Stanford appeared all but cooked after a first half that saw the Cardinal scratch and claw for a measly three points against a Washington State defense that hadn't shown itself capable of this level of play all season long. It was raining, the passing game was going nowhere, and a crowd who showed up hoping for an upset now smelled blood and a Pirate's plundering of pole position in the Pac-12 North. In the press box, my heart was pounding, my hands were shaking, and I was desperately searching for ways I could envision Stanford turning this game around and escaping with a victory. The Cardinal was staring closer to the abyss than it had been since its infamous opener in Evanston which now seems so, so long ago.
That's when Stanford revealed perhaps its greatest evolution in a season defined by changes both subtle and overt. Taking information Hogan had spotted during the first half slog into the locker room, the offensive brain trust (which should probably now include Hogan) got it together and devised an attack born of both desperation and rationalization. Washington State was selling out to stop Christian McCaffrey, going all in on wherever #5 appeared on the field. The rain and the ferocious Cougar pass rush left the Cardinal with not much else to try, so it set Hogan loose. Foot loose. Let's take a look at three plays that triggered this in-game adaptation and then the three big Hogan runs that gave Stanford just enough to escape The Palouse with its biggest dreams intact.
First off, the Washington State defensive line played an amazing game, manhandling and out-quicking a Stanford offensive line that had been dominant over the past month of the season. Daniel Ekuale and Destiny Vaeao made big impressions early and often last Saturday night, and they weren't alone. The Grinch nearly ran away with Stanford's playoff hopes, and the Cougar defensive coordinator utilized a number tactics to tilt the odds in favor of his supposedly out-manned defense.
On a second and five Washington State's defense has four down linemen and two linebackers shifted to the strong side of the formation. At the snap, Hooper loses his battle with the linebacker which means that the pulling Murphy and Shuler have to get Garnett and Hooper's men. Tucker misses a cut block on the weak side linebacker, and from the back side Hercules Mata'afa makes the play on Hogan for a loss of two yards. WSU was overloading the strong side and crashing the back side all night long, both of which are techniques that Northwestern used to great success in Week 1.
At the 2:18 mark of the first quarter, Stanford comes out in an I Formation with Tight Ends on either side of the formation and a Single Receiver Right. The Cougars counter with a 4-3 Over alignment that two defensive linemen on the left side split wide and the Sam linebacker at the line of scrimmage. The other two linebackers are up and a safety is creeping up at the snap. Garnett and Shuler get a good double team block on the play and Murphy seals the end inside, but the Cardinal has already used five guys to block four players, which leaves Marx with the job of blocking two guys by himself. That goes poorly and McCaffrey ends up with just a one-yard gain. A big part of Stanford's power running success comes from advantages gained pre-snap through formation and personnel, but WSU turned the tables on this play by giving Stanford too many men to block.
The tables turned on a 3rd and 7 with 10:35 left in the third quarter. The Cardinal goes Trips Left Single Back Single Right, a formation it's been using routinely all year long. It's by definition a passing formation, and remember way back when Lee Ward said that what handcuffed the Stanford offense last year was being far too personnel and formation predictable? Even if you don't, it was some truth from a man who'd know. Once more, WSU overloads the right side of the Stanford offensive line and puts their D linemen in wide splits on the Trips side of the formation. Stanford goes to one of its best weapons of deception-a pulling offensive lineman ( in this case, Caspers from right guard). In addition, Hogan fake tosses to McCaffrey sprinting left, and no less than four members of the back levels of the WSU defense get induced by the subterfuge.
Peyton Pelleur starts off covering Hooper but abandons him as soon as he read McCaffrey flaring out as if to receive the pitch. Free Safety Shalom Luani has his head down and b-lines across the formation from right to left, meaning he passes Hogan running with the ball. In fact, Caspers' pull was perfectly timed because Hogan is behind him and essentially invisible until he bursts past the line of scrimmage and 39 yards deep into Cougar territory. Washington State got caught, and it wouldn't be for the last time.
With 2:29 left in the 3rd quarter, Stanford goes to a Twins Left Pro Set Shotgun Single Right Formation. Once more, Caspers pull, and Cougars Jeremy Allison, Chandler Leniu, and Luani once again all track McCaffrey on the zone read play. Caspers and Murphy seal the Cougars between themselves and the sideline while Garnett and Shuler seal off the right side of the alley. Luani slips on the wet turf after a Hogan juke and then Hogan breaks right and up the sideline, where he puts a stop and go fake on to elude the last defender, then gets an escort from Michael Rector into the end zone from 59 yards away. Stanford wisely #LetHoganBeHogan, and luckily the Senior's ankle had reached a point where he could avail himself of the opportunities the overpursuing Cougars allowed them.
Finally, after a crucial Remound Wright Vulture First Down, Stanford has a 1st and goal early in the fourth quarter. The Cardinal comes out Twins Left Tight End Left Single Back Single Right. Hooper downblocks while Caspers gets a crucial cut block. Nobody pulls on this play, which is a QB Sweep Left. Hooper, as he's been doing all year, chips off his first block and goes and gets a guy on the second level. Wright hits Nickleback Parker Henry. That cut block by Tucker looms large as Hogan cuts back hard right up the middle and breezes by the overanxious Cougars into the end zone. Tucker's block eliminated any back side pursuit, which as we saw earlier, was a big part of WSU's success against the Stanford run game.
After all that, Christian McCaffrey got a brief glimpse of an honest defense and popped a 31-yard gain that helped set up a field goal. Ukropina should not be forgotten either. He hit three big kicks, all of which were necessary under rough conditions. Stanford cheated death and left in firm control of the Pac-12 North and its own destiny.
Much has been made of the external changes to Coach Shaw's demeanor, and its intriguing how his external presentation has changed as he has also clearly adapted and evolved through the course of this season. When you get Coach Shaw to speak candidly, he clearly gets it. Postgame he's been much more candid about the team's struggles and emotional when praising a group he clearly has come to cherish maybe more than any team he's had at Stanford. Just as one part of the Northwestern defeat was the inability to adapt in-game, Stanford gets a chance to prove it can handle playing in the AM with its Breakfast in Boulder. A win on Saturday brings us all to the long-anticipated stretch run, where Stanford will have a chance to break through to heights not even the Luck teams could reach. And if they do, few will forget how much resolve, poise and ingenuity the Cardinal coaches and players showed on a rainy night in Pullman when Stanford refused to go gently into a two-loss night.
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