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An early look at Stanford, Maryland's Foster Farms bowl opponent

We're still a few weeks away from the game, but it's time to introduce you to the Cardinal.

Harry How/Getty Images

How happy can you be if you're the best 7-5 team in the country? That's the question facing Stanford, who had a significant drop back in the win column but still performed like a top 25 team this season.

Maryland will play Stanford December 30 in the Foster Farms Bowl, so it's time to get you a bit more acquainted with the Cardinal. What we know so far: Maryland is the heaviest underdog among all bowl teams, and not a single SB Nation expert (myself included, unfortunately) picked the Terrapins to pull off the upset.

As mentioned previously, the Cardinal went 7-5 this season, well below recent outputs for the program. Jim Harbaugh quickly built the program into a Pac-12 power, and his offensive coordinator David Shaw picked up right where he left off, with 34 wins in his first three seasons as a head coach.Also notable! David Shaw is the name of Maryland's freshman nose tackle.

This season, Stanford lost three-point games to USC, Notre Dame and Utah and lost by wider margins to Arizona State and Oregon. They finished second in the Pac-12 North thanks to a 31-10 upset of UCLA in the regular season finale. That win guaranteed a winning season for the Cardinal and knocked the Bruins out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Between their high number of close losses and that dominating win against a very good UCLA team, you can see Stanford isn't your typical 7-5 squad. They rank 23rd in F/+ (the highest among five-loss teams), aided by one of the strongest defenses in the country (No. 8). They're not so good on the offensive end (No. 50), and have been particularly plagued by red zone troubles.

This is a familiar foe for Maryland. The Terps beat similar models in Penn State (No. 10 defense, No. 104 offense) and Michigan (No. 43 defense, No. 72 offense). Stanford's just a better version of those two. While you can certainly script an ending to this game wherein Maryland wins (a key Will Likely interception, an explosive play or two), the Cardinal certainly stack up like a team that could give the Terps some major problems.

Some players to keep track of:

  • Kevin Hogan, quarterback. A three-year starter, Hogan improved significantly from 2012 to 2013, drawing comparisons to previous Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as a potential NFL prospect. Then, this year happened. As a senior, he threw 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions, his yards per attempt dropped by more than a full yard and he was unable to run as consistently as he did in the past.
  • Ty Montgomery, wide receiver. One of the most explosive playmakers out west, Montgomery averaged 128.6 yards of all-purpose offense per game and is one of the best kick returners in the country.
  • Andrus Peat, offensive tackle. A probable first round pick, Peat's one of the best offensive linemen in the country. Andre Monroe made Iowa's Brandon Scherff look silly earlier this year -- could he do it again against Peat?
  • Henry Anderson, defensive end. Anderson's a constant threat in the backfield, recording 13.5 tackles for a loss this season with seven sacks and nine quarterback hurries.
  • Jordan Richards, safety. Richards and Anderson are both first team All-Pac-12 selections. The senior recorded 76 tackles and three interceptions this season, with four passes broken up and three forced fumbles.

For more on Stanford, we talked to Hank Waddles from GoMightyCard.

Testudo Times: What was the general reaction among Stanford fans when they found out their bowl slot and opponent?

Hank Waddles: One thing that's been interesting to see recently is how quickly the fan base has become accustomed to winning. Five years ago folks were thrilled that the team was headed to a bowl of any kind, but after those four consecutive BCS bowl games and two straight Rose Bowls, many fans have seen this season as something of a disappointment. I think you can find discontented fans in any fan base, but the reality is that any bowl game is a good thing for a program, and it's nice that it's just a short commute away from the Stanford campus. Also, one of the fun parts of a bowl game is the opportunity to measure your team against another conference (even though we're familiar with the Big Ten after playing Wisconsin and Michigan State in consecutive years) and play a team that doesn't typically appear on the schedule. I think fans are excited to learn about Maryland football and are looking forward to the matchup.

TT: Have Stanford fans lost any faith at all in David Shaw after this season?

HW: As mentioned above, there will always be some fans who are dissatisfied. Shaw had the misfortune to lose his first bowl game in a manner that was ripe for second-guessing. In the 2012 Fiesta Bowl he played it conservatively in the game's final minute. After Andrew Luck drove the Cardinal into field goal range in the final minute of a tie game, Shaw chose to let the clock run down and settle for a 41-yard field goal attempt rather than run another play or two. The kick was missed and the Cardinal lost to Oklahoma State in overtime, and some people have never gotten over that. Some of those dissenting voices have only gotten louder this season with the team's inconsistent play, and again - just like in any fan base - there are those who would argue that Shaw should be fired. Personally, I think that says a lot more about the changing expectations surrounding Stanford football than it does about Shaw's abilities as a coach, but I've also always been a huge fan of his. Jim Harbaugh might've been the only coach in America capable of turning the program around the way he did, but I think Shaw has been the perfect man to maintain that new level of success.

TT: What do you attribute the Cardinal's red zone issues to the most?

HW: So news of the Cardinal's red zone struggles has spread all the way to the other side of the country? Yes, it was kind of a disaster, especially early in the season. The problem, though, was that there were several problems. Against USC, every single Stanford drive crossed the USC 35, and yet the offense only managed to score 10 points in a frustrating loss. That game kind of summed things up, as drives were derailed by penalties, turnovers, and missed opportunities. One of the big problems has been the inconsistency of the offensive line. In 2013 the line was one of the best in America, and the unit combined to commit only two holding penalties all season long. Not only were they good, they were disciplined. Four of those linemen were lost to graduation, which should've been a red flag, but I think most observers - and this is another indicator of the high expectations surrounding the program - felt like the four replacements, each one a highly-touted recruit from Stanford's historic 2012 recruiting class, would simply slide into the starting lineup without missing a beat. That hasn't been the case. The growing pains of the new offensive line certainly made things more difficult for the offense, especially in the red zone. (Inconsistency at running back also hurt.) But the line seems to be coming together and performed well in the last two games, so the hope is that they've turned the corner.

TT: Kevin Hogan appeared to take a bit of a step back this season. Would you say that's accurate? What does Maryland most have to look out for with the Stanford QB?

HW: This is definitely true, but again, it's hard to pinpoint the reason. He definitely could have used more help from his offensive line, and he didn't have the usual strong running game to rely on, either. Also, this week it was revealed that his father had been battling colon cancer throughout the season and recently passed away. I can't imagine how Hogan was able to make it through this season with that weighing on him, so it's no wonder that his performance on the field slipped a bit. If Kevin Hogan had arrived at Stanford before Andrew Luck, I think most fans would view him as one of the best Cardinal quarterbacks in quite some time. But since he followed Luck, you can imagine that some folks have been disappointed. He hasn't improved as much as some hoped this season (again, we can now probably guess why), and his most vexing weaknesses remain. He doesn't do a good job looking to his second and third options on passing plays, and his focus on option number one has led to some interceptions and missed opportunities when option two could have netted a big gain or even a touchdown. Like most college quarterbacks, it seems like he makes at least one big mistake per game. Recently, though, the coaches have made a conscious effort to focus on his strengths. There have been more designed runs for him, either on read option plays or straight quarterback draws, and that wrinkle has definitely opened the offense up a bit. In his last game, the season-ending upset of UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Hogan played what I believe was the best game of his career in the dominant win, and I still believe his best football is ahead of him. Hopefully the Terrapins will get to see that up close and personal.

TT: Maryland has struggled this season against teams with strong defensive fronts and power running games. Stanford doesn't, uh, have either of those, do they?

HW: You don't have to worry about a power running game. After six consecutive seasons with a big running back gaining over a thousand yards (Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, and Tyler Gaffney), Stanford's rushing attack sputtered in 2014. There was no definite starter heading into the season, and it remained a running back by committee throughout the season. By the final weeks Remound Wright seemed to win the coaches' favor, getting more carries each week and exploding for four touchdowns against Cal three weeks ago. Stanford fans are used to seeing big, bruising backs who wear down a defense over the course of the game, but that hasn't happened this year. In fact, it has now been more than a calendar year since the last time a Stanford running back gained over a hundred yards in a game. Of all the things that have happened this season, that is by far the most preposterous. The next great Stanford running back is already here. Watch for true freshman Christian McCaffrey. He looks like he's about twelve, but he's probably the most electric player on the Stanford roster. He might get as many as ten touches against Maryland.

So the power running game is gone, but the powerful defensive line is not. Stanford's defense has been dominant all season long, and the attack has been led by the defensive line. The Cardinal plays a 3-4, and the three down lineman have been fantastic all season. Defensive end Henry Anderson is the most dynamic talent on the line, and his efforts earned him a first team All-Pac-12 selection. Playing alongside Anderson is David Parry, who's been incredibly productive for a nose tackle. He doesn't just eat up space and absorb blockers, he actually makes plays. The third starter was lost to injury a weeks ago, but Blake Leuders has filled in admirably. Aside from those three, look for linebackers James Vaughters and Peter Kalambayi to take turns rushing off the edge. Back to front, there are no real weaknesses in this defense.

TT: We can all look at the numbers, but who are some Stanford players or units that have jumped out this season potential impact-makers in this one?

HW: We might as well talk some more about the defense, because they've been that special this year. The linebackers have been phenomenal. I mentioned outside linebackers Vaughters and Kalambayi, but Blake Martinez and A.J. Tarpley have been great on the inside, making a slew of tackles and occasionally getting involved in the pass rush. Behind them, defensive backs Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons have been excellent, as has Stanford's other All-Pac-12 honoree, strong safety Jordan Richards.

On the offensive side of the ball, watch wide receiver Ty Montgomery. He missed the last two games with an unspecified shoulder injury, but the expectation is that he'll play in the bowl game. The coaching staff has moved Montgomery around on offense in an effort to force feed him the ball, but instead of lining him up as a running back or the trigger man in the wildcat or getting him the ball on reverses, I think they should've just let him run some routes downfield. As it is, the vast majority of his touches have been behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in a huge waste of talent. It will be interesting to see how he's used in his final game.