Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Stanford Football Pac-12 Championship Preview: Cardinal Leaves Notre Dame Seeing Red

Stanford's Red Zone success against the Fighting Irish offers some clues as to how the Cardinal can take down the Trojans.

                Stanford sits on the precipice of its most glorious season ever, with one daunting conquest remaining before a possible berth in the college football playoff.  One of my oft-repeated mantras is that great teams don’t win close games, they avoid close games.  That’s not to say that you have to blow out every team on your schedule, it’s to say that close games are toss-ups, and the more of those you play the more likely you are to rack up losses.

                Stanford sits as Pac-12 North champions and as the #7 ranked playoff team in large part because they improved in one of the most emphasized areas on the field:  The Red Zone.  This season, Stanford has become formidable on both sides of the ball when near the painted grass.  It’s not an oversimplification to say that Stanford beat Cal and Notre Dame in large part because they outperformed the Golden Bears and the Irish in the Red Zone.

                Last season, Stanford’ offense struggled mightily inside the opponent 20, scoring touchdowns on 47% of its RZ possessions in Pac-12 play.  That ranked them 11th out of 12 teams.  This year Stanford was the conference’s best team in the Red Zone, most typically finding the end zone by Vulturing or Hogan-ing.  The Cardinal scored touchdowns on 73% of its drives this year in its nine conference games.

                Though not a league game, Stanford was at its absolute best last Saturday night against the best defense it faced all year long.  The Cardinal scored touchdowns on all five of its forays into the Red Zone.  Not surprisingly, the conference’s best quarterback played a starring role, but everything that was great about Stanford in the Red Zone in 2015 showed up last Saturday night, and that includes the play-calling. 

                That matters because the keys to beating USC are embedded in Stanford’s Red Zone execution against Notre Dame.  Let’s take a look at Stanford’s Red Zone possessions from last Saturday night.

                Technically, Stanford’s first Red Zone possession started just outside the 20, at the 23.  From that line, the Cardinal are in a Trips Left Single Back Single Right, but among the trips are two tight ends. This is the kind of personnel/formation dynamic that few teams in college football can utilize, and it’s one of Bloom-Shaw’s calling cards.  From outside to in, Stanford has Cajuste, Hooper, and Dalton Schultz.

                Hogan takes the snap, fakes to McCaffrey and in so doing draws two Notre Dame linebackers away from the middle of the field.  Schultz immediately populates the vacated area and Hogan hits him in perfect stride.  Schultz takes the ball all the way to the one-yard line.  Once more, we have the best of Stanford’s coaches bringing out the best in Hogan.  Utilizing non-spread personnel in spread formations, play action, and a vertical throw inside the numbers is a trifecta, and in one play Stanford showed how it can beat USC.

                On 1st and Goal, Stanford faced a Notre Dame front that had both a tactical and a physical answer for the Cardinal’s Vulture Culture.  With Stanford’s Ogre personnel group out on the field, Notre Dame wisely removes its corners altogether and sets up Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace as brackets to the formation, looming over the edges of the formation.  Both players crash at the snap and Grace wraps up Wright before the Vulture can take flight.

                Confronted with an effective counter, Stanford’s coaches brilliantly and immediately adjust.  The Cardinal motions out of the Ogre into an eight-man line with a pure I Formation in the backfield.  Notre Dame grabs the releasing Schultz off the snap but the Irish defense is outflanked as Stanford floods its left flat with fullback Chris Harrell and Wright.  Defensive Lineman Jacob Matuska sacrifices contain on the flood side to rush Hogan, who calmly floats it up and over to Wright who catches it and waltzes into the end zone.

                Stanford’s next RZ possession starts with a 2nd and 6 from the 17-yard line in a Twins Left Strong Left Single Back Single Right formation.  Essentially, the Notre Dame middle linebacker blitzes the wrong “A” gap as the handoff takes McCaffrey from Hogan’s right to the left A gap and up the field for five yards.

                After two strong Notre Dame stops of McCaffrey, Stanford lines up at the seven yard line in a Twins Left I Formation Single Right.  The I Formation gives Stanford single coverage on the wide receivers, and Hogan floats one out to Cajuste with two rushing Irish in his face.  Cajuste is just too much for Notre Dame defensive back Drew Recker, and Stanford got another touchdown.

                What matters here is the coverage Notre Dame took for the vast majority of the game.   The Irish refused to let Christian McCaffrey beat them, and that meant lots of blitzing and more often than not single man coverage on the outside.  Hogan and Stanford’s receivers were up to the challenge on this day, coming up with big one on one plays all game long, from Cajuste to Rector.

                USC’s improvement on defense last week after the shellacking they took at the Autzen Asylum was due in large part to an almost exclusive devotion to man coverage.  The Trojans bet that Adoree Jackson, Iman Marshall, and Safety Chris Hawkins could hang with the Bruin receivers and that Josh Rosen couldn’t beat them with his legs.  They were right.

                Stanford of course, has a quarterback who can beat you with his legs and who spent last Saturday night roasting the Notre Dame blitz.  If the Cardinal O line can hold up and give Hogan time, the game may very well come down to Stanford receivers winning one on one matchups.  That happened in the Coliseum in game three.  Will SC double down on its All-World athletes?

                Stanford’s third Red Zone trip was not as remarkable as the play that set it up, and it speaks to what we just discussed.  Cajuste lined up in the slot, Notre Dame blitzed, and Hogan beat it with a great vertical throw between the numbers.  He beat the Notre Dame blitz on another deep pass to Cajuste later and then drew a crucial pass interference with a deep ball against single coverage.  Look for these opportunities again at Levi’s.

                Stanford’s fifth and final Red Zone possession ended with more genius from Stanford’s offensive brain trust. On a 2nd and Goal, Stanford lines up in an I Formation with two Tight Ends Right and a single receiver left.  The Irish line up with no safeties.

                At the snap, Joshua Garnett pulls right then pivots back as Hogan play fakes to McCaffrey.  Hooper, who some claim was covered up by David Bright at the line, fights through a block on a Notre Dame D lineman and then slips past the linebackers who are radar locked on McCaffrey.  Hogan rolls right to further influence the defense and Garnett picks up Notre Dame’s Romeo Okwara just in time.  By the time Jaylon Smith gets out to Hooper, Austin’s chilling in the end zone with the ball. 

                This was great misdirection and use of personnel by Stanford’s coaches, and it brings back into focus Stanford’s tight ends, who will have to play a big role themselves on Saturday night if the Cardinal is to win the Pac-12 title.

                So there you have it. Much of what Stanford did on Saturday night has been part of the Cardinal’s formula for success all season long.  These teams know each other, they know what they want to do, and they know what they do well. It seems likely that sooner or later the game’s going to end up in Hogan’s hands, as it was at the Coliseum in September and as it was last Saturday night against a blitzing Notre Dame willing to test Hogan deep and against pressure.

                I'll take my chances with #8. 


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