Breaking Down the Stanford Offense

Last year, Stanford was the thorn in Arizona State’s side. The Cardinal’s battering and bruising way of football beat down the Sun Devils in both of the 2013 matchups. ASU just couldn’t match the intensity at the line of scrimmage and struggled to match up when Stanford went to its heavy sets. What can the Sun Devils expect from this side of the ball Saturday night?

Perhaps the reason why Stanford has had so much success in years past is because they are so different than every team in the conference. The Cardinal, under Jim Harbaugh and now David Shaw, have excelled by going back to the basics, lining up, running power and beating the man in front of you – and doing it really, really well.

“With Stanford, they are so different and have become unique because they are playing football -- the tight ends and both running backs,” Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “Now what they’ve done by just playing old school football is they’ve made themselves unique. That’s one challenge – you’ve been built to defend spread offenses and now you have got to completely switch gears and be able to defend multiple tight ends, wing sets and things where normally you start early in fall camp. They understand how to run the football. You can’t stay blocked and you have to have guys up front who can get off blocks and make plays.”

Much like ASU, Stanford came into the season with plenty of holes to fill, a majority on defense, which hasn’t been the problem. Only one starting offensive lineman returned from last year’s team in star left tackle Andrus Peat. Due to this, the offense has seemingly struggled to repeat what it has done in years past, and according to Patterson the identity of the team is changing.

“There’s definitely a difference from a year ago,” Patterson said. “I think their identity is a little bit different than what it was a year ago. There was pretty much no surprise what you were going to get (last year) when they’d line up with multiple tackles, tight ends or whatever you want to call them. And they spoon-fed the power to people.

“Now you see them spreading the ball around to different people and they’ve got playmakers, three quality running backs and multiple wide receivers that they can move the ball around to. I think they are in a very similar situation to where we are defensively – lost a lot of experienced players and have to define what is that identity. I thought they played better last week, their line played better and the quarterback executed better.”

This season, Stanford will sub in and out of sets far more often than they did in years past, meaning on one play they could show an eight- linemen front and on the next play show a three or four wide receiver set.

A great example of this came on Stanford’s very first drive against Notre Dame two weeks ago in South Bend.

Here we see the Cardinal come out with six offensive linemen, a tight end, two backs and a wide receiver split out to the left. This play was a dive right in the “A” gap to set the tone of the game as a physical contest. Watch what the very next play call is.

It’s a three wide set with one back and a tight end. Before the snap, the tight end goes in motion – Stanford uses motion extremely well, and we will get to that in a bit – to his left and explosive playmaker Ty Montgomery is in the slot (blue). The play call is a quick slot screen and Montgomery would have had a big gain if the blocks held out wide.

What those first two plays show is that the Cardinal are much more multiple in their sets and deployments compared to last season.

“I think you have got to be on the top of your game because you are going from seven and eight offensive linemen to three and four wide receivers or multiple running backs,” Patterson said. “You definitely have to be sharp and match up personnel. You have to make sure that whatever they put on the field you have to match it with your strengths.”

Montgomery is a guy that you have to pay careful attention to where he’s at on the field. Starting field safety for the Devils Jordan Simone said they will be looking for him on every play and checking his alignments to get a clue of where he is going and what he might be doing on a play.

Stanford has been trying more and more to just spoon-feed Montgomery, and will get him the ball in plenty of ways. In any given game, Montgomery will line up in the slot, out wide, in the backfield, or as the wildcat quarterback taking the direct snap.

“He’s 6’2” 220 lbs., so he’s big and physical but moves like he’s 190 lbs.,” Patterson said. “Obviously dangerous in the return game, big play capability every play offensively. You see them moving him around more trying to create ways and opportunities for him to get his hands on the ball.”

Here’s an innovative way Shaw will likely get the ball to Montgomery on Saturday:

Montgomery started flanked to the right, then came in motion into the backfield to dot the “I.”

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan takes the snap and tosses it to Montgomery. And on the very next play, he took a snap from the wildcat.

Montgomery will be a handful to contain, but luckily for ASU, the Cardinal will be without 6’4” 229 lbs. wide receiver Devon Cajuste, a guy who absolutely killed the Devils in the two games last season. Cajuste was often lined up in the slot and beat ASU down the seam numerous times.

No matter who it is in that role for Stanford on Saturday night, Arizona State will need to adjust to its prior lapses in coverage. The Cardinal are great at exploiting another team’s weakness.

“Playing them so many times over the last couple of years we are a lot more familiar with what they are trying to do and how they are trying to attack people,” Patterson said. “It’s been Montgomery on reverses; it’s been 89 (Cajuste) down the seam. That creates a matchup problem whether you play top down from the safety position or from the spur position if you’re trying to leverage outside in or inside out. What all good offensive coaches do is get their guy on the best matchup they can and get him the football.”

Stanford also uses motion to create mismatches, and do it better than almost everyone else.

“Some people just motion to motion and some people just shift to shift, but these guys understand why they’re shifting,” Patterson said. “From the way they deploy, changing structures and going in and out of structures with one back or two backs. They’ve got a very good understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish by doing that. They are trying to present one thing and give you another just so you can’t sit there and tee off on them.”

Lastly, Kevin Hogan has been a guy that has hurt the Devils with his arm, but has also extended plays with his legs in crucial third down situations. This year, he’s struggled to produce in the red zone and hasn’t been as efficient compared to last season. Yet, he’s still a guy that is among the top quarterbacks in the conference.

“He’s really smart,” Jordan Simone said. “And they give him freedom up front to check plays and all that. So we just have to disguise our coverages well and know that we are playing against a really smart player.”

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