Ten Plays (Part II)

Reviewing these plays was frustrating. Clearly analyzing each game reinforced the notion that most football games, even blowouts, swing on three or four plays. For the last four seasons, Stanford made those plays more often than not. This season, not so much. Read on for the back half of Stanford's 10 key plays, which do end with reasons for optimism.

6. Stanford Brings a Knife to a Eugene Gunfight

Play as officially described: Hogan, K rush for 1 yard to the ORE30, out-of-bounds (Walker, Joe). Stanford’s opening drive against Oregon was running smoothly after the first three plays gained the Cardinal 30 yards. However, the drive stalled ten yards short of the red zone. Oregon opened the game with two touchdowns, Stanford opened with two field goals, and in retrospect, that wasn’t just the end of the beginning but the beginning of the end. The beating of the red zone drum has gone on plenty, and it remains a source of frustration for Stanford fans and, I’m sure, the coaches and players. However, this play stands as a symbol of another Cardinal offensive shortcoming: third down. Stanford experienced a dropoff in third-down efficiency this season, and it could be argued that this was a bigger cause of the team’s offensive struggles than the red zone woes. Consider the following conference-only stats and ranks:

YearPoints Per GameRed Zone TD Pct.3rd Down
201424 (11th)47% (11th)42% (5th)
201334 (4th)55% (9th)47% (1st)
201229 (7th)71% (3rd)41% (4th)

Those are Stanford’s numbers in conference play. Note how the highest-scoring team in the last three years was the best third-down team, yet still a poor red zone team. Note also how the team with the best Red Zone success (2012) was not the highest-scoring team, by far. Should we dismiss the red zone slide when evaluating the offense and the team? Of course not, but it’s just to say that Stanford had issues outside the opponent's 20. Still, Stanford’s slide on offense seems more tied to its slide on third downs than in the red zone. Let’s look at another Pac-12 team's chart, try to guess who…

YearPoints Per GameRed Zone TD Pct.3rd Down
201445 (1st)61% (4th)49% (1st)
201342 (1st)69% (4th)43% (5th)
201250 (1st)82% (1st)46% (1st)

Oregon’s two best offensive performances in the past three seasons (all excellent, obviously) came during its two best third-down conversion seasons. When they dipped on third down in 2013, they dipped as an offense. Note that in 2013, the Ducks were actually noticeably better in the red zone than their 2014 team, even though this year's squad has a better offense. The point? The red zone is important, but not as important as third down, and few have talked about the Cardinal on third down the way they have about the team’s red zone struggles.

(Side note: Look at those Oregon 2012 numbers. Good God. The further we get from Stanford vs. Oregon 2012, the more unbelievable the result is going to become. I’d love to hear other candidates from more experienced fans, but I’m going to throw this out there: Stanford in Eugene in 2012 was the best single defensive performance in the history of college football, given the opponent and the venue. Now back to our scheduled programming….

7. “…the game, its dignity….then its identity”

Play as officially described: 4-G at Ore02. Skov, P rush for 1 yard to the ORE1 (Walker, Joe; Malone, Derrick).

Of course, the game had been long decided when the Cardinal lined up on the Oregon two for its final offensive play. Much of its dignity had been stripped at that point as well, buried under an avalanche of Oregon excellence and Cardinal futility. However, what molecules were left of the power identity that defined Stanford’s four-year BCS run were crushed and extinguished when the Cardinal, up against “finesse” Oregon, could not blast its way into the end zone from two yards away.

However you divvy up the blame between lack of a dominant back, quarterback regression, offensive line struggles, or coaching confusion, the result is indisputable: The Cardinal lost the foundation of its recent success. That may be the most frustrating reality of this season. Where Stanford goes from here depends on what the coaches decide to do with that philosophy. They can scrap it, re-design it, or double down on it in 2015. If an overhaul is in the works, I, for one, am sad to say I was in Eugene on the day character and cruelty died….

8. “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater…”

Play as officially described: Hogan, K pass complete to Hooper, A for 14 yards to the Utah 0, 1ST DOWN STAN, TOUCHDOWN. Hogan runs a play action and waggles right, then comes back all the way across the field to hit an open Hooper in the end zone for a touchdown. After over three hours of futility separating the Cardinal touchdowns, Stanford got on the board in overtime with this brilliant play call. This play has been loaded on the iPads for years, dating back to Coach Harbaugh and the Tree Amigos. It stands here as proof that this offense can succeed within the scope of what it has been doing for years. Yes, the power running was lacking, but Stanford had always been a multi-faceted offense, even with Toby, Stepfan, and Tyler as centerpieces. Stanford doesn’t necessarily need to come out next year with a dramatically different offensive philosophy. It just needs to adjust its emphasis according to its personnel. After the Utah debacle, there was little evidence, save this TD and the opening drive, that the coaches would be up to the challenge. And I still maintain changes have to be made, even while adhering to the core philosophies of the past. However, as dark as it was, Stanford fans were about to experience a dawn both embraced as a respite from a season spent in the abyss of mediocrity and lamented because of its tardiness.

9. Remound Runs to Daylight

Play as officially described: Wright, R rush for 30 yards to the CAL 12, 1ST DOWN STAN, out-of-bounds (McGovern, Bryce). On the Big Game’s second offensive play, Wright took a handoff and ran towards the gap between his tackle Murphy and his guard Caspers. All year long, fans have acknowledged Wright’s willingness to run physically, but lamented his seeming inability to find cutback lanes or adjust his line in real-time. On this play, he ran right, up the backs of his linemen, who appeared to have stalemated the Cal defensive line, then suddenly burst left and up the seam of the Cal defense for thirty yards. It was one of the least anticipated twists of the year.

Anybody watching that single play would have thought Stanford’s running game was in peak form. Cal sported a tremendously weak defense, so it’s not to say that Stanford’s offensive line turned a corner or dominated the game TWU-style. Still, the group played one of its stronger games, committed no penalties for a second consecutive game, and allowed no sacks. Cal spent the better part of the day self-destructing, but Stanford’s offensive line enabled the Cardinal to make the Golden Bears pay for virtually every misstep. Having better, more physical runners certainly would have made the going easier, but this game and the next proved that having an effective offensive line makes all the difference. Hogan and the runners looked great during the final eight quarters of Stanford’s season, resolving the season-long chicken-egg debate of “O-Line vs. Lack of Power Back” regarding Stanford’s struggles: A dominant offensive line can carry runners and passers who may not be great on a given day.

10. How Stanford Got Its Groove Back (Feat. Michael Rector and the coaches):

Play as described: Hogan, K pass complete to Rector, M for 22 yards to the UCLA 0, 1ST DOWN STAN, TOUCHDOWN, clock 06:24. Nobody, but nobody, saw the season’s final chapter ending so gloriously for Stanford. A UCLA team with everything to play for and a Stanford team winless against ranked teams met on a sun-splashed November afternoon after Thanksgiving, and Stanford tore the Bruins apart. All the key components of that shellacking converged on this play, which stands as both a beacon of hope and an instructive indicator for the coaches. The coaches found a weakness by using base personnel groupings in spread formations to keep the UCLA base defense on the field. This created mismatches like the one Rector exploited.

Covered by a safety forced to chase him in motion across the field, Rector got a clean release, made an out-and-up move, and led the Bruin safety on an unwanted tour of the end zone. The line held up and created a comfortable space for Hogan to throw, and Kevin made an excellent deep and vertical throw for the score. It was everything Stanford needed from its coaches and its players all year long, but could never produce consistently against top competition. I obviously want the Cardinal to show well and win its bowl game, but regardless of its outcome, this play is reason for some guarded optimism heading into 2015. The line that made the block, the receiver who caught the ball, the quarterback who threw it, and most if not all of the coaches who made the play call will return in 2015. Hopefully they all understand why this play works, and how they can replicate it next year.

Reviewing these plays was frustrating. Clearly analyzing each game reinforced the notion that most football games, even blowouts, swing on three or four plays. For the last four seasons, Stanford made those plays more often than not. This season, not so much. When the amount of “ifs” piles high enough, you realize that for whatever reason, you are not talking about an elite team. Perhaps the challenges of incorporating a new offensive line, mulitiple running backs, and new tight ends were too much to ask this year. Next year, however, Stanford becomes a team returning an entire offensive line, a quarterback in his third full year of starting, and many of the position players on the current roster. Whether or not the entire offensive coaching staff returns as configured remains to be seen. Change is clearly needed, as this combination produced the second-worst offense in the conference, a sin considering it pairing with the best defense in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation. These ten plays told us everything we needed to know about Stanford Football in 2014. The outstanding question is what they will tell us about next year.

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