We're just about a day away from the 2013 Rose Bowl Game, so now's the time to really start to get to know the Stanford Cardinal. BadgerBlitz.com enlisted Andy Drukarev of CardinalSportsReport.com to give us the scoop on Stanford, and you can find his responses below. Thanks again to Andy for lending us a hand!
Beat Writer Preview: Stanford
To start, could you explain what happened with the quarterback switch? It's certainly rare for a team to make a pretty seamless transition at quarterback midway through the season, especially when the team is winning.
Andy Drukarev: Entering fall camp, Stanford's quarterback competition was essentially down to two primary candidates -- neither of which were named Kevin Hogan. Redshirt junior Josh Nunes and redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham competed all through spring and camp to replace Andrew Luck. When push came to shove, Nunes got the nod, mainly because of his superior knowledge of the playbook and ability to avoid bad plays. He was, essentially, the bettergame manager, a quality Stanford's coaching staff valued in its signal caller. Nunes had some bright moments in his tenure as Cardinal starter (his performance in the second half against USC and Pac-12 player of the week showing against Arizona come to mind), but was inaccurate and inconsistent all year. Stanford's Nunes-led offense failed to score a touchdown in both the Washington and Notre Dame losses, and mustered only a narrow victory over woeful Washington State. Stanford may have been winning as a team, but the offense bordered on incompetent for long stretches.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Hogan continued to improve as the season progressed and was featured in a special Tim Tebow-esque read-option package for several games. Hogan was given an extended audition during the Card's visit to lowly Colorado -- which he passed with flying colors, to the tune of 18-23 passing and two touchdowns against zero interceptions. At that point, it was clear there was no going back to Nunes. And while Hogan has some holes in his game (he hasn't shown much of an ability to be effective in the downfield passing game), he's very accurate on short and intermediate routes, and is deceptively mobile. And hey, it's hard to argue against his resume: 4-0 as a starter with all wins against ranked opponents.
How would you describe Stanford's offense and defense this season? Other than Hogan, who do Badgers fans need to keep an eye on?
AD: Quite frankly, Stanford doesn't have a ton of explosive playmakers on offense. Its most consistent and productive threat is senior running back Stepfan Taylor. Taylor lacks breakaway speed, but does everything well (pass blocking, receiving, etc...), and rarely goes down on first contact. In the pass game redshirt junior tight end Zach Ertz is the player to watch. Ertz is expected to be one of the first tight ends selected in this year's NFL Draft (assuming he declares), and has some of the best hands on the team. Tight end Levine Toilolo is also an NFL prospect and will be a significant part of the game plan. Keep an eye on receiver/running back/return man Kelsey Young, too. He hasn't gotten many touches this year, but Young, a redshirt freshman from Southern California, is easily the team's most explosive athlete and is a home run threat every time he gets a carry or makes a reception.
Conversely, Stanford's defense ranks as one of the best in the country across the board, and is filled with dynamic talents. The unit is led by its front-seven, which helped the defense rank No. 3 in the nation in rushing. While the loss of senior defensive tackle Terrence Stephens is significant, redshirt sophomore DT David Parry is a very good player in his own right, and the likes of Wisconsin native Ben Gardner, along with top-notch linebackers like Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy should at least challenge the Badgers' prolific running attack, and will definitely make force Wisconsin's quarterback -- whoever that might be -- to be mindful of the pass rush.
I don't think a lot people expected Stanford to keep winning after Harbaugh left for the NFL and Luck was drafted. What keeps this program at an elite level, and are they set up for long-term success?
AD: The simple answer is strong recruiting. Though not rated particularly highly by some of the recruiting services, Stanford's 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes were among the best in the nation, and form the core of the team today. The talent from those classes helped the Cardinal cope with the departure of Harbaugh and Luck. The team's tough, physical identity has also helped it maintain its elite level. Having such a clear-cut, defined identity might not seem like a big deal, but I do believe it's something that helps keep players and coaches alike on the winning track. Additionally, it's hard to overstate the importance strength and conditioning coach Shannon Turley. Turley's training regimen has helped the Cardinal keep injuries to a minimum and ensure that the team is well-conditioned late in games.
In light of Stanford's recent recruiting success -- e.g. the 2012 recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked fifth in the nation, and its better-than-expected 2012 season, I think you'd have to say they are set up for long term success. Hogan has three more seasons of eligibility, there are multiple future NFL offensive linemen waiting in the wings from the 2012 o-line recruiting class, and most of the key pieces to this season's elite defense should return next year. As long as the Card keeps recruiting at a high level and maintains some semblance of continuity within the coaching staff, the infrastructure and institutional support is present for an extended run of winning football.
What does this game mean to Stanford fans? They've been buying a lot of tickets and it seems like they'll outnumber the Wisconsin fans by a decent margin.
AD: It means everything. Nothing brings the Stanford fanbase together like a Rose Bowl, and after several seasons of coming painfully close to earning a berth in the Grandaddy of them All, to finally win the Pac-12 title the year after Andrew Luck graduated is pretty remarkable. Though the Cardinal has produced its fair share of NFL players over the years, the team has only been to one Rose Bowl since the 1970's (when they lost to Wisconsin), and hasn't won a Rose Bowl since 1972. Honestly, a decent number of Stanford fans would probably prefer a trip to Pasadena over an appearance in a national title game -- it means that much.
In terms of ticket sales, Stanford has certainly had an impressive showing. After lackluster attendance at the Pac-12 championship game (which, in fairness, was played at an inopportune time in poor weather with exorbitant ticket prices), selling nearly 40,000 tickets through the school alone (not counting Stub Hub and the tickets sold through other outlets) was a measure of redemption for the fanbase. Although the knowledge that the Cardinal missed out on a berth in the national championship by (what Stanford fans feel was) a blown call in the Notre Dame game gnaws at folks, it's hard to imagine a fan base more excited about its bowl placement than Stanford.
Finally, do you have a score prediction? How do you see this game unfolding?
AD: I'll go with 30-23 Stanford winning, though I won't be surprised if Wisconsin pulls the upset. I am confident, however, that the game will be close, mostly because 85 percent of Stanford's games this year have been close. I think the outcome boils down to two factors: 1) Can Stanford force Wisconsin to rely the pass game to move the ball? 2) Is the real Wisconsin offense the one we saw in the Big-10 title game, or is it the relatively anemic squad that showed up for much of the Big-10 schedule? If it's the latter, you have to like Stanford's chances. But I get the sense that Wisconsin will pull out all of the stops in the Rose Bowl, and that with Matt Canada free to run the offense the way he wants, the Badgers will try to keep Stanford on its heels. I think the Stanford offense will have reasonable success, but if Montee Ball gets going, it's hard to envision the Cardinal power run game keeping up. That said, I have enough faith in Stanford's defense to predict that the Cardinal will hold off a stiff test from the Badgers, albeit not with much breathing room.
Thanks again to Andy for his help! You can follow him on Twitter at @AndyDruk.