Outside the Box

Nine games in, Coach Shaw has conceded what many have seen all year long: Stanford’s power philosophy was not, is not, and never will be a fit for the offensive personnel on the current roster. Kevin Hogan conceded what most have noted as well, mentioning the complexity of the playbook as a hindrance to the team's success. Luckily, The Bootleg has four quick fixes to jumpstart the offense.

When the Cardinal takes the field Saturday in front of tens of thousands of empty benches and seats, it will be playing for seemingly less than it has in any November game in years. In fact, this will be the first time in a long time that the opposition enters with, arguably, more to play for than the Cardinal. Nine games in, Coach Shaw has conceded what many have seen all year long: Stanford’s power philosophy was not, is not, and never will be a fit for the offensive personnel on the current roster. Kevin Hogan conceded what most have noted as well, mentioning the complexity of the playbook as a hindrance to his success and that of his teammates.

So that leaves us with three games to go. The crucial adjustment the coaches are now making seems to be a commitment to an up-tempo, no-huddle pace, which would both increase the tempo and reduce the thinking required to run this offense. As ironic as it seems, this bizarre season has now reached the stage where a Stanford team has now turned to “dumbing down” its offense in order to secure bowl eligibility. This is not your pledge brother’s Stanford, people.

And it’s not enough.

Don’t get me wrong. Everything mentioned above will help the Stanford offense perform. However, it’s going to take much more to turn Stanford into a functional offense. What follows are a list of three suggestions for Stanford’s coaches to consider, presented in the order of least to most likely to happen. Ultimately, it all comes down to using your personnel correctly, a task at which the coaches have struggled mightily all season long. As the Utes come into town after receiving their own Duck Demolition last Saturday night, Stanford will be striving for an offensive identity that is not synonymous with futility. Here’s how they can make the “Cardinal Blur” stick.

1. Use Ty Montgomery as the starting tailback. All game long, until he drops.
Yes, success in the wildcat is not the same as success out of the I-formation, but this makes all the sense in the world now, Stanford seems to be finally giving up the ghost on being the team they were when DeCastro, Yankey, and others were opening holes for Gerhart, Taylor, and Gaffney. The problem all year has been that Stanford lacked a big enough running back to consistently pound between the tackles for four quarters. Montgomery is big enough to do just that. In fact, at 220 pounds, he outweighs Stanford’s heaviest back (Remound Wright) by 16 pounds. Furthermore, he’s only six pounds lighter than Tyler Gaffney. Montgomery is considered to be Stanford’s most dangerous player (at least of those allowed on the field with any regularity, but that’s the next point…), so why wouldn’t he be featured 20-25 times a game versus 5-10? Let’s look at the numbers: As a rusher, Montgomery averages better than eight yards a carry in conference play. As a receiver, he averages 9.6 yards per reception in conference play. Would that eight yards per carry average decrease if he saw 25 carries in a game? Definitely, but who knows by how much? Montgomery’s 63 receiving yards per game are easily replaceable given the depth of talent at that position. Meanwhile, Stanford’s current crop of designated running backs has found it impossible to replace a runner who can execute between and outside the tackles. There is literally nothing to lose. You can still throw to Montgomery out of the backfield, you can still line him up wide five times if you choose. Against ranked opponents, Montgomery decreases to 7.6 yards per reception and 43 yards total. Again, that’s an easily replaceable total for the Stanford passing game. Against ranked teams, Ty is averaging five yards a carry. That’s a number that has been difficult for Stanford to meet in the running game. There are no guarantees, but there is a precedent. Many moons ago, USC famously went to Chad Morton as a running back after a career spent at wide receiver. In fact, Stanford was the opponent when the Trojans made this switch, and he destroyed the Cardinal defense that day. This is never going to happen, but frankly, it should have been tried months ago.

2. The Crower Red Zone “Package”
Given the commitment to an up-tempo approach on Saturday, this may seem to be a logistical impossibility. The first time I watched Crower play this year, I thought of the words “noodle” and “arm.” After watching him move the ball against the Oregon second-string defense, however, a thought occurred. One thing Crower does have over Hogan is quality mechanics. His fundamentals are far more solid on a throw-by-throw basis than Hogan’s, so he may be better suited to throw the kind of passes that the coaches have been reluctant to attempt with Hogan under center. It may seem weird to pull a QB after he’s led a team down the field, but at this point, why not? This suggestion has the least amount of statistical justification, so I can’t advocate it as strongly as I’d like. However, I’d argue that Stanford’s problem in the red zone has been the inverse of its problems outside the red zone. Outside the red zone the issue is that the 10,000-play, phone-book sized Play Tome is “slowing the offense” down. Inside the red zone, the issue appears to be that the coaches feel hamstrung by not trusting Hogan with anything but fade routes. Put Crower in and see if he can make something happen. Stanford is still the worst red zone offense in the conference (Utah is second worst, by the way), so given that as the jumping off point…..

3. Kelsey Young and Christian the Lion are Wes Welker. Stop pretending they’re Earl Campbell.
Or Stepfan Taylor, for that matter. Put these two in the slot, put them in a four wide slotted on each side of the field, put them in a pro-set backfield, line them up wide. Run jet sweeps, tosses, screens, slants, and go routes, and run them often. Who knows what McCaffrey may develop into after a year under Sgt. Turley’s Tutelage? What matters at the moment is that he is currently averaging 19 yards a reception. Yes, that’s correct. Even against ranked teams, that number is 11 yards per reception. Granted, that’s only three catches (small sample size alert!), but call me crazy: When a guy gets me 33 yards on his first three catches, I am gonna be in a hurry to get him as many catches as possible after that. Kelsey Young has been as tragically unused as CTL. Jamming him into the round hole of a between-the-tackles runner never should have been tried. It’s staggering to think Stanford listed him at the top of the running back depth chart at earlier points this season. He is still a potentially explosive player for Stanford, but it’s up to the Cardinal to commit to using him, and using him correctly. One of the things that makes watching Oregon succeed so frustrating is that Stanford this year has those type of players. I guarantee you Helfrich would know what to do with Young and McCaffrey. Hopefully the Stanford coaches watched the Oregon game this past Saturday, because all you need is a basic cable subscription to discover the secret of how to unleash Nos. 27 and 39.

4. Start up-tempo. Stay up-tempo.
You can’t go halfway with the up-tempo philosophy. Stanford’s power game worked because it was willing to endure the two- and three-yard gains that became eight- and nine-yard gains. Both styles have the same goal: to confront a tired defense in the fourth quarter. [Ed: Agree. Look at Oregon’s splits throughout the years: They score far more points in the second half than in the first. Chip Kelly has been quoted as saying that much of the first half is poking and prodding the defense to see what’s open; and then the second half is about exploiting those weaknesses.] Giving up on a no-huddle, up-tempo approach after two or three series is not going to work. Just as the Doctor of Football always goes ALL CAPS, if this is going to be Stanford’s tactical decision, then it has to stick with it. Most importantly, it needs to stick with it in the red zone. The USC game saw the Cardinal move the ball upfield time and again from a no-huddle set, then revert back to the bureaucratic cocoon of huddles that produced penalties, delays of game, sack fumbles, and numerous other shots to the collective feet of the team. The point is that if Stanford is really going to embrace this approach, it can’t dangle its feet in the water. It has to go full on Ron Burgundy “cannonball!”

So there you have it. To be honest, I don’t expect to see too many of these suggestions on the field Saturday, and that’s okay. Outside the box suggestions sometimes belong outside the box. Just knowing that the coaches are having these kinds of conversations would be encouraging. With bowl eligibility now the veritable zenith of what the team can accomplish, there’s no reason to play it safe. More than anything, I just want to see this team play a hard, fearless 60 minutes. In fact, forget the playing. I just want to see our coaches coach a hard, fearless 60 minutes. That may be far more critical when sizing up the appropriate amount of hope to carry into 2015.


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