Offensive Shaw-vana Leaves Bruins in Ruins

As I marched under an impossibly blue Pasadena sky towards the most famous football stadium in America, it occurred to me that it was altogether fitting that Stanford’s 2014 road would end here.

After all, the Cardinal’s calendar year began on this very same field, albeit under very different circumstances. Stanford took and failed its final exam against Michigan State, and now it would close out its 2014 season with less to play for than at any time in five years.

The UCLA team waiting on the Cardinal was primed for glory. A win would secure the Bruins the South Division Championship just one week after blasting archrival USC and securing the Victory Bell for the third straight season. An outside shot at the College Football Playoff was still possible. And perhaps therein lay the problem for the Bruins. Once Stanford found its footing, it became clear that UCLA came for a party and the Cardinal came to hand out punishment.

Stanford’s 31-10 victory was its first in six tries against a ranked opponent, and given the opposition, was without question its best performance of the season. The defense added yet another stellar performance to a nearly flawless season, and the offense was successful to the point of unrecognizability. The catalyst for the offensive brilliance was Coach Shaw’s game plan, which caught UCLA at a repeated schematic disadvantage until the offensive line was left to put the Bruins out of their misery with a simple, brutal, and ultimately systematic masterpiece of a drive that had to bring David DeCastro as close to a smile as he’s ever been.

Few could have predicted that Stanford’s offensive paroxysm was about to occur after watching the start of the game. Andrus Peat racked up the first what would add up to 30 penalty yards on the game’s second play, leading to a Cardinal three and out. To make matters worse, Stanford’s defense presented about as much resistance as tissue paper to the UCLA offense. The Cardinal answered with a touchdown drive with its second possession, and then had to punt. We pick up the action with the fourth drive of the game for Stanford, trailing 10-7 and taking over on its own 25.

The first and fourth plays of this drive would prove to be the primers for what Stanford would go on to do to UCLA for the remainder of the half. On the first play, Stanford runs Sanders off tackle for a seemingly useless RFLONG (Run For Little Or No Gain, aka Stanford’s go-to play in the Rose Bowl). He picks up two, but what’s relevant is the formation. Stanford ran out of an I Left Trips Right formation. The trips formation almost always means pass, especially for Stanford. So, we have the first key in the coaches’ blueprint for success: Run Out of Pass Formations.

On the fourth play of the drive, the Cardinal have a second and seven. The Cardinal employ a Twins Left Single Right with a single back and a tight end on the right side. Hogan is able to find Rector in the slot for five yards to set up a third and two. Again, ho hum, right? Not so fast. Rector lined up in the slot and was covered by Myles Jack, UCLA’s do-everything linebacker. However, as the Bruins were about to find out, as amazing as Jack is, there are some things he can’t do. Like cover wide receivers. Whether by design or an unwillingness to risk whiffing, Jack gives Rector a clean release off the line and immediately (and wisely) starts backpedaling. Rector runs a curl route and it’s an easy pitch and catch for five modest yards. However, within this play is Stanford's second tactical move that UCLA would leave uncountered: Targeting tight ends and running backs in three- and four-wide receiver sets. I first noticed Stanford doing this two games ago against Utah. There were plays where Wright would line up wide right. It didn’t payoff much then, but it sure did last Saturday. Basically, Stanford was able to get away with running multiple receivers into the patterns against the Bruins’base defense. That meant linebackers and safeties covering wide receivers, and that meant trouble for UCLA.

The key was Stanford’s willingness to use tight ends or running backs as the third or fourth receiver in its formations. UCLA continued throughout the first half to keeping three or four linebackers on the field with its three down linemen, meaning that the Bruins rarely had a fifth or sixth defensive back on the field. I can only surmise that the Bruins have had Jack covering slot receivers all year and had yet to be properly punished for it, and/or that Stanford had done enough running against UCLA in the past that the Bruins were absolutely committed to not getting beat by the Stanford run game in the same manner as it had in previous meetings. On Saturday in the first half, Stanford wasn’t exactly dominating the Bruins at the line, but they were getting consistent push even if it only yielded modest returns. The payoff would come in the form of both passing and then running success.

On the 10th play of the drive, Stanford has a double tight end personnel group on the field and motions Rector from right to left. The second tight end keeps UCLA’s base defense on the field with seven in the box and, more importantly, means the safety Jefferson has to shadow Rector across the field and behind the linebackers, guaranteeing a free release. Jefferson is ten yards away from Rector at the snap and when Michael’s first move is on a quick out, Jefferson takes an angle intended to meet No. 3 at the sideline. But Rector then turns up the field, and that angle and Jefferson’s lack of speed are both immediately exposed. Jefferson jets up the field, but Hogan’s throw is perfect and on time, and Rector makes the catch and slides through the blue grass with six points for Stanford.

On the fifth play of Stanford’s next drive, Rector found himself in the slot again covered by Jack. The play resulted in Hogan’s first incompletion, but Jack had been clearly beaten on the play and Rector may have been able to catch it had he reached with it for two hands. It should have been clear at this point how Stanford intended to get receivers free, but again there was very little discernible adjustment from UCLA. Stanford then went twins right, single left and a pro-set shotgun formation on the drive’s 10th play. Again, Jack was covering a receiver from the slot. That it was a receiver who could have been mistaken for a tight end didn’t matter. Again, the receiver zoomed towards the end zone. Hogan evaded pressure, then stepped up and fired towards the blue and gold paint. Cajuste came down with it as a helpless Jack spun around and looked up in futility. It was 21-10 at that point, and as many UCLA fans have told me since, it was over.

Stanford removed any doubt with its first drive of the second half. The offensive line came out and went to work, and suddenly the three-yard gains were netting bigger returns. Wright made a spectacular cutback out of the ogre formation for 27 yards. Christian the Lion followed with a 29-yard burst off his own off-tackle. Stanford finished off the drive and Bruin hopes with a bruising Wright run into the end zone, following a pulling Johnny Caspers. Seven plays, 80 yards, zero passes.

So the Cardinal offensive coaching staff came through with everything the fans could have wanted. It streamlined personnel groupings, it created repeated mismatches, it played to Hogan’s strengths, and the players executed. It was the most confident and effective they’ve looked all year against a pretty legit defense, and on the road no less. This was the offense many had envisioned when training camp broke in August. As Tom Petty would say, “The Waiting was the hardest part.”

As recently as three weeks ago, it seemed the Cardinal would not break through at all on offense. However, on an inspired sun-drenched afternoon in the Arroyo Seco, they managed to end a disappointing season on a great note, and as an L.A. resident, it was a spectacular homecoming gift that couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to January 1. There will be much more to come on the season, the bowl game, and the fallouts and flameouts in between. For two weeks, however, Stanford stepped up and saved its best for last. 7-5 feels a whole lot better than 5-5 did three weeks ago.

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