After two weeks, the path has become clear for Stanford Football. After a horrendous offensive effort in its first game, the Cardinal returned home to the friendly confines of Foster Field and after nearly another two quarters of extended futility, finally gave Cardinal fans a glimpse of what many thought the offense could do this season. There are many caveats and asterisks we can place on the team's 31-7 win over UCF (UCF losing its starter on the first series, playing at home, the quarter of a mile in penalties Stanford granted the Knights) but this was an absolutely mandatory step forward for Stanford as they move forward to the game that's going to define their 2015 season.
Coach Shaw mentioned the "sputtering" start to the game for the offense, and indeed the Cardinal's first four drives yielded a 3.1 yards per play average, a number that Stanford would more than double on the next four drives (7.72). However, withing those first four drives were signs that the coaches had received the numerous unsolicited solutions to the team's offensive woes. So let's start there, because from the darkness of Stanford's start came the dawn of its later paroxysm of points.
On Stanford's second possession, Remound Wright took a handoff form Hogan and picked up 10 yards and a first down. One of the major problems going on over a year now has been the inability of the Stanford offensive line to block well and consistently enough to establish a running presence. On this particular play, Joshua Garnett pulls, Kyle Murphy sagely escorted the defensive end up the field and out of position, and Graham Shuler and David Bright were able get out to the second level and wall off UCF's linebackers and safety on the play side. Furthermore, Dalton Schultz made a really nice down block to help seal off the Knights at the point of attack. A week after Stanford's backs and receivers looked comatose in the blocking game, this play showed that they'd quickly realized the need to take a big step forward in week 2.
Later in the drive, Hogan found Rector in a blank space and swiftly delivered him a strike, but the real highlight of the play was a great blitz pick-up by Remound Wright, who like most of Stanford's backs, struggled against Northwestern in pass protection. Moments later, Bryce Love makes an appearance on a jet sweep, comes to a complete stop, then finds a cutback off guard for eight yards. This would be the least productive time that B. Love would have all night. So two big improvements were already on display despite the lack of points to start the game: Everybody was blocking and Stanford was utilizing its lightning.
However, it got even better on that drive in terms of the improvement checklist. First, off Christian the Lion was put in the slot, where he is by far at his most dangerous (does anybody doubt his future in the NFL is as a receiver?). Baby Welker gets help from the play design as well, as verticals run by the outside receivers created space both before and after the catch for CTL. Finally, Hogan scooped up a bad snap, kept his poise, and delivered a strike to McCaffrey for 21 big yards. So what do we have here? 1. Put Our Most Dangerous Player in his Most Dangerous Spot 2. Attack multiple depths with your pass routes. It seems obvious, but Stanford's routes against Northwestern were horrendous in this aspect, and it made very good receivers very easy to defend. 3. Hogan had the poise to make a great play out of a bad start. This would be HUGE later.
At 7:33 of the second quarter, Stanford ran Hogan on an unbalanced QB sweep where he picked up eight yards and, more importantly, got to plow into a defender on his way to the ground. Remember what John Papadakis advised about activating Hogan via the run? That this play was called back wasn't even relevant, then or now. The coaches signaled their intention to #LetHoganBeHogan. Later, Coach Shaw went for it on a 4th and 1 and the line and Remound Wright rewarded him by picking up the first down. We went for it on a fourth down. Insert Stunned Emoji here. So, there you have it. Before the points, Stanford was already doing the things it would need to be successful. And that's where the fun starts.
As we said, the next four drives are where things came together for Stanford, but even this possession got off to an inauspicious start with a huge drop by Isaiah Brandt-Sims. But once again, within an undesired result lay good actions. First of all, IBS got open thanks in part to the Cardinal having two verticals on this play plus Hooper underneath on a drag (Yay Route Complexity!!). Secondly, the personnel Stanford had on the field (Double tight ends, two receivers, and a single back), created matchup problems and fortuitously influenced the UCF safeties. Hogan made a great throw, and the best part of it was that we aren't scorning it ruefully because unlike the during the previous week it was not the only deep shot of the night.
In fact, those directives met with #LHBH later in this drive for Scott Reiss' first call of a Stanford touchdown in 2015. The Cardinal went double TE right with Rector split wide left. Stanford hands the ball to Wright and at this point the safeties move up on the run but the corner is still with Rector. Meanwhile, Cajuste breaks free underneath as Hogan catches the flea flicker and at this point Rector has pulled even with his defender. Unfortunately, #93 for UCF (Tony Guerad) is now ALL up in Hogan's grill and primed to detonate the play. But not so fast!! With Senior savvy and style, Hogan steps up quickly, leaving Guerad in another blank space and now it's the Knights who face checkmate. He's got Cajuste wide open, but Hogan launches deep for Rector. #3 shakes off the memory of last week's drop and hauls in the pass for a touchdown. Afterwards, he and Shaw exchange a heartfelt celebratory moment that seems to confirm they've shed any bad blood that may have stemmed from his half-game suspension.
Stanford's next drive would yield only three points (how quickly we get spoiled!) but still featured plays to celebrate. On a 1st and 10 from the Stanford 49, the Cardinal come out in a twins left strong right single left formation. UCF is in a Cover 3, so they've only got one safety covering the deep middle. Schultz runs the quick pop to the middle beyond the linebackers and catches Hogan's throw for a six-yard gain. Modest, yes, but these are the plays Stanford's going to need in the absence of a dominant run game. Later on a 2nd and 4, Stanford motions into a bunch right formation with a single receiver left and a single back. Hogan rolls right and hits Rector on an easy pitch and catch for six yards and a first down. #Let HoganBeHogan. Also seen on this drive: A deep pass to Irwin that seemed like it could have drawn a penalty. No matter. Shaw-Vita-Gren were in an aggressive head space, and that's the true takeaway.
The ensuing possession would yield no points, but considering it started at the Cardinal one, it was still a successful possession. Yes, it would be short-circuited by a Dalton Schultz drop, but before that came many positives. First off, on a 2nd and 7 from its own four, Hogan hit Rector on a nice 12-yard out that benefited from great spacing thanks to route depth variation. Later, on a 3rd and 5, the Cardinal goes Twins Left Single Back Single Receiver to the right. UCF is in press coverage to the outside and has two safeties deep. Christian the Lion sets up once more in his office (the slot) and Stanford does exactly what you are supposed to do with twin safeties. Attack the middle. Attack it McCaffrey does, and Hogan hits him for 25 yards and a first down. These throws were technically on slants, but because they came on patterns run form the slot, they were more vertical throws than diagonals, and vertical throws between the numbers are the ones Hogan makes best.
We end our breakdown with Stanford's eighth drive of the game. Stanford begins with a double tight end alignment to the left, twin receivers to the left (Burning Love on the inside) and a single back. From the left side, Hooper sprints across the formation in motion. After the snap, Hooper continues his burst all the way to the other side of the field, where the motion has exposed UCF to be in a zone under coverage, leaving the Cardinal with three players against two Knight defenders. Hogan delivers a quick strike to Love on the bubble screen, and thanks to the efforts of Rollins Stallworth and a hustling Hooper, Love need juke only one man and after that is gone in a blur. The play netted 42 yards, and was another confluence of prescribed solutions for the Cardinal's success (Blocking effort from backs and receivers, great design, execution by Hogan, Utilize Your Lightning). This was probably my favorite play of the game just based on Hooper hauling a**, but there were two other gems on this drive.
On a 3rd and 6, Stanford lines up with Twins Left and a bunch formation (Stallworth and Hooper to the left/Schultz and Cajuste to the right) and a single back (Marx). UCF's safeties are close to the line but then creep back at the snap with Stanford posing multiple vertical threats. Hogan sweeps left, Marx and Stallworth create a "seal here" as Coach Lombardi would say. Hogan splits it and picks up eight yards and the first down.
On 2nd and 6 from the UCF 11, Stanford lines up Single Left, Single Back, Strong Right, Twins Right. The back (Love) springs right pre-snap and as soon as Hogan receives it he fakes right to him, then turns to the middle where Caspers, Garnett, and Rector have convened to convoy Austin Hooper for eleven more yards and a first down. This play was expertly conceived and the timeliness of the call was brilliant considering that Love had the attention of the UCF defense.
Finally, on 2nd and 6 following a Wildcat pick-up of four yards, Stanford goes Unbalanced Left I Formation. At the snap, Hogan pivots left to influence the defense to the unbalanced side, ball fakes to McCaffrey who sprints out into the right flat. Schultz' release off the line occupies two UCF defenders (More route depth). Hogan tosses it to McCaffrey who walks into the end zone. This was another brilliant call and it punctuated a four-drive sequence that secured the game for Stanford, given the absence of any kind of serious offensive threat from the Black Knights.
So, to sum. Here's how Stanford succeeds:
2. Use Our Bottled Lightning, and Put Multiple Bottles Out There as Often As Possible
4. Run Patterns that test the defense at multiple depths
5. Be aggressive and go for it on 4th Downs
If I had to choose just one of these, obviously blocking is something I am in favor of (Duh), but that #2 may be the key. USC is going to put stress on Stanford all night and every down by showcasing its galaxy of Five Star NFL-Caliber athletes all over the field. Stanford may not have as many, but it proved last Saturday it has more than enough to put teams in compromising positions. You have to make multiple defenders fearful of paying the ultimate price to create both running and passing lanes.
Football is changing. In fact, it's always changing. That doesn't mean that you have to abandon all your principles and concepts at the first sign of struggle, but it does mean that you have to constantly be refining and streamlining and evaluating how well your schemes serve your players. If Bill Belichick isn't too accomplished to change and adapt, then nobody is. Stanford's coaches have had an entire offseason and two games to figure out what's necessary for this team to succeed. This Saturday night they're gonna need answers because this is the game that will tell us everything we need to know about this team and this program. USC, the school of Student Body Right, has evolved from the West Coast Offense during the Norm Chow years to the up-tempo pace of Steve Sarkisian. Now it's up to Stanford to unlock its playmakers with the bright lights and roaring din of 93,000 bearing down on them.
The choice is simple, Gentlemen.
Evolve or Die.
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