breaking long touchdown runs in two of the last three weeks, I can't help but expect similar returns this week with Christian on the field.

As if that wasn't enough, Stanford also has a fifth year senior, Kevin Hogan, handing McCaffrey the ball and finding him the passing game.  Maybe Hogan isn't as special as Christian (who is), but he's a solid Pac-12 QB, and one that can hurt you with both his arm and his legs (leading rusher last week against WSU, 112 net yards and two scores).  What's more, Kevin is a winner, and looks to set a program record for all-time wins with 32 on Saturday. It's kind of coincidental (note: not ironic) that he would be on the verge of doing so against CU, the very team he beat in his first extended action as a freshman in 2012.  You can't beat having experience under center, and the Cardinal has it in spades. Luckily, when not using McCaffrey, Hogan doesn't have much else to throw to; although, this being Stanford, there is a good tight end in Austin Hooper looming large on the line.
Martinez usually finds himself around the ball.  From:
On defense, senior inside linebacker Blake Martinez should get the bulk of your attention.  Through eight starts he's already recorded 91 tackles, more than 50 more than anyone else on the team.  Now, surely that's a product of some typically creative collegiate book-keeping when it comes to tackle awards, but, nonetheless, expect him to be around the ball all day.  Fellow 'backer Peter Kalambayi leads the team in sacks and is their best threat at harassing CU QB Sefo Liufau.

Elsewhere, fifth year senior Ronnie Harris has already broken up 10 passes on the season, and is one of the better cover corners in the Pac-12.  He pairs well with sophomore Alijah Holder, who seems to have a very high ceiling.  Up front, the team is anchored by Aziz Shittu who plays all over the line and has six and a half tackles for loss.

Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football-ing - 

Gotta love Stanford and their penchant for endowing their coaching positions.  It's haughty and cumbersome, but it pays the bills.  David Shaw currently carries the mantle of the longest title in the profession, and has done so with flying colors for four and a half seasons now.  49-13 overall (34-8 in conference) and a pair of conference titles is a hell of a start to a career, regardless of circumstance.  While Coach Shaw inherited a gold mine from the Michigan-bound Jim Harbaugh, he's done a great job keeping the shop in tip-top shape, even improving it in a number of ways.
Shaw has continued the run of success in Palo Alto.  From: the Rule of Tree
With so much football under his belt now, you can't say that Shaw's just a caretaker.  He's a legitimate, top-flight member of the profession, and will be around for years to come.  If, at this point, you are expecting the Cardinal to take a step back under his gaze, you're fooling yourself.  They're officially a West Coast dynasty - Blake Carrington style.

Prediction - 

My 2015 record: 8-1. Against the spread: 5-3. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -1.75 pts/gm
Line as of Wednesday @ 7pm - CU +16, O/U 56

It's an odd start time for the Cardinal, who will view this kickoff as a 10am PT start.  They've been playing nothing but night games since an early kickoff with Northwestern saw them turn in their worst performance of the season - that 16-6 loss on opening weekend.  That game kicked off at 9am PT, and many have noted how lazily the Cardinal attacked that one.  Maybe, given the early wake-up call, the usually nocturnal Stanford Cardinal will struggle out of the gate...

Nah.  The Buffs are in for a rough game, playing against a team that can run the ball so well against them. McCaffrey should have an especially good homecoming to keep his Heisman fires burning, more than likely putting up his averages.  I'll say CU covers, though, thanks to a strong third quarter.  A letdown once the clock ticks over to the fourth (what new) seals it.  Not nearly as bad as three years ago, but still a loss.

Stanford 37 - CU 23


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