While No. 33 has fought tooth and nail for each of his 681 yards (on pace for 1362 yards plus a potential bowl game performance) so far this season, here's a frightening thought: where exactly would Stanford be right now if its offensive line had regressed in pass protection in the way that many had expected it to without Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro? Stomach-turning setbacks at Washington and Notre Dame might be complemented by additional losses to San Jose State, USC, and Arizona - three games that the Farm Boys eked out by the skin of their teeth. All have been very losable despite the fact that the Cardinal defense was stout in two of them.
Fortunately, the saving glue of pass blocking has come to the rescue, saving valuable yards of field position and preserving rare first downs. The Cardinal have surrendered only six sacks all season. They're mathematically expected to give up only 0.35 sacks per game against an average Division I pass rush, good for fifth in the nation. Meanwhile, Cal has given up 29 sacks on the year and is expected to see their quarterback go down 3.65 times per game against the standard rush.
If such poor line performance struck the Cardinal's offense, it would likely induce 2006-level offensive ineptitude.
David Yankey earns much credit for making the move from guard to tackle and locking down Josh Nunes' blind side, while Kevin Danser and Khalil Wilkes must be saluted for their steady improvement at the guard positions. Both have delivered crucial blocks on big screen passing plays and dramatic Taylor touchdown runs, while Sam Schwartzstein and Cam Fleming have been solid anchoring the rest of the front. Freshmen Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy, and Joshua Garnett are hammering their way into the jumbo set mix. The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Garnett even lined up at fullback at Notre Dame.
Still, run blocking post-Martin and DeCastro has taken a hit. Stanford's average of 4.3 yards per carry is down an entire yard from last year's 5.3 figure despite, several Houdini Acts and Toby Gerhart impressions from Taylor. In four of its six games, Stanford has averaged fewer than four yards per carry. Against Washington, the Cardinal couldn't muster three yards per touch.
Blame can't all be thrown on the line. Nunes' struggles, receiver drops and arguably the play-calling have each taken away the Cardinal's consistent play-action threat downfield, allowing stacked boxes to tee off on a running game that has relied on a steady dose of bunch formations. San Jose State unveiled the effective "stack the box" strategy after falling behind 14-0 in week one, and every subsequent Stanford opponent has sold out against the run. Notre Dame's game-ending goal-line [Ed: almost-]stand was the most recent example.
The missing link between excellent pass protection and questionable run struggles is, quite clearly, short-to-medium range passing efficiency. Stanford enjoyed success here last season and they're missing it this year. A clear blueprint to beat the Cardinal will exist until this issue is resolved.
Midseason Grades: Offense
Offensive Line: B (excellent pass protection, spotty run blocking - but they're certainly not getting much help from the passing game)
Quarterback: D (a couple of bright spots against USC and overmatched Arizona have added some smiles to an otherwise bleak first half of play)
Running Backs: B (Stepfan Taylor has done his very best, but true potential won't be realized until full depth is actually utilized: Kelsey Young only has five carries)
Wide Receivers: D (a number of Ty Montgomery drops have been crushing for an already-struggling offense, but improved play recently from Drew Terrell has helped)
Tight Ends: B (at Stanford, these guys deserve their own category. Zach Ertz has been excellent, but the fade to Levine Toilolo doesn't work)
Playcalling: C- (you have to like some of what Stanford has done, such as splitting Ertz out wide to create mismatches. But increased creativity is needed to realize the potential of a stacked roster)
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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