I set the table thusly because we're going to look at five key plays that were emblematic of the spectacular coaching and execution we've all witnessed from Stanford Football, the same group of players and coaches who brought us the cataclysmic system fail in Evanston over Labor Day Weekend. This is not to absolve the coaches for that performance, but it's just to say that considering many national media members are now routinely using "Stanford" and "playoff" in the same sentence, the coaches and players are clearly doing some things right. In gifting UCLA's fifth consecutive graduating class of undergrads a guaranteed winless career against Stanford (barring a rematch Dec. 5), the Cardinal coaches and players did an awful lot of things really, really well. To commemorate Jim Mora's 0-5 record against David Shaw, here are five plays that epitomized the excellence the Cardinal put on display in leaving the Bruins in ruins.
Back at Pac-12 Media Days, UCLA center Jake Brendel talked about how Stanford's success against the Bruins last year in Pasadena had to do with the numerous "unscouted looks" Stanford presented. Now, Brendel was talking about the Stanford defense, but last Thursday Shaw-Bloom-Vita showed Bruin defenders some subtly different looks we haven't seen too often, and they paid big dividends. It started with the first play of the game. Stanford comes out with its typical first down personnel grouping of four receivers (three wideouts and a tight end) and a single back. Hogan initially lines up under center, but checks off and backs up into shotgun formation with McCaffrey to his right. Now, normally Stanford uses a trips single back single receiver formation, but on this play the Cardinal is in a Twins L set with the tight end on the right of the line and a receiver right. This balanced formation veiled the direction of the play. The Bruins, not illogically, keyed on the tight end, who determines the "strong" side in most cases.
So UCLA lines up with a nose guard over center and two other defenders over the B/C gaps on the tight end (offensive right side). Stanford snaps the ball and Hogan gives to McCaffrey running left, away from the "strong" side, but since the formation had two receivers left, he's got just as many blockers running away from the tight end than if he had run right. Murphy and Garnett double the defensive tackle on the left side, who'd lined up over Garnett, giving Murphy a great downblocking angle. Caspers and Tucker pull right to left. Caspers walls off the edge rushing linebacker and McCaffrey gets the ball with the backside and unblocked defensive end bearing down on him. Tucker screens off the crashing playside linebacker and McCaffrey bursts ahead, eluding the backside end.
After crossing the line of scrimmage, Christian the Lion gives a super-subtle fake that leaves the Bruin safety overrunning the play, and then McCaffrey cuts left off of Hooper and gallops all the way to midfield before he's brought down. The very first play showcased the acumen of the coaches, the athleticism and strength of the line, and the speed, vision and elusiveness of McCaffrey. On a certain level, I wonder if the Bruins knew just how long this night was gonna be after just one play.
With 7:09 left in the first quarter, the Cardinal had a first and goal, and Stanford lines up in an I formation with tight ends on both sides of the line and a single receiver split wide right. The Bruins put seven at the line of scrimmage backed up by three linebackers bunched and standing on the goal line. At the snap, Stanford drive blocks man on man as Hogan takes the snap and play fakes to McCaffrey running left. The two closest Bruin linebackers bite hard on the fake, and it's as if Hooper has an invisibility cloak on as he slips by and heads to the back corner pylon. With both linebackers ambushing McCaffrey in the flat, only to realize he is sans football, Hogan makes an easy toss to a wide open Hooper for the score. Remember last year when Stanford couldn't score in the red zone? Stanford has 18 TD's on 20 red zone trips in conference play, tied with UCLA by percentage as the best in the conference.
On a first and 10 Stanford comes out in an I-Right twins right formation and UCLA lines up in a 4-3 over defense. Shuler pulls while Murphy and Garnett man up on their side. Marx kicks out the defensive back. By the time Barry J. Sanders reaches the line of scrimmage with the ball, Garnett has driven his man nearly five yards back. Marx, Shuler, and Murphy create a red wall and Sanders takes it right up the left seam for seven. Once again, Stanford runs away from the "strong" side, and ends up with a blocking advantage. Unscouted looks, indeed.
It would have been easy to just gush over Christian McCaffrey's performance, and it certainly would have been appropriate, but I am gonna leave that to everybody else, and spotlight the contributions of Kevin Hogan, who despite a less than stellar overall stat line made two big plays when this game was still a game. Facing a third and 13 in the first quarter, Stanford lines up in their "money" formation, with trips right single back single left. The Bruins rush three. Hogan looks right, pulls it down, steps up and fires a dart on the run to Hooper between two UCLA defenders and with a safety on Hooper's back. This was a low-leverage down that Hogan converted, and it had to be discouraging to a Bruin defense that would be searching for answers against an on-schedule offense for the vast portion of the night.
Stanford again faced a third and long on that drive and comes out in a twins right strong left single left single back formation, much as they did on the opening play. UCLA rushes four this time, but Hogan catches and releases almost instantly, hitting Hooper up the seam, with the ball floating just over the UCLA linebacker and in front of the closing safety. It was a perfect pass that helped set up yet another Stanford touchdown drive. Yes, Hogan played stare-sies on his pick, but his contributions in this game should not be forgotten, either.
So it turns out Stanford has the offense everybody thought it did. The Northwestern result grows increasingly incomprehensible as the weeks go on, and here's hoping that trend continues, because it means Stanford's still hanging half a hundred on fools. It's fair to point out how great the coaches have been in Pac-12 play, but now that it's all Skittles and rainbows it should be noted how they have changed and evolved along with their roster. The line has been incredible, they are maximizing McCaffrey's talents, and you can make a pretty good team out of the dudes who don't contribute on offense from week to week. Paging Michael Rector? Trent Irwin? Dallas Schultz? And that's no knock on those guys. Every week somebody's going to be pushed to the background because there is just so much talent on this side of the ball.
So now that the pendulum has swung and the Shaw-perbole is all positive, it's time to enjoy this run of Stanford Football. By now the coaches and players know not to expect rationality from the fans, because that's got no place in the mindset of fanaticism. David Shaw keeps an even keel so we don't have to, and his team is enjoying the consistency that comes when the captain of the ship has a steady hand. Just don't remind me of this article the next time the Cardinal struggles. And don't ignore the way the Cardinal leadership has changed, such that Stanford's football excellence can continue to be the new normal and 8-5 seasons can be considered disappointments. If there's one thing the coaches and fans would begrudgingly agree on, it's this: We both wouldn't have it any other way.
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