From halftime on, Stanford ran for 98 yards on 29 carries, a pedestrian 3.4 yards per carry. Meanwhile, from halftime on, Stanford threw for 184 yards – on 16-of-17 accuracy, for 10.8 yards per attempt. (Adding to the degree of difficulty, several of those completions came in obvious third-and-long passing situations, with Luck bailing out the play-callers after first- and second-down runs went nowhere.)
I understand a large part of Stanford's identity is running the ball. I understand that you run early to wear a team down, and I understand that you run to set up the pass. None of those three claims held up tonight, however.
First, I would counter that a large part of Stanford's identity in recent years has been exploiting mismatches, and Andrew Luck responding to a 10-man front and throwing potentially devastating play-action passes to NFL-caliber tight ends and a stud freshman wide receiver would certainly qualify as a mismatch. We did this once, in the first quarter, for a wide-open 50-yard touchdown. We never went back to it.
Second, we did run early with success. However, Oklahoma State's run defense did not weaken, but actually stiffened in the second half.
Finally, and most significantly, the master plan worked – the passing game was there on a platter for us to exploit, in large part because of the team's success pounding the rock in the first half. But by calling 29 runs and 17 passes after halftime, instead of the inverse ratio, Stanford left a victory on the table. (I would also love to compare our yards per play in shotgun/spread formations versus under center/heavy sets. I suspect we'll find a greater imbalance yet.)
2. We had all of our timeouts, a second and four at Oklahoma State's 19 and the better part of a minute left in regulation. We have a freshman kicker who already missed a field goal in the first quarter. We pride ourselves on pounding the rock and had stubbornly insisted on trying to do all half. But the one time we should try to pound it, we ease up on the gas and settle for a 37-yard field goal.
The better move would have been not to center it on second down, ala Walt Harris, but pound the thing and get a first. If it's still third and two, great, let's pound the thing again for a first, and then pound it some more. If Oklahoma State does force a fourth down, kick a field goal then, but otherwise keep marching the darn ball to the one-inch line, run the clock to three seconds and kick your field goal there. Yeah, our kickers will make 34-yard field goals, say, 85% of the time. But instead of trying to increase our odds of winning to 99%, we settled for 85%. It came back to bite us.
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All told, the loss especially stings for two reasons. First, one of our greatest football teams of all time outplayed a great football team. Plain and simple, we should have won this game. Yeah, we had one extra turnover, obviously we missed the three field goals, and Justin Blackmon is an absolute freak. Nonetheless, we outgained the most proficient offense in the country by 178 yards. Our defense had the better day – we had the huge goal-line stand after our fumble on our one-yard line, and we yielded only 13 rushing yards all day, versus the Cowboys' 243 rushing yards allowed. And, of course, we never trailed until the final whistle. It hurts to lose from ahead a game you could have won with better strategy.
Second, this coaching staff has already seen conservative play-calling backfire, nearly costing us this year's USC game, for example. The previous regime was refreshingly aggressive. It's part of Jim Harbaugh's natural personality and it's part of the character and cruelty mindset he purposefully installed, but perhaps the last coaching staff had to take those risks with their teams frequently decided underdogs. Now that Stanford's one of the big boys, I don't see that ruthlessness in our play-calling anymore. Ultimately though, as tonight illustrated all too clearly, if Stanford wants to remain a big boy, we need to get back to going for the throat. That's our take. Here is what the fourth estate is thinking.
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