"If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"
"Simba, Remember Who You Are"
I wandered in a stunned haze up the press box steps towards the halftime BBQ lunch line at Ryan Field. Stanford play-by-play man Scott Reiss stood in line, we made eye contact, and both of us opened our mouths as if to say something......and nothing came out. That stunned silence spoke volumes about the comprehensiveness of Stanford's offensive putridity last Saturday in Evanston. A loss was not totally inconceivable to most Stanford fans, but certainly a loss in this fashion was unforeseen by the entirety of Stanford Football Nation. Nobody saw this team's offense being utterly dominated by Northwestern. After the game, Coach Shaw, Kevin Hogan, and Joshua Garnett all repeated the word "Execution" as the culprit in Stanford's defeat. I myself sat in the press box looking down on the empty field and the vacated stadium concerned that Stanford's performance was indicative of root causes far deeper than just a bad day at the office. That the day was bad is undeniable, but this was game one. This was the game that Stanford, in a real way, had eight months to prepare for, and six points, sloppiness, soft and uninspired play is what the preparation yielded.
So I re-watched the game in search of any unifying threads that might help us target the true catalyst behind this mystifying "effort" from the Cardinal offense. "We didn't give ourselves a chance to win the game," lamented Coach Shaw after the game. So what did they do? I went back and re-watched all 15 of Stanford's efforts on 3rd down. Now, this analysis is not to imply that 3rd Down was the only problem. As Coach Shaw astutely noted, third down struggles are usually preceded by first and second down struggles and that was indeed the case against the Wildcats. Nevertheless, I had neither the time nor the constitution to break down all of the offensive plays, so I chose to go with the 3rd down biopsy.
#1: 3rd and 2
Out of a tight formation, Stanford goes toss right to Christian McCaffrey. Johnny Caspers pulls out to the perimeter, Stanford gets great seals from Austin Hooper and Dalton Schultz on the play side, and McCaffrey picks up the first down. At this point, Stanford was in the midst of its opening drive, and things looked just fine.
#2: 3rd and 8
So, we have a much more challenging distance to cover on third down in this situation. Stanford goes into the shotgun with tight ends to the left, a single back (McCaffrey), and twins to the right. First off, Kyle Murphy is beaten off the line by the Northwestern edge rusher. As Hogan plants his back foot, Stanford has 3 receivers within three yards of the ball of one another. McCaffrey has slid out of the backfield and up the left sideline, but the ball being on the left hash means that the safety doesn't have much ground to cover to get over there, and the linebacker's coverage is tight on McCaffrey as it is. Francis Owusu is dragging from right to left and Hogan may have had him underneath for some positive yards, but the oncoming rusher forces Hogan to throw it up for grabs to the end zone, where Christian the Lion's one-paw reach comes up empty and the ball lands harmlessly out of bounds.
Culprits: Murphy got beat, but the play's design left something to be desired, as bunched up receivers down field do not spread a defense out at all. Hogan made a poor decision, but it was the only possible chance of something happening given the oncoming rusher.
#3: 3rd and 14
So, first we have an even more significant difference in yardage to gain, and that shouldn't be overlooked. Stanford goes with trips right and single receiver to the left with a single back alongside Hogan. Hogan hands to Remound Wright, who is stuffed. Analyst Ed Cunningham wonders aloud about such a conservative call with a fifth-year QB at the controls.
Culprits: This was the first "give-up" down of the year. A run to Wright that at least came out of a passing formation, but this play had virtually no chance of getting Stanford 14 yards. No, there aren't a lot of plays that work consistently on 3rd and 14, but this was essentially a play off for the Northwestern secondary, which is a theme Stanford developed far too extensively on this day.
#4: 3rd and 9
Stanford goes Trips Right with a single receiver to the left and single back and Hogan in the shotgun. With Northwestern defenders overloaded to his right, the protection slides that way at the snap. Linebacker Nate Hall blitzes from the left side, and Remound Wright gets a semi-piece of Hall, as Hogan locks onto Dalton Schultz, who is well-covered. Rollins Stallworth is wide open but Hogan doesn't see him. Hall gets there right after two of his teammates and Hogan is sacked.
Culprits: Had Hogan's first look been open at the snap, this play had some chance, but the protection couldn't hold up, Hogan couldn't get to his secondary receiver, and Wright's effort to pick up the blocker was not terrible, but not terribly effective.
#5: 3rd and 7
Stanford sets up with Hogan in the shotgun between two backs with twins to the right and a single receiver to the left. The protection holds up well, but Hogan has to dump it off to Wright who slipped through the line and into the left flat. Wright was able to make one tackler miss and gain the necessary yardage to convert.
#6: 3rd and 13
Stanford sets up Strong left, twins to the right, a single receiver to the left and one back with Hogan. The right side bypasses the Northwestern D Linemen at the point of attack in an effort to get to defenders on the second level. One of those bypassed defenders crashes the backfield and tackles Stanford's back three yards behind the line of scrimmage. You have to credit the defender for this play, and many teams run plays that include an intentionally unblocked defender, but this play had very little chance of picking up 13 yards, which I suppose is the bigger point.
Culprits: This was a poorly executed give-up play. Stanford couldn't even surrender effectively on offense at this point.
#7: 3rd and 5 (Approaching the end of the first half)
Stanford goes trips right single receiver left, and once more, by the time Hogan is at his plant step there is no separation in the pattern. Stanford's got a triangle of receivers to Hogan's right, all within four yards of depth and no more than ten yards of width from each other. The furthest outside receiver, Francis Owusu breaks in on a curl route. Hogan is clobbered the second he releases it and it Owusu us unable to dig it out.
Culprits: Owusu was open, but the protection could have held for a click longer, Hogan's throw was not great, but again, the design has me asking questions. Most teams attack three different depths in their patterns, yet Stanford seemingly had three guys running to the same area of the field. This makes the field smaller and significantly easier to defend, while also increasing the pressure on the quarterback to be accurate. All in all, a confluence of really unfavorable circumstances.
#8: 3rd and 5
Once more, three receivers break out and attack the same plane of the defense. Hogan steps up in the pocket then seemingly catches Wright in his field of vision (right in front of him) and flings a pass to Remound that almost gets picked off by the Northwestern linebacker.
Culprits: The design wasn't great, and Hogan's last second decision to throw the ball unsettled and on the run was a dubious one that was very nearly disastrous.
#9: 3rd and 14
Hogan steps up into a decent pocket, and fires an out to Owusu, but Northwestern defender Nick VanHoose gets there at the same time as the ball and breaks up the completion.
Culprits: This ball was in the air a second too long, Owusu didn't get himself much separation, and credit to VanHoose for making a great read and break on the ball.
#10: 3rd and 1........No make that 7
Stanford gets another illegal substitution penalty, and this one is crucial as it turns a high leverage down into a low leverage down, and we'd seen how that had been going for Stanford on this day. The Cardinal goes twins right, strong right with a single back to the left. Austin Hooper runs a flag route, Hogan floats it up again, and the ball lands into Hooper's hands.....a yard out of bounds. Oy.
Culprits: This was one of three passes Hogan "completed" to out of bounds receivers on the day. To me, this is a timing issue. Had the ball been delivered a click earlier, maybe its a catch. On the other hand, Hooper's man was all over him so there's no guarantee that had the ball arrived Hooper would have been able to gather it in for the catch. He'd have had a shot, though.
#11: 3rd and 1
Stanford goes into the I Formation right with double tight ends. They run a stretch play left and McCaffrey finds a cutback hole to pick up the first down.
#12: 3rd and 5
Stanford is trips left single right single back. They run a semi-pick play, with Rector as the slot receiver running a vertical and Cajuste as the outside receiver crossing underneath him. Unfortunately, middle linebacker Anthony Walker read Hogan the entire way and nearly picks off the pass before it can get to Cajuste.
Culprits: Hogan played staredown, but even more concerning is that he threw the ball out of a short jump pass motion, so it had no steam moving across the field. The rush denied him the ability to get his feet set and throw with conviction.
#13: 3rd and 10
Stanford goes trips left, single right, with a single back. Pressure forces Hogan to throw short of the line to gain to Schultz. Once again, there is no variation in depth in the pattern, though in fairness, there really wasn't time for it to fully develop.
Culprits: The protection really denied any chance of this play succeeding. Hogan had to get rid of the ball, and he did at least manage a completion.
#14: 3rd and 10
Stanford goes strong right, twins right, with a single back and a single receiver to the left. Hogan gets a clean pocket and Hooper makes a great catch to convert the first down.
#15: 3rd and Goal (5-yard line)
On a play where Stanford arguably should have been kicking a field goal, Hogan dropped back and threw an end zone out route to the left from the right hash mark. This play had no hope of working, and it was intercepted by Cameron Quiero.
Culprits: Hogan had nobody open, and it was desperation time for Stanford, but this ball should never have been thrown. Better to live to try on fourth down, but alas, it was not meant to be.
Stanford was undone by just about everything on Saturday. It was a sordid plot, constructed by a confluence of interrelated entities operating with no synchronicity. That's why I invoked a coked-out but brilliant fictional detective to help me sort through the wreckage and parse the results for the method of self-destruction. Unfortunately, this was like what I imagine Keith Richards' autopsy (in the year 2032) will be like. How do you pinpoint the fatal toxin when the victim poisoned himself with all the drugs? Which bullet killed Sonny Corleone? All the bullets, Stupid.
The offensive line was shaky and dominated. Hogan was bad. The coaches revealed no singular intention, but rather attempted to succeed in many ways and failing in all. The design was poor, the execution was poor, the effort and energy were both poor. It was awful. Just awful.
Suggestions for improvement can come from strange sources. John Papadakis played linebacker for John McKay in the 70's and has been an Iconic Ambassador of USC Football ever since. Despite his Trojan heritage, "The Don" had come in recent years to embrace Stanford's physical style of play and power running attack. He suggested that the key to Stanford's emergence would be a pivotal scene in The Lion King. Simba's father speaks to him from the heavens after having lost his way, and exhorts him to "Remember Who You Are." For Stanford, that means one thing: the power running game. And that starts with the offensive line.
Yes, we all realize that Stanford's backs don't have the size and strength to be run the same way that Toby Gerhart and Stefan Taylor were run. However, that issue is irrelevant if the offensive line is going to be outplayed the way it was on Saturday. Step one is returning this group to a level of consistency it sadly lacked against Northwestern. Rated by Football Outsiders' Ben Muth as somewhere between the fifth and eighth-best unit in the Pac-12, there is no way Stanford's going to turn it around if these five don't develop. Some of that is time, some of it may be simplifying or re-prioritizing based on their strengths, some may just be lighting a fire under their collective posteriors. Either way, this group must improve.
Secondly, the coaches must let Hogan Be Hogan. Everything Hogan struggles with was on display on Saturday. Getting deep into progressions under duress, making horizontal throws, and throwing on the run were among the many things Cardinal fans spent the day watching Hogan try unsuccessfully to do. And yet we have all seen that Hogan can be a very effective player. Papadakis thinks the key is getting him out into space with the chance to bowl over some defenders. Of course you don't want to put him in harm's way repeatedly, but as a means of activating Hogan's playmaking skills, it does lean towards his strengths. Hogan can run. And his best throws have always been vertical passes inside the numbers from the pocket. That throw to Rector was perfect, and it should have been one of many Stanford tried in that game. If this team's not taking three deep shots per half, it's not playing to Hogan's strengths.
Thirdly: Prioritize the tight ends. They can be used to stretch the field as well, and they present great intermediate targets for Hogan to hit. Bring three of them out on the field for stretches at a time and make the defense adjust. You can run or pass with that group. You can line them up on the line, in the slot, in the backfield, in a bunch formation. Use them, and use them together.
Finally, use the fullback as both a runner and a receiver. Daniel Marx blocked well enough on Saturday, but had no carries and no receptions. Why?
There is no single cure, and it's unreasonable to expect a dramatic turnaround in one week's time from a team that was so utterly lost in its first game. One thing is for certain, however. The team that showed up last Saturday was unfocused, uninspired, and appeared virtually uncoached. As Josh Garnett pointed out, "We have eleven more of these to go." He was talking about games in general, because if there are eleven more performances like Saturday in Evanston, the next autopsy will not be on a performance, but on the program.
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