Scouting Stanford: Iowa's Rose Bowl foe efficient, explosive

Chad Leistikow

On its official depth chart, Stanford lists each player’s major instead of hometown – a nod to being one of the nation’s most respected academic institutions. Stanford’s football program for the second straight year recorded a 99 in GSR (Graduation Success Rate), tops among all FBS and FCS schools.

But don’t be fooled. These bookworms can play some great football, too.

As of Friday, the 102nd Rose Bowl Game Jan. 1 between the 11-2 Cardinal and 12-1 Iowa in Pasadena, Calif., is only two weeks away. (Two weeks?!? Yes, bowl season comes quickly when you play in a conference championship game.)

With that in mind, it’s time for a Cardinal cram session. Here are the five important things to know when scouting AP No. 5 Stanford, which is a 6½-point favorite over the sixth-ranked Hawkeyes:

A program in full swing

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey runs away from the USC defense in the Cardinal's 41-22 win in the Pacific-12 Conference title game in Santa Clara, Calif.

Stanford won three Pacific-12 Conference titles in the last four years after winning three in the previous 40. So the Cardinal are no fluke under fifth-year coach David Shaw, a Bill Walsh protégé who was the offensive coordinator during the rise of No. 1 NFL draft pick Andrew Luck as the program’s quarterback, then became head coach in 2011 for Luck’s senior season.

This is Shaw’s most dynamic offense since Luck was at the helm. The Cardinal are averaging 37.2 points and 436.0 yards per game. And if you thought those numbers were impressive, get this: They’re averaging 35 minutes, 23 seconds of possession time per game, easily No. 1 in FBS.

Put plainly, Stanford is all about intelligence and execution – and that starts with the steady, thinking man in Shaw, who has a 53-14 record since taking over for Jim Harbaugh. And Shaw's coaching mind was influenced by Hall of Famer Walsh, a former Stanford coach and three-time Super Bowl winner with the San Francisco 49ers.

“You have a bunch of guys that ask a lot of questions being the Stanford kids that they are,” Shaw said. “But that is the thing with Bill, which was let’s explore everything before we ever get to game day. So by the time we get to game day we have the answers to the questions when they present themselves.” is a thing

That’s a Stanford-created website touting the remarkable exploits of sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.

The son of former Denver Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey (which, for the record, way is spelled differently than Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery) put together a season for the ages. He gained an FBS single-season-record 3,496 all-purpose yards – 1,847 rushing, 540 receiving and 1,109 on kick/punt returns. That includes 319 rushing attempts, a team-high 41 catches and 50 returns. (He also is 2-for-3 passing for 28 yards, which don’t count toward all-purpose yardage, and two TDs.)

Iowa hasn’t faced a running back all year like this, but then again, outside of Stanford’s 12 unique opponents, who really has? The best running-back comparisons for Iowa fans might date to 2014 – either David Johnson of Northern Iowa (who had 203 receiving yards and 34 rushing in a 31-23 loss at Kinnick Stadium) or Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin (31 rushes, 200 yards; four catches, 64 yards in a 26-24 win).

McCaffrey is listed at 6 feet tall, 201 pounds. The only opponent that didn’t let McCaffrey go crazy was Northwestern in the season opener – more on that one next.

About that Northwestern game

Hawkeye fans have either heard about or touted Stanford’s 16-6 opening loss Sept. 5 in Evanston, Ill. – a place Iowa won, 40-10, on Oct. 17 with a patchwork offensive line and fourth-string tailback.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz remembers seeing Stanford in film study.

“The first game of the season seems like it was five years ago,” Ferentz said. “… So I really don’t think that game is totally representative of Stanford. You think about a West Coast team playing early in the morning, Central time here. And the other part is Northwestern (10-2) is a very, very good football team, as we all know.

“College football especially is all about the progress a team makes, and certainly I think our team has grown during the course of the season week by week.”

As mentioned, McCaffrey wasn’t a big factor. He only got 12 carries for 66 yards in that game. But the Cardinal figured out their identity quickly. After being held to six points by the Wildcats, no team has held the "Wild Caff" Cardinal below 30 since.

That’s 12 straight games of 30-plus points. By comparison, when the Hawkeyes scored 30-plus in five consecutive Big Ten games, that was an Iowa school record.

Stanford’s sneaky style

On the surface, Stanford seems to be a lot like Iowa. Both teams run a pro-style offense and exhibit effective balance. The Cardinal average 225.1 yards per game rushing and 210.9 passing. (Iowa’s numbers are 192.0 rushing, 201.8 passing.)

But remember, these guys are smart. In advance of the Pac-12 title game, Southern California defenders marveled at the complexity of Stanford’s offense, which includes more than 50 formations.

The good news for a disciplined Iowa defense is that by kickoff there will have been nearly four weeks to study Stanford film. The bad news is that there’s time for the Cardinal to dream up even more fresh looks.

At the controls for Stanford is Kevin Hogan, the winningest active quarterback in FBS with a 35-10 record. Hogan is the master at taking what defenses give him – he attempted just 12 passes in the Pac-12 title win over USC, and Stanford scored 41 points.

Hogan has assembled 9,162 passing yards, 1,225 rushing and 86 touchdowns in a sterling four-year career. His offense led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and is third nationally in third-down conversion percentage (.512).

Yes, this is the most complete offense Iowa has faced all season.

But what about the defense?

There are two ways to view Stanford’s defense.

Way No. 1: You can score on the Cardinal. They yield nearly a point per minute – 23.1 a game while being on the field for an average of 24½ minutes. They give up 5.7 yards per play, compared with 4.8 for Iowa.

Way No. 2: They’re still one of the best defenses in the wide-open Pac-12, ranking No. 3 overall. Iowa wasn’t facing the statistical likes of Oregon, California, Arizona, Washington State, USC (twice), UCLA or Notre Dame as Stanford did during an 11-2 season.

So what’s the best approach for the C.J. Beathard-led Hawkeyes? Probably ball control. Stanford’s weakest qualities on defense are turnover creation (only 12 in 13 games) and pass rush (just 2.1 sacks per game).

If Iowa’s offense can churn the chains and stay on the field, Stanford’s stays off it.


11: Number of Stanford players who are engineering majors.

2012: The year Stanford became the first college program to use iPad playbooks.

268.9: All-purpose yardage per game by sophomore Christian McCaffrey.

49: Number of carries by backup running back Barry Sanders, son of the former NFL great with the same name.

35:23: Average possession time per game by Stanford, tops in FBS.

78-for-80: The combined kick accuracy of senior Conrad Ukropina (17-for-19 field goals, perfect on 61 PATs).

132: Tackles by linebacker Blake Martinez this season, 80 more than any teammate.

46-6: The Cardinal's record in games played in California since 2010.