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Stanford vs. Arizona: A first look at the Cardinal

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An underachieving Stanford team makes its way to Tucson for Homecoming.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats are coming off a bye week and will play host to a struggling Stanford Cardinal team in Week Nine. It will be Arizona’s Homecoming weekend so there should be some extra energy in the stadium for kickoff. The contest is scheduled for Saturday evening at 8 P.M. Arizona time.

Stanford’s 2016 Record – 4-3 (2-3)

Key Games – Week one win vs. Kansas State (26-13), Week three win vs. USC (27-10), Week four win at UCLA (22-13), Week five loss at Washington (44-6), Week eight loss vs. Colorado (10-5)

Key Offensive Players – Christian McCaffrey (RB), Michael Rector (WR), Ryan Burns (QB), Trenton Irwin (WR), Johnny Caspers (OG)

Key Defensive Players – Solomon Thomas (DE), Peter Kalambayi (LB), Kevin Palma (LB), Dallas Lloyd (Safety)

Stanford is coming off a disappointing loss at home to Colorado which marked their third conference loss. The Cardinal are still in decent shape to make it to a bowl game, but 2016 thus far has to be considered a letdown after entering the season ranked in the top 10.

In spite of underwhelming performances through the first three games, the Cardinal registered a 3-0 start to the season. Since that time they are 1-3 with their lone win coming against a mediocre Notre Dame team with no McCaffrey. That should give you an idea as to how badly the Irish are struggling this year.

The writing was on the wall for an off year when Stanford lost six key players from last season’s Pac-12 championship team. Offensively speaking they lost Kevin Hogan (QB), Austin Hooper (TE) and Devon Cajuste (TE). Hogan is likely the biggest loss as the passing game feels nonexistent.

Last season, Hogan averaged nearly 22 attempts per game with 9.43 yards per attempt. He also registered just over 200 yards per game. Through seven games this season, Burns is averaging approximately 18 attempts per game with 7.22 yards per attempt. He is averaging approximately 127 yards per game.

It’s important to point out that tight ends have played a key role in the Stanford passing game. In 2015, Hooper and Cajuste combined for 61 receptions and 821 yards, which accounted for approximately 28 percent of the team’s production in each category.

With the departures of Hooper and Cajuste, the Cardinal have needed to rely on Dalton Schultz and Greg Taboada to fill that void. Unfortunately, the production just hasn’t been there. They have combined for 14 receptions and 154 yards through seven games.

The other missing piece to Burns’ game is the running aspect. He is basically on pace to match Hogan’s attempts last year (85) for roughly 270 less yards. This has put an amazing amount of pressure on McCaffrey to carry the offense.

On the defensive side of the ball, players like Blake Martinez (LB), Aziz Shittu (DE) and Ronnie Harris (CB) have moved on as well. These three aren’t easy to replace but David Shaw has box players like Solomon Thomas (DE), Peter Kalambayi (LB) and Kevin Palma (LB) filling the void. The Cardinal are allowing nearly 21 points per game, which is on par with last season’s 22 points per game.

You can typically expect a David Shaw-coached team to play with limited mental mistakes and strong defense, especially in the box. UA is expected to have Brandon Dawkins and possibly Anu Solomon available to add quarterback depth. The passing game will play a pivotal role for the Wildcats’ offensive game plan as Nick Wilson will likely be sidelined again.

The blue print for defeating the 2016 Stanford Cardinal is simply focusing on McCaffrey. If Yates is able to limit McCaffrey and force Burns to beat UA in the air, the chances for a Wildcats’ victory increase dramatically. I won’t be as optimistic if he has a game like we saw against USC.