Heading into the final month of the regular season, the Stanford Cardinal have big goals in mind.
As the only undefeated team in Pac-12 Conference play, the Cardinal (7-1, 6-0 Pac-12) are thinking not about a conference title, but about a national title, too. They are No. 9 in the Associated Press poll this week and No. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
The next step for Stanford is getting past Colorado (4-5, 1-4) on Saturday. Buffzone.com caught up with Tom FitzGerald, who covers Stanford for the San Francisco Chronicle, to get his take on the Cardinal.
Buffzone: For a guy who has won 31 games as a starting quarterback, Kevin Hogan doesn't get much recognition as one of the best in college football. What are his strengths and weaknesses, and would you say he's underrated?
FitzGerald: Yes, I'd say he's underrated in a general sense because many people think Stanford wins mainly because of its running game and defense. But this guy is a true leader. He reminds me of one of those old-time NFL quarterbacks, like Billy Kilmer and Joe Kapp, who refused to let their teams lose. He's the proverbial coach on the field. He's not the prettiest passer; he has a slow release, and even in the Washington State game he missed some wide-open receivers. But in the previous games, with the exception of Northwestern, his passing has been very good. His running has been hampered by a sprained ankle in the USC game. The WSU game was the first time since then that he's been able to cut like he used to.
Buffzone: Everybody knows about Christian McCaffrey — especially around here — but aside from him, which skill position players could hurt the Buffaloes on Saturday?
FitzGerald: Austin Hooper is a tight end in the Zach Ertz mold — great hands, gets separation, good blocker. Dalton Schultz is an up-and-coming tight end who is very good. Freshman running back Bryce Love is very fast and can make people miss, and Barry J. Sanders is capable of a long run or screen pass now and then. To sum up, they have a lot of weapons, but aside from Hooper, none of them have been nearly as consistent as McCaffrey.
Buffzone: Why is Stanford so good, year after year, at slowing down the game and dictating the pace of play?
FitzGerald: Well, for one thing they actually huddle. I guess the main thing, though, is they grind you down with their normally (but not always) excellent offensive line. They use their fullback (Daniel Marx), extra tight ends and offensive linemen to keep the chains moving. Running back Remound Wright is terrific on short-yardage plays. They don't throw many incomplete passes, so they don't stop the clock. Then they'll nail you with play-action passes. They're committed to that philosophy, and it's tough for defenses that are used to spread offenses week in and week out to adjust to their physicality.
Buffzone: As good as the Cardinal have been on defense, they have come up with just 13 sacks (11th in the Pac-12) this season. Is that stat misleading, or is there genuine concern about Stanford's pass rush?
FitzGerald: No, it's not misleading. They haven't gotten the push on the quarterback that they've had in years past. Kevin Anderson is probably their best pass rusher, and he just came back last week after missing four games with an injury. Part of the problem is that they really have only three good defensive linemen: Aziz Shittu, Brennan Scarlett and Solomon Thomas. Those guys are probably getting a little worn out.
Buffzone: With the annual showdown with Oregon looming next week, is there any concern that Stanford will be looking past CU, or is this team usually good at locking in on the task at hand?
FitzGerald: No chance. The Northwestern game taught them a painful lesson, that they can't overlook anybody. The Washington State game reinforced that. They very nearly lost a Pac-12 game against a team they usually beat like a drum. They're not going to overlook Colorado. They are very good at locking in on the task at hand; that's one reason they've been so successful the last six years.