Our previous look at advanced stats has already confirmed that Stanford's 2013 offense became more explosive. This article takes a look at some simpler, yet equally critical numbers, and these may suggest that Kevin Hogan's unit played a better brand of football, too. But there's still at least one glaring deficiency the Cardinal must address in 2014.
Best figures are highlighted in green, worst in red.
Explosiveness and Short-Range (Red Zone) Effectiveness
To put it bluntly, Stanford's performance in the red zone was inadequate for an offense of its talent level last year. The attack scored touchdowns on only 53 percent of its opportunities there, a staggering 20-point drop from the closing stretch of 2012 after Hogan took over. The figure was almost identical to the paltry 52 percent the Josh Nunes-led Stanford offense endured. Not a good sign, as that era featured the worst Cardinal red zone performance of the Harbaugh-Shaw era. Last year's showing wasn't much better.
Before the 2013 season, former Stanford assistant Mike Sanford spoke of the need to develop an ability for the offense to score not only from opponents' 20-yard line, but also from its own 20-yard line. At the time, the Cardinal were coming off a remarkable Rose Bowl 2012 stretch run that featured a nearly flawless ground-and-pound and tight end play-action performance in the red zone. Yet the Card didn't quite pack the vertical punch that could threaten to score from anywhere on the field.
That's a problem that Stanford obliterated to a million pieces. You say they needed explosiveness? Well, Michael Rector and Devon Cajuste finished one-two nationally in yards per catch in 2013.
But as the big plays made their grand entrance through the front door, Stanford's ability to convert the shorter opportunities snuck out the back.
Most presume that Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo took this particular success with them to the NFL, and it's fair to say the sudden absence of Stanford's tight ends did much to cripple the 2013 offense in short-range situations. Perhaps the Cardinal had become spoiled the previous four seasons, when they could routinely line up in and-goal situations with athletic behemoths who were a legitimate threat to block and catch. That dual threat was a central pillar of Stanford's power-based play-action scheme. Opposing defenses played in a thick fog of uncertainty.
Without tight end (93 catches and 10 touchdowns from the position in 2013 versus 10 catches and zero touchdowns in 2014) production, the tables turned: Stanford's offense suddenly became the uncertain entity that it once preyed upon in the red zone. Some timid, uncertain playcalling followed, and that seemed to yank Hogan out of his comfort zone. This wishy-washiness was on full, painful display in the team's two regular season losses. In crunch time at Utah, the Cardinal abandoned their functional rushing attack for low-percentage passes on third- and fourth-and-goal. Against USC, Stanford again showed no backbone in the red zone, managing to score only 10 points on four trips there.
In a spot where they had once been sharks, the Cardinal suddenly looked like fish out of water.
Three Factors Necessary for Improvement
Before the 2013 season, I used this space to predict that Stanford would have a legitimate shot at the national title game if Hogan could at least lead the way in approaching (not necessarily matching) Andrew Luck-era offensive production numbers in the table above. As one can see through the Cardinal's solid yards-per-play average (6.4) and third down conversion rate (51 percent) efforts, Hogan and Stanford did just that in multiple facets, so it's no surprise that the team finished mere plays away from an undefeated record.
Painfully close, in fact.
It's the glaringly bad performance in the red zone touchdown percentage column that ultimately derailed Stanford. A spot in the inaugural 2014 college football playoff, then, desperately calls for improvement in that regard. This progress requires improvement across three variables: tight end play, play calling, and quarterback play.
Stanford is optimistic it again has the horses to again deliver the much-missed dual threat at the tight end position. The staff says Austin Hooper has strengthened into a powerful blocker that can also threaten in the passing game with soft hands, while Eric Cotton's receiving ability turned heads this past spring. Greg Taboada, another youngster who redshirted last year, also harbors potential, while veteran Charlie Hopkins has had another year to adapt to his new tight end position.
If all goes according to plan, the improving tight end room will complement what may be the best wide receiver corps in Stanford football history, and the Cardinal will feature an offensive arsenal consistently capable of deep and short-range success. Theoretically, that improvement can put Stanford's play calling on more stable ground in crucial red zone and medium yardage-to-go situations.
This would open an opportunity for Hogan to truly shine in his third year at the helm. He's already demonstrated his athleticism and remarkable nose for the game of football. He's already shown an ability to make big plays downfield. Now, No. 8 is tasked with proving that he can methodically lead the effort to flummox opposing defenses in the shorter passing game, too. If that falls into place, Stanford will find itself in a spot where third and goal and third and four are again spots of tremendous opportunity, and not headache-inducing worry. When it comes to 2014 success, that's the pivotal battle Stanford's offense must win.
Shaw recently indicated that celebrated freshman Keller Chryst will very likely redshirt, meaning the two-three quarterback spots belong to lefty senior Evan Crower and Ryan Burns. The coaching staff was thrilled with Crower's performance throughout the offseason, and he looks to be Stanford's No. 2 guy. Meanwhile, the physical specimen Burns faces a critical season -- even if he doesn't see the field in any meaningful game situations. With Chryst's opportunity looming, Burns would certainly help his chances of seeing future playing time by making strides in practice throughout the course of this season. If Shaw has his way, Stanford could have a logjam of viable options (Hogan, Burns, Chryst) at the quarterback position next year. Classify that in the "good problem to have" department.
This now, though, is Kevin Hogan's year. In a season where Stanford's offense will likely be expected to pick up at least some slack following the departures of a several defensive studs, his job of rallying the Cardinal offense to the next level is of utmost importance.
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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