George Nikitin, AP
Stanford head coach David Shaw gestures during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)
Stanford is athletic and physical in the secondary, too. There's a reason the Cardinal forced a takeaway in 29 consecutive games: They usually stop the run and they always terrorize opposing quarterbacks. —David Lombardi,

David Lombardi covers Stanford football for The and knows the program as well as anyone. The Deseret News asked Lombardi five questions to gain insight into Utah's next opponent. Lombardi delivers updates and insight into Stanford football on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.

1. Stanford has become one of the top programs nationally in recent years. What has keyed Stanford's success and consistency?

Stanford has built a sturdy ship around dominance in the trenches. Sports performance director Shannon Turley has been a constant throughout the Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw eras, and his innovative approach has meshed well with the Cardinal's recruiting efforts to create a physical juggernaut that is simply stronger than every team that it plays.

Because Harbaugh and Shaw have been able to recruit perfectly to the system, Stanford has bullied opposing teams into submission. They initially did it behind Toby Gerhart. Then, Andrew Luck came along to add a sophisticated passing attack.

In 2012, the defense finally developed into an elite unit, leading the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. This season, it appears that the Cardinal have finally put it all together on both sides of the ball, though Washington's excellent pass defense did cause some struggles from quarterback Kevin Hogan.

2. Talk about Stanford's offense. Who are the primary playmakers and what type of offense does it employ?

You'll see a huge range of different formations from Stanford's offense. They're the only team in college football to run an "elephant package" — that's nine offensive linemen, one quarterback and one fullback. The formation features well over 3,000 pounds of bunched-in beef. Stanford is also capable of spreading five wide receivers on the field, though they'll probably most often line up in a two-wide, two-back (including the fullback) power run-enabled set.

Receiver Ty Montgomery is the primary playmaker; he offers elite explosiveness and he racked up nearly 300 all-purpose yards against Washington. Six-foot-4, 230-pound Devon Cajuste runs like a receiver despite his tight end's size, so he's a primary threat, too. Stanford employs a full stable of running backs. Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson are the two main men, but you may see some Barry Sanders action as well.

3. Same question on defense. Who are the top players and what type of defense does Stanford run?

Stanford runs a 3-4 defense that's anything but ordinary. The front seven is massive. Outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who checks in a 6-6, 265 pounds, is a strong All-American candidate at this point in the season. Middle linebacker Shayne Skov is one of the most explosive in the country, while AJ Tarpley and James Vaughters put the finishing touches on a lethal second level that complements defensive linemen Josh Mauro and Ben Gardner well.

Stanford is athletic and physical in the secondary, too. There's a reason the Cardinal forced a takeaway in 29 consecutive games: They usually stop the run and they always terrorize opposing quarterbacks.

4. How does Stanford view its matchup with Utah? Where does the Cardinal match up well against the Utes and what are some potential trouble areas?

I think Stanford is wary of this matchup because Utah is a big and physical team. The Utes' offensive front will pose the biggest size challenge that Stanford's defenders will face in Pac-12 play this year, so that'll certainly be a unique test.

Defensively, Utah has done a great job pressuring opposing quarterbacks. They lead the conference in sacks. Executing blitz pick-ups in a hostile road environment isn't easy, and Stanford will have to play well to avoid UCLA's struggles in Salt Lake City last Thursday. That being said, I think Stanford ultimately likes this matchup because Utah's pass defense is nowhere near Washington's caliber. The Cardinal defense is licking its chops after seeing Travis Wilson throw six interceptions in his last outing.

5. What does Stanford need to do to come out of Salt Lake City with a victory?

Kevin Hogan must regain his mojo and deliver a solid performance on the road. This will allow Stanford to control the chains on third down, a spot that has been particularly problematic for Utah: The Utes are 3 for 27 on third down over the course of their past two games. If the Cardinal can pass more effectively than they did versus Washington, they'll control third down and earn their defense enough rest to make Wilson's life continually miserable in similar situations. If the Utah pressure causes Hogan to struggle, on the other hand, it's possible that the Utes carry over control of the game's tempo to the offensive end.


Twitter: @BrandonCGurney