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Stanford Football: Cardinal Midseason Primer On Big Game Eve

We take a look at the Stanford Cardinal as they get ready for the 2012 Big Game to try and retain the Axe with Stanford bloggers. Scott Allen of Rule of Tree and Hank Waddles of Go Mighty Card discuss all things Cardinal.

Ezra Shaw

What are your thoughts on Josh Nunes? He's played some tough defenses, but how much of his struggles are on him?

Scott Allen, Rule of Tree: I'll say 53.3% of Nunes' struggles are on him, which just so happens to be his completion percentage through six games. Stanford lost its top two receivers in Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu and the player most fans expected to fill that void -- Ty Montgomery -- has struggled to hold onto the ball this season. That said, Nunes has missed his fair share of wide-open throws, as defenses stack the box and dare Stanford to beat them through the air. Nunes probably won't see another defense as good as Notre Dame's this season, but he is scheduled to play a few more road games. If he doesn't play better against a Cal defense, it might be time to see what Brett Nottingham or Kevin Hogan can do.

Hank Waddles, Go Mighty Card: Last year I'd do these Q&As with opposing bloggers, and they'd ask a question like "Is Andrew Luck really as good as they say?" and I'd get to write paragraph after paragraph extolling the virtues of the best quarterback in the land. I miss that, and I think that's probably the biggest thing going against Josh Nunes -- he simply isn't Andrew Luck. What Nunes is doing isn't unprecedented -- he's taking over center field from Mickey Mantle, hosting the Tonight Show after Carson (don't worry youngsters, Carson Daly hasn't retired), and jumping on stage after Miles Davis. Everything he does will be compared to Luck, and he will naturally fail to hold up to that comparison every time.

Physically, Nunes seems fine. Sure, he's missed some throws, but those misses have been so awful that they simply can't be physical. Any high school quarterback in America could hit a running back screen, but Nunes has thrown more than a couple into the dirt -- that's mental, not physical. When asked to drop back and throw deep, for example, his throws have been more or less on the money. But there are other issues -- Stanford receivers have dropped more balls this season than in the past two years combined, and that has only served to increase the negative attention already being heaped upon the quarterback. Also, the offense has been incredibly conservative. What isn't clear, however, is if the conservatism is an acknowledgment of Nunes's limitations or simply the beginning of his growth process.

The word that best describes David Shaw's performance in the post-Andrew Luck era is _________________ because __________________.

Scott Allen, Rule of Tree: unsurprising; the Cardinal lost a lot more than Andrew Luck.

Hank Waddles, Go Mighty Card: The word that best describes David Shaw's performance in the post-Andrew Luck era is enigmatic because it's sometimes difficult to understand where the team is headed. As always in these situations, the most vocal members of the fan base are the ones who are the most critical. I defended Shaw after the Fiesta Bowl, but I felt like most fans blamed him for the loss. After opening these season with a poor showing in a narrow win over San Jose State, the discontent grew as many fans pilloried him for choosing Nunes over Brett Nottingham at quarterback, and some even wondered if perhaps he had been a bad hire. Two weeks later Stanford beat Matt Barkley and the Trojans for the fourth year in a row, and suddenly people were happy again.

Now that we're half way through Shaw's second season, there's a huge amount of concern about the direction the team is headed. Stanford has always been a power football team, but just last Saturday the Cardinal ran the ball four times from inside the five yard line and failed to score. (I'd be the first person to tell you that they actually DID score, but it was only by the nose of the football.) Stanford fans are used to watching the offensive line open up gaping holes through which running backs would burst and score untouched in those situations. We haven't been seeing that. Also, there are concerns about the lack of creativity in the play calling, especially as evidenced in the goal line sequence mentioned above. When Andrew Luck was behind center (with David Shaw still calling the plays), we would've seen a few different plays in a situation like that. Also gone is the shifting and moving before the snap.

The offense stands to be dramatically better next season, but I it's behind where it was expected to be at this point. If Stanford doesn't win at least eight games this year, Shaw's second season will be viewed as a huge disappointment.

What did you see that encouraged you from the Notre Dame loss? Did you see the team improve in any capacity?

Scott Allen, Rule of Tree: Nothing that Stanford did offensively in the Notre Dame loss encouraged me, but the defense responded well against a not-very-good offense after getting torched by Arizona.

Hank Waddles, Go Mighty Card: After the Arizona shootout, it was definitely good to see the defense play so well. If they had been able to get off the field on just one or two more third downs, or if the officials hadn't manufactured a late hit penalty on Notre Dame's final drive during regulation, we wouldn't have spent the past week talking about that touchdown that wasn't. Instead, we'd be praising a defensive-minded team that would have been ranked in the top ten.

What still needs fixing? What do the Cardinal need to improve on to start notching big road wins?

Scott Allen, Rule of Tree: The offense has to improve. Nunes has to be more accurate, Stanford has to be better on third down and receivers (and tight ends) need to catch the ball. Nunes may have been nervous for his first road game at Washington, but I think the loss to Notre Dame had more to do with the Irish's stingy defense.

Hank Waddles, Go Mighty Card: I think Nunes has to settle down. Let's look at what he's faced on the road so far. In his first career road start he travelled to one of the loudest environments in college football to play a team that had been flat-out embarrassed by the Cardinal the last two years. To say this was a big game for Washington would be an understatement. Next, he heads to the cradle of college football to play Knute Rockne, the Four Horsemen, Touchdown Jesus, Rudy, and Manti Te'o. There might not have been any thunder shaking down from the sky, but there was plenty of rain. What's next for Nunes? That's right -- Big Game. Even Andrew Luck wilted under the pressure of his first Big Game.

With all this in mind, I think Pep Hamilton needs to help out his quarterback by putting some doubt in the minds of the Cal defenders. I've been writing this for several weeks now, but I really want to see more Kelsey Young, and I want to see him all over the field. He doesn't necessarily need to get the ball, but his presence in the game -- whether in the backfield, split out wide, or sprinting across the line of scrimmage for a jet sweep, will give the defense something else to think about. He's potentially the most dynamic offensive player on the Stanford roster, and it's unconscionable that he hasn't been involved.

Looking ahead to this week's game, what do you see Stanford needing to do to finally get a road win against Cal? What's your score prediction for this week and why?

Scott Allen, Rule of Tree: Stanford 24, Cal 17. I think the Cardinal will have a little more success moving the ball against the Bears and will finally score an offensive touchdown (or two!) on the road. I expect Levine Toilolo to rebound nicely from his catch-less performance against Notre Dame and to have a big day. Defensively, I think Stanford will be able to put enough pressure on Zach Maynard to keep him from getting into a groove like he was against UCLA.

Hank Waddles, Go Mighty Card: I'm not too worried about how the Cal offense will do against Stanford's defense, so I think that if the Cardinal can implement some of things I talked about up above, things will work out on Saturday. I guarantee Josh Nunes and the offense will score their first road touchdown of the season, and then they'll add two more. Final score: Stanford 27, Cal 13. The defense is simply too good, and the offense will be good enough.