Remain True to Offensive Identity
The offensive identity that took Stanford football to new heights is rooted in a power run game that's aided by the threat of timely playaction passing. The Cardinal followed the formula beautifully against Oregon. They actually continued their success for much of the game at USC. Running backs churned out 210 yards on 35 carries (6.0 yards per carry), while Kevin Hogan developed a respectable rhythm in the intermediate passing game (a very welcome offensive addition for David Shaw's offense).
But a few poorly-timed gaffes were enough to derail the effort and limit Stanford to only 10 points in four red zone possessions. The first self-inflicted wounds came courtesy Ty Montgomery's two drops and Conrad Ukropina's blocked field goal attempt. Then, on first-and-goal from the six yard line during Saturday's fourth quarter, the Wildcat formation gave USC the luxury of knowing exactly what was coming: A Tyler Gaffney run. The Trojans no longer had to concern themselves with the threat of Hogan passing or running himself, though he had found an excellent rhythm mixing both on the six plays that netted 79 yards leading up to the snap. They surged past Josh Garnett's block, and the game unraveled from the point of the ensuing four yard loss: Dion Bailey's interception two plays later extinguished Stanford's chances at scoring the potential winning points, and they'd never come close to the red zone again.
Another questionable decision -- a pass on second down and two in a spot where eating up clock should have been a priority -- led to Hogan's second ugly interception, the mistake that put USC in position for the field goal kill just a few plays later.
On the whole, Stanford did a better job of committing to its power run identity than it did at Utah and Oregon State. But they again abandoned the winning formula at some of the game's most critical junctures. That's how this November 16 will ultimately be remembered.
Continue to Increase Hogan's Comfort Level
The story here is similar. The Cardinal also did a good job with this key for much of the game, but mistakes at crucial points overshadowed that success. The aforementioned Wildcat and second down calls thrust Hogan into unnecessarily disadvantageous situations. Montgomery's multiple drops helped negate what would have been viewed as a solid quarterback performance.
Of course, Hogan must avoid forcing a Brett Favre-like ball into coverage when he's under duress. That's what ultimately caused the game's defining pick. But Stanford must also do a better job putting No. 8 into a position that's built for success. Hogan is not Andrew Luck; his skill set does not allow him to conceal risky tactical maneuvers in the same way that No. 12 did. Second and two should have been a rushing down for the Cardinal, just as it famously was a week earlier against Oregon.
Early success can also help any quarterback settle down on the road, and that's where Montgomery's third-play streak drop hurt the Cardinal the most. After a shaky start forced Stanford to burn a pair of timeouts right out of the gate, Montgomery had the chance to suck the air out of the Coliseum before things really got rolling. His failure to haul in Hogan's perfect pass invigorated the Trojans instead.
Stop the Run to Neutralize Receivers
Imagine a Cy Young pitcher who gives up a pair of early runs, only to settle down and post zeroes until the ninth inning, when a ghastly error behind him allows the opposition to plate the winning run. The Stanford defense was this Cy Young pitcher at the Coliseum (where, fittingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers long ago played baseball), and it took the loss because its own offense failed to provide adequate run support (one can say the Cardinal stranded a roomful of runners in scoring position).
Simply put, Derek Mason's unit was fantastic, and it did not deserve the grisly ending that confronted it as the clock hit zero and 93,000 stormed the field. After adjusting to USC's early game surprises (highlighted by Cody Kessler's mobility), the Stanford defense turned its play up to an airtight level. The Trojans rushed for only 0.9 yards per carry. The Cardinal spent a good part of the final 40 minutes pushing that offense backwards. Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor made some key catches, but the fact of the matter is that USC scored only three points after the Cardinal made their adjustments (a disciplined pass rush), and those three points came only after Hogan's second interception gave the Trojans excellent field position.
Trent Murphy was spectacular building the wall up front. He finished with eight tackles (four TFL) and two sacks. He now leads the nation in sacks (12) and TFL yardage (118). That's well over one football field of takedowns in the backfield.
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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