Two Drives

I wish I could say that Stanford Football has an Oregon problem, and just move on to the next game. The truth is far more disconcerting: Stanford Football has a Stanford Football problem.

Stanford’s offense has been an unmitigated mess when put either on the road, facing ranked teams, or both. The state of dysfunction has been such that it has hardly mattered that not all the defenses that have shut down Stanford have been elite. Here are the conference and national rankings for the defenses of teams who have beaten Stanford:

TeamPac-12 PPG & RankNational PPG & Rank
USC22, 2nd23, 39th
Notre DameN/A22, 29th
ASU26, 5th24, 49th
Oregon28, 6th25, 57th

It wouldn’t be right to dismiss these defenses as terrible, but the fact is that after Notre Dame, Stanford faced two ranked teams whose defenses weren’t, aren’t, and will not be their strongest unit. Cal put up 41 on Oregon just a week previous to the Cardinal’s trip to Eugene. Yes, venue change matters, but Oregon doesn’t become the ’85 Bears just because they follow a Duck on a motorcycle onto the field. Ask Arizona.

The Duck offense came out and torched Stanford’s esteemed defense, scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions. Twice Stanford was able to respond by moving the ball, twice they settled for field goals, and the die for this game had been cast. The runaway in the second half was set up by the failures in the first, as is so often the case. So let’s look at the Cardinal’s first two drives, and note the confluence of coaching and execution fiascoes that struck a Stanford team that looked at the outset like it was prepared to run with the Ducks, at least at the start.

Stanford’s first four plays revealed so much about the Cardinal’s season. First, the Cardinal opened the game in an I formation, all but broadcasting its intentions over the public address. Remound Wright gets the handoff, but the play is detonated when Kyle Murphy whiffs on his block. The coaches have taken plenty of heat this season and deservedly so, but this line has to held accountable as well.

Play number two is Montgomery in the Wildcat formation. Ty takes the snap, the line holds up, and he expertly finds a hole off tackle for a 16-yard gain. It started as a joke, but frankly it’s now officially a reality. Ty Montgomery is one of Stanford’s two best runners, and neither half of the duo is a running back. Hogan then runs a play action fake (!) and hits the the tight end Hooper (!!) for 13 more yards. Stanford next reverts back to an unbalanced left formation, where Kelsey Young proves once again he is not a between-the-tackles runner. He racks up Stanford’s second RFLONG (run for little or no gain) of the game in three rushing attempts, setting the Cardinal up with second and nine.

Stanford lines up in its Favored Formation.(And we’ll call it that for the rest of this article.) It’s twin WRs right with a single WR split left, a back in the backfield, and a tight end lined up on the right side of the line. Johnny Caspers gets absolutely bulldozed almost straight into Hogan, interfering with the QB’s naturally troubled delivery, and the result is an incompletion. And that gets us to the first third down attempt of the game against the conference’s worst third-down defense. Stanford actually repeats the formation of the previous play, and the following all happen: Hogan misidentifies two wide open receivers, doesn’t read an Oregon blitzer, and center Graham Shuler can’t hold his block long enough for Hogan to find the third open receiver he was apparently hoping to target, so Hogan ends up brought down after picking up a yard. Hard to pin the opening series failure on the coaches’ play calling. (Practice prep may be a different story.) Three of Stanford’s five offensive linemen self-detonated within the first six plays of the game, and Hogan, while hitting Hooper on a nice pass, was eventually hurt by both the line play and his own lack of field vision.

Stanford’s second series begins with a single back, a double tight end alignment on the left and wide receivers bracketing the formation. Stanford runs and Caspers is again pushed around and shoved aside by an Oregon linebacker, who nails Sanders for a three-yard loss. This is the fourth ballcarrier to run the ball in Stanford’s first four rushing plays. Stanford returns to its “FF” and at this point I noticed something for the first time: Oregon was in a cover-two defense, with both safeties at least 10 yards off the ball. Those safeties would remain off the ball for the remainder of the game, and I couldn’t remember a time in the previous years when Stanford faced a defense so utterly unconcerned about its run game. Typically, teams have had to commit at least one safety to the line of scrimmage. No more. (And DeCastro sends another flat screen out the window.)

On 3rd and 13, Oregon is made to pay for its deep safeties when Cajuste, operating from the slot, finds a spot underneath and Hogan hits him for a nice 18-yard gain. Here we get a clue as to why Stanford’s receiving talent hasn’t produced as many points as many had hoped. The Cardinal has a logjam at slot receiver, but only Montgomery seems comfortable consistently operating from outside the numbers, at least before the ball arrives. Stanford’s inability to beat press coverage on the outside has played an understated role in both its red zone and overall struggles. Teams are less likely to blitz when they fear speed on the outside. Cajuste and Montgomery bring much to the table, but they don’t often beat press coverage.

Stanford then went into a single back formation with two wide receivers staggered, one on the line and one behind the other, and out of this they ran Hogan off tackle. The result was an 18 yard-gain. We have a non-running back running out of a pass formation, and Stanford has success. For whatever reason, the line is in far better sync than in conventional running plays. Could it be that the defense is just a step slow to react because they aren’t 100% sure of the call? It sure looked like it on the next play, when Stanford ran Young on a sweep, but out of a pro set formation with Hogan in the shotgun and two wide receivers left and one on the right. Again, we have a successful run with a speedy runner getting to the perimeter out of a pass formation. Stanford continued this formational deception for a third straight play. They had Sanders run out of a single back, trips right, single left formation, and the result was Sanders’ good vision leading to a five-yard gain. That’s 34 yards of offense on three straight carries. Yes, by a different back each time, but let’s not get too greedy here. Stanford had established run success, at least on this drive. Remember this in a couple paragraphs.

Unfortunately, the players left the next play short. Garnett gets beat in pass protection but Hogan manages to get the pass off anyway, only to have Montgomery drop the ball. Stanford rallies though, with Hogan finding Hooper up the middle while taking a hit. Credit Hogan and let us say that at no point has anybody questioned our quarterback’s toughness. Regardless, we have a vertical throw between the numbers to a tight end, and a 16-yard completion.

And this is where the wheels come off the train.

After demonstrated success running out of pass formations, the Cardinal returns to a jumbo I formation. Oregon responds with four down linemen instead of its typical three, and 10 defenders within five yards of the ball. Sanders is stuffed for a one-yard gain. On second and nine, the Cardinal sets up in another tight formation, with two TE down off the line to the left and nobody outside the numbers. I’m thinking to myself, “Here it is. Play Action and the Duck defense is ripe for the pickings.” Instead, they run the ball, the Duck defense blows the line and Sanders into smithereens and a great drive now meets the crossroads at third and 12 at the Oregon 25. Stanford, in an obvious pass formation, botches a hitch screen to Montgomery, the touchdown dream is dead, and Stanford has essentially set the tone of frustration it would hit for much of the game before Hogan’s second-half turnovers put them under. Why would the coaches leave what was working?

Even blow outs are often a question of 3-4 key plays. It’s this fact that has had Stanford fans under the delusion that they were watching a team so close to greatness. But the truth is that the great teams get those 3-4 plays with regularity. Oregon may falter at times, but they make those plays. Meanwhile, Stanford is 0-4 against ranked opponents, and 1-3 on the road. With no prompting from Oregon, Stanford sealed its own fate with play calls that illustrated the insecurity, uncertainty, and inexperience plaguing this program.

The team now has nine days before the denouement of this 2014 season unfolds. I wish I could say that Stanford Football has an Oregon problem, and just move on to the next game. The truth is far more disconcerting: Stanford Football has a Stanford Football problem.

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