The Stanford Cardinal are human. That's the best way to describe them this year. They play their best and they can be tough to beat. But they can be beaten, and that's all the difference a year makes.
Last season Stanford was an unstoppable wrecking force. Their quarterback was the best in college football. Their offensive line could block anyone not named Oregon. Their tight ends were damn near impossible to stop if the running game was going at all. Their front seven could wreck people on occasion. It was a team that needed to perform below its capacity or face a team its equal a mismatch to beat them.
This season, most of the equation has changed. Stanford's offense was a top-5 unit on the road last year. This year they just barely avoid being bottom 15. The Cardinal offense is still in pursuit of its first road touchdown; they've pulled off plenty of long drives but still struggle to punch it into their end zone.
Stanford doesn't have a good quarterback. They have a capable one who will occasionally pull out some huge throws, but for the most part Josh Nunes just struggles to make plays consistently. Before a big fourth quarter drive, he was averaging under four yards per pass attempt and had about a 40% completion rate. Notre Dame's defense is no joke, but those are horrific numbers. Stanford had nine of their first ten drives end in either a punt or a turnover in six plays or less. The tenth was a long protracted drive that required Nunes to make only one throw before it ended in a disastrous field goal try.
Now, to his credit, Nunes did manage an extended fourth quarter drive that gave Stanford the lead, fitting throws into the right spots offensively to keep the football moving.
The good news was that for all of Nunes's struggles, the Stanford defense was again equal to the task. They've produced two touchdowns so far that Stanford's offense has not, and it's made all the difference in keeping the Cardinal in the football game. They forced three turnovers, one being the aforementioned fumble recovery for a touchdown, but they also forced two fumbles that killed promising Notre Dame drives.
The bad news is that that inability for Stanford's offense to do anything of note seemed to wear the Cardinal out on that side, and they gave up three scoring drives and five critical third down conversions to end the game.
And that leads us to the final, faithful sequence, where coaching seemed to let the players down just a little. It's not really Stepfan Taylor's fault that David Shaw keeps on designing run plays that end up going straight up the gut and Notre Dame is all but set to break in camp. Shaw ran Taylor five times in a row on the final overtime drive, and you'd be hard-pressed to figure out whether any of those runs were logistically different in measure.
Taylor didn't gain any yards on three of the final four attempts as Shaw didn't once trust Nunes to throw a play-action pass or try and put Taylor off tackle to change things up; it was just more run up the gut and hope for the best. It was predictable playcalling that didn't give Stanford much to work with in the final seconds, and Taylor got stuffed four times in a row.
(Well, he probably scored that final time. More on that later.)
Stanford looked like they turned a corner last week when they outshot the Arizona Wildcats in a battle of points, but now it looks as if that was a function of a bad defense, because that offense just seems to have all sorts of trouble getting going. With their BCS hopes looking all but shot (a miracle will be needed to produce the points needed for an Oregon upset now), the Big Game this week may ultimately determine if Stanford can turn the corner and make the leap. Beating Cal in Berkeley would be a huge momentum-booster leading into the second half of the season.
Make no mistake, Stanford is a good football team; their defense and run game can win them football games in ways most teams can't feel too comfortable with. But their offense can take those wins away just as cruelly, and that's just not something we're used to seeing in Palo Alto after the power they produced the past three seasons.