I hate bullies. Most people do. As a fan, there is nothing more frustrating than watching your team get bullied on the court, and they may be nothing more humiliating than finding out that your team has taken on the personality of a bully. We have long been taught that bullies are cowards who are actually soft at their core. Punch them in the mouth once, and you never have to worry about them again. Nobody wants to be Biff Tannen. One shot from George McFly and his identity crumpled like a wet newspaper.
After blowing the doors off of Arizona and UCLA, I was a little worried that all the success Stanford had been having wasn't steeling their resolve. I'll never complain about hanging double nickels against teams, but I did wonder what would happen if and when Stanford got punched in the mouth. Great teams embrace that challenge. Bully teams go away once their opponent establishes that the game is going to be a fight.
Stanford took a 17-0 lead into halftime last Saturday night, and it seemed clear that Washington just didn't have enough on offense to make it a contest. However, the Huskies came out in the second half with purpose and the ferocious running of Myles Gaskin, who is going to torment Pac-12 defenses for years to come. The Huskies went five plays and 57 yards for a resounding touchdown that put the pressure back on the Stanford offense. The Cardinal not only answered with a touchdown, it answered with two. To me, that was one of the two big takeaways from the game. First, Stanford moved the ball and scored against an excellent defense, and secondly, the Cardinal showed no traces of bully in its DNA. In fact, the team seemed to relish the chance to push and punch back after facing some resistance. So let's take a look at the character, cruelty, and creativity that pushed Stanford to a 5-0 record in the Pac-12.
Stanford faced a 4th and 3 on the first play of the second quarter. Once more, Coach David Shaw went for it, and the most interesting thing about it is that there didn't seem like there was any doubt about whether or not he'd do it. Stanford comes out in an I-Formation with two tight ends on the left as well as a single receiver wide left. Washington lines up with 4 down linemen and an edge rusher upright on the strong side. The Huskies had two linebackers and two safeties playing nine yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Huskies are respecting the unlikely, but not impossible chance that the Cardinal might try to sneak one over the top.
First off, Quarterback Kevin Hogan showed some veteran savvy by getting Stanford to the line and then holding off the snap for over 12 seconds. It's hard to stay in a defensive stance that long and really explode off the ball, and Hogan expertly kept the Huskies crouched in their down positions. Credit the Cardinal offensive line for staying set and not flinching, either. At the snap, Schultz and Hooper down block the defensive end, while Garnett pulls left and screens out the edge rusher who put himself in a bad spot by rushing straight up the field. I remember one thing Rick Neuheisel said years ago about Stanford's strategy. He mentioned how the Cardinal was always looking to create favorable blocking angles and on this play it sure seemed like Hooper and Schultz were set up for success in this regard.
Of course, effort plays a role, and Hooper, after chipping off the double team block, moves to the second level and gets a piece of the Husky linebacker. That leaves Marx leading Christian McCaffrey on a toss left. Daniel smothers him like maple syrup on a pancake to create the left side of the seam for McCaffery. Meanwhile, Kyle Murphy is able to hold off massive defensive lineman Elijah Qualls long enough for McCaffery to go through the hole. The play went for seven yards, and the Washington defense would not be long for the possession after that.
On the very next play, Stanford lines up in the same formation but puts its wide receiver to the weak and short side of the field. On the left, Murphy, Garnett, Shuler, and Caspers wall off the left side of the Husky defense while Casey Tucker and one of the Ogres (Nick Davidson or David Bright) seal off the right side. McCaffrey takes the handoff and starts up towards the left side, but in a flash makes a brilliant cutback right and after a quick stiff-arm that I missed until I watched it in slow mo, rumbles all the way inside the Husky five yard line. McCaffrey could have run this play by the book and probably picked up a respectable four yards or so, but his vision and aggression turned it into a 19-yard gain. All that remained was for Remound Wright to Vulture in, and of course he finished the drive on his second try with a touchdown.
The second half opened with the aforementioned Husky touchdown, and after three straight runs produced a first down, Stanford found itself facing 3rd and 10 thanks to two straight incompletions. On the first, Hogan was hit as he threw, and on the second, Francis Owusu, perhaps confused because there was no defender for him to also grab, dropped a crossing route that would have gone for big yards. That gave the Huskies a high leverage defensive down and a real shot to get its offense the ball back. Setbacks like this are what cripple ordinary offenses. Not this year, however.
Stanford lines up in a Trips Right Single Back Single Left formation. Washington answers with 2 down linemen bracketed by 2 upright rushers. One linebacker is five yards back and over the right tackle, while another is six yards back and basically over the center. At the snap, that SAM linebacker blitzes, while Caspers pulls to simulate a run play. Harb-Shaw teams do this quite often, and its a very effective precursor to a play action ball fake from the quarterback. Hogan fakes to Wright, then hits McCaffrey on a quick screen out to the right. Schultz and Tucker create just enough of a seam for Christian the Lion to extend past the line of scrimmage. However, he hits first contact five yards shy of the line to gain but nevertheless bounces off the first tackler and lunges forward to leave the Cardinal a yard shy of the first down. McCaffrey's toughness and physicality have come to the forefront of his game as he's grown into the role of a featured back. It's extra efforts like this that have Stanford on the verge of greatness.
Remound Wright enters the game and out of a Power I with split fullbacks follows a Stanford O Line who absolutely collapses the UW front and picks up the needed yardage plus four more. With the UW defense on its heels, Stanford breaks the huddle into a Twins Left Split Back Single Right formation. Hogan makes a play action fake to Wright that along with a Garnett pull to the right, sells the Washington safety on the run. Nobody sees McCaffrey wheeling out of the backfield and up the right sideline, and Hogan tosses it to him for a 50-yard touchdown and a huge response to Washington's touchdown drive. This was Stanford taking a punch, smiling, and hitting back.
The Cardinal wasn't finished counter-punching. After stopping the Huskies on the ensuing drive, Stanford takes over with 5:45 left in the third quarter on its own 20. A screen to Barry J. Sanders sandwiched by two runs from Christian the Lion earn Stanford a first down, and then a Hogan keeper for five yards sets up 3rd and 2. Stanford is the best 3rd Down offense in the Pac-12, by the way, and this play highlights a number of reasons why that's the case. Stanford puts four (?!?!?!) tight ends on the field with a Strong Left formation that includes two tight ends in three-point stances bunched two yards behind the line of scrimmage to go with a Single Back and a Single WR Right lined up tight to the formation. On the snap, Remound Wright makes a great effort to come from Hogan's right and pick up a blitzer firing from his left. Cajuste, the receiver on the right, runs a shallow cross, Hooper runs into the left flat, Taboada crosses Cajuste going the other way while Schultz runs up the middle and squats down inside the zone's soft center. Hogan looks left and as the blitzer's left arm slithers around his hip hits a wide open Schultz for 22 yards and the first down.
Two plays later, Stanford comes out in a Twins Left and a Trips Right formation that includes Left Tackle Kyle Murphy split wide right. At the snap, Murphy on the right and McCaffrey split wide right don't go anywhere. They just turn and face Hogan, with Murphy gesticulating wildly for the ball. All the comedic subterfuge works, as Taboada negotiates another wide open space up the middle and snags a high throw from Hogan to bring the ball to the Washington seven yard line. Two plays later, McCaffrey ends up lying on the red grass for another touchdown, and this one was all but over.
This win, while not the offensive bonanza that the wins over Arizona and UCLA, was even more satisfying. UW is the best defense Stanford's gonna play in conference, and to see the Cardinal dig deep into its reservoir of character, cruelty, and creativity, was impressive. Stanford put 31 on a defense that held USC to 12 points in the Coliseum. Whether it was the backs straining and fighting for yards, receivers holding blocks and searching for additional defenders to block, Joshua Garnett pancaking every purple pants wearing player in sight, or using new ball fakes, lineman split wide, or play action, Stanford maxed out on the three C's, and Washington, an up and coming team, had no chance.
So now Stanford heads out on its treacherous final two road trips of the season. Luckily, the media and Pac-12 have done all they need to do to motivate Stanford, as if this group didn't wake up daily with chips on its collective shoulders. Washington State is the flavor of the week, with everybody lining up to praise the Pirate even though Stanford is the highest ranked team in the Pac-12. Then the league delivered a very clear message to Coach David Shaw by assigning the Cardinal a 10 AM Pacific kick against Colorado after Stanford (among others) had complained about the incessant string of night kickoffs. At first I was frustrated, but then I remembered how well this team plays when salty, and as long as they pack their three C's the next two weeks, I love their chances.
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