Let's not write Stanford off just yet. The Cardinal's national ranking is falling, but the sky isn't.

After a sizzling start, Stanford has hit a rough patch in a rugged conference. It needed a last-minute defensive stand to repel previously undefeated Washington, then lost at unranked Utah.

The offense is sputtering, the defense is wobbling, and a team that looked like a national title contender in September has dropped to No. 13 in the polls with the meat of its schedule bearing down.

The next three opponents (No. 9 UCLA on Saturday, then Oregon State and No. 2 Oregon) have a combined record of 16-1. Each team was a play away from beating Stanford last year and is better now than it was then.

It's not difficult to envision the Cardinal emerging from this rugged midseason stretch with another loss or two and its string of Bowl Championship Series appearances in jeopardy.

But recent history suggests Stanford will regain its footing quickly. The Cardinal hasn't lost back-to-back games in four years and usually plays its best when the stakes are highest. Since ascending to the national stage at the start of the 2010 season, Stanford is 12-4 against ranked teams.

"There's not any panic; we're not doing any soul searching," said senior linebacker Shayne Skov, one of four team captains. "We've got a veteran group."


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Stanford's problems are correctable, its goals within reach: Despite falling a game behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North division, the Cardinal (5-1, 3-1) controls its own destiny in the Rose Bowl race and remains in the national championship hunt, albeit on the outskirts.

"The hard part about losing when everybody says you're supposed to win is the natural feeling that something had to go terribly wrong, as opposed to other team playing better," Cardinal coach David Shaw said of the loss at Utah. "And they did. They played better and smarter."

Utah offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, the former 49ers coach, modeled his game plan on Washington's approach the previous week: Both teams spread Stanford's defense with sideline-to-sideline plays, then hit the Cardinal with runs up the gut.

(Defensive end Henry Anderson's knee injury has limited options on the line. But every team has injury issues at this point in the season, and the Cardinal's are modest by comparison.)

The Utes also borrowed from Washington's defensive tactics. They loaded up on the line of scrimmage to contain Stanford's running game, pressured sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan and took away the downfield passing game.

For the first time since taking charge of the offense late last season, Hogan has played like a young quarterback the past two weeks. The loss to Utah was his first as a starter after 10 consecutive wins.

"He hasn't played his best the last couple of games," Shaw said, "but he's played well enough to put us in position to win."

Stanford was in a similar predicament last year at this time. It lost a close game at Washington, then needed overtime to beat Arizona. A controversial defeat at Notre Dame on the second Saturday in October pushed the Cardinal into must-win territory.

After a week of players-only meetings, impassioned locker room speeches and grueling practices, Stanford reeled off eight consecutive victories to win the Pac-12 title and the Rose Bowl.

This time around, the situation isn't nearly so dire.

"This is different," Skov said. "We're exploring where we can get better, but we know who we are. We just have to fix the little things and push ourselves harder."

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.