Commit to Offensive Strengths
Stanford's offense struggled with an identity crisis against Washington and especially at Utah. Despite rushing for 6.8 yards per carry in Salt Lake City, Tyler Gaffney only touched the ball 16 times in that game -- and none of those carries came during crunch time, when the Cardinal truly needed them. Even when they threw the ball against the Utes, the Farm Boys didn't use their strengths: There was a long stretch in the middle of the game during which the team's wide receivers were mostly absent, and explosive hero Ty Montgomery was off the field on the game's critical third down conversion, when Kevin Hogan's incomplete pass went toward converted defensive lineman Charlie Hopkins instead.
David Shaw and his staff learned from their mistakes, and it showed clearly in Saturday's 24-10 win over UCLA. Stanford recommitted itself to the power running game, feeding Tyler Gaffney 36 times. His 171 yards bruised the Bruins.
"They come out talking a lot, making a lot of big, flashy movements," Gaffney told me after. "I think by the second quarter they were worn down, and they were conserving their energy.... To shut them up, to make them play our game, is what we do here at Stanford."
No Stanford running back has rushed as many times as Gaffney did since Toby Gerhart got 38 carries in the Cardinal's win against Oregon in 2009. That game earned Stanford bowl eligibility for the first time since 2001. Coincidentally, Gaffney's workhorse effort also sealed bowl eligibility for his team here in 2013. The Cardinal has qualified for postseason play in five consecutive seasons, a school record.
Aside from returning to their power running identity, the Farm Boys also realized what was good for them in the passing department. The Bootleg emphasized the importance of full commitment to the team's wide receivers, and that happened whenever Hogan dropped back to pass Saturday. Devon Cajuste (7 catches, 109 yards) benefited immensely from UCLA's intense focus on Ty Montgomery while Kodi Whitfield made one of the most spectacular touchdown catches in Stanford history to give the Cardinal a lead they would not relinquish. Shaw may have frustrated fans with a handful of conservative calls in the first half and down the stretch, but those decisions ended paling in comparison to Stanford's return to form on offense.
Beat the Swing Pass
Derek Mason's defense was well prepared to guard the same perimeter action that Utah used to derail Stanford in the first half of last week's debacle at Salt Lake City. To the surprise of many, UCLA did not even attempt their first swing pass until 30 seconds remained in the first quarter. Though the Bruins did see a pair of healthy gains using the play, the Cardinal's defensive backs set rigid edges to prevent Baby Blue from going back to the well. It should also be noted that UCLA's offensive line was hopelessly beaten up (they were down to their 'nightmare scenario' plan at left tackle by the third quarter), and this helped Stanford's defensive linemen penetrate the Bruins' backfield without much blitzing help. Stanford's outside linebackers benefited from the opportunity to keep an eye out for passes to the edges, and Brett Hundley was restricted to the pocket.
Punish Hundley in the Pocket
UCLA's young quarterback may have passed Troy Aikman on the Bruins' career passing list, but that's about all that went right for the sophomore at Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal took away the perimeter passing game and UCLA was unable to produce a consistent rushing attack as a result, so Hundley had to resort to throwing from the pocket. He had to do so under heavy duress, too. Last season, the Cardinal sacked No. 17 10 times over the course of two games. On Saturday, they took him down four times on top of countless hits and quarterback hurries. Needless to say, Hundley was flustered, though he did escape for a few productive runs. At the end of the day, he finished averaging only 4.9 yards per passing attempt, and the Bruins' offense gained almost 300 fewer yards than their season average entering the game. They came in averaging 48 points per game; they finished scoring only 10.
Win On Special Teams
There was concern that Stanford would struggle to maintain its stellar kick coverage with Jordan Williamson out. Conrad Ukropina, though, did an excellent job filling in with directional kicking, though his leg certainly isn't as strong as Williamson's. The Bruins averaged only 17.6 yards per kick return. They returned three punts for a grand total of negative four yards. Ronnie Harris was amongst the Cardinal's coverage standouts. He helped complement Ben Rhyne's stellar numbers: six punts, 258 yards (43.0 average), and two boots downed inside the UCLA 20-yard line.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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