Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today

Stanford Football Needs to Regroup After the Stomping in Seattle

Stanford limped out of Seattle in tatters. What does the Cardinal need to recover?

So now that we are three days removed from the most violent dog mauling since Cujo, it’s time to look at the bloodied, bruised, and battered collective that is the Stanford Cardinal and get into the autopsy of the Cardinal’s lost control of its Pac-12 North destiny. Unfortunately, so many things went wrong for the Cardinal that it’s impossible to pinpoint, bandage, and rectify them all in time for Washington State on Saturday.  

If I had to prioritize the list of problems prior to watching the game a second time, it would probably look like this:

  1. Offensive Line

  2. Burns

  3. Linebackers

  4. Secondary

  5. Defensive Line

  6. Injuries

  7. Playcalling

Other than that, it was a lovely 28 hours in Seattle.   I suggest both Witness and Nacho Borracho’s on Capitol Hill for your Friday evening socializing should you find yourself in the Emerald City. Now, back to the carnage.

I’m going to start with the top two on the list because there was quite the chicken/egg debate going on during the game.  Was the O Line terrible because Burns was holding on to the ball too long?  Was Burns holding on because nobody was open?  Was Burns under too much pressure because of awful blocking by the O Line?


Looking up, I suppose it was more of a three-way death match between chicken, egg, and uh…...some third thing.  For our purposes, let’s look at Mr. Burns’ 12 first-half dropbacks.  I’m excluding Chryst’s series just because it adds another variable, and for the moment I’d prefer to table it since it’s Burns who is the guy starting and playing most of the game.


Down and Distance


# of Husky Rushers

Time from snap to pass/sack

Play Result


1st & 10

Stan 21



Completion to Rector +5 yards


1st & 10

Stan 41





3rd & 11

Stan 40





2nd & 1

Stan 25



Completion to Schultz


2nd & 7

Stan 33



INC to Love


2nd & 8

Stan 36



Completion to Rector +6


3rd & 2

Stan 42





1st & 10

Stan 25



Completion to McCaffrey +6


2nd & 6

Stan 46



Completion to Schultz +4


3rd & 7

Stan 45



Completion to Irwin +24


2nd & 7

Wash 28





3rd & 13

Wash 34




So Burns averaged 2.1 seconds on the plays where successfully got the pass off to a receiver.  On the sacks, he held the ball for an average of 3.01 seconds. 

All right, and now here are some notes on some of these plays for added context.

  • Pass 2:  Nobody was open on this play, in part because once again there was no route variety in the depth of the routes run, meaning Burns was staring at a cluster of defenders at the level he’d have been throwing the ball.  Elijah Qualls beats Guard Johnny Caspers on a power rush.  Burns did hold it for a while here, but he really had no place to go with the ball, and with the rush coming up the middle, stepping up and running wasn’t really an option.

  • Pass 3:  One of only three times in the half UW brought more than its base four, and they ran a looping stunt to get the outside linebacker an inside lane to Burns. Fullback Chris Harrell, in for the injured Daniel Marx, let’s Psalm Wooching charge right on by before slipping into a pass pattern.  This was a poor choice.  Stanford missed Daniel Marx though all the attention was on the missing corners before the game.

  • Pass 5:  This was the airmail job by Burns to Bryce Love in the flat.  Stanford had one receiver to presumably block two defenders here, so incomplete was probably the best case scenario.  Not gonna credit Burns for throwing it away because he made a bad throw, but this play had no chance from the start.

  • Pass 6:  We actually start on the play before, in which Washington had an eight-man front and McCaffrey was stuffed for only a two-yard gain.  I bring this up because Stanford was very formation predictable in this game, something they got away from in 2015 and which helped torpedo their 2014.  Anyway, facing a 2nd and 8 from its own 36, the Cardinal comes out in a Twins (Schultz/Irwin Inside/Out) Single Right Single Back Shotgun Formation.  Schultz and Rector, the single receiver on the left side, run curl routes of equal depth, and Burns hits Rector for a six-yard gain. McCaffrey leaked out into the left flat, which prompted another question for me:  Why wasn’t McCaffrey used more as a receiver?  We’ll get back to that. Burns fires the ball and has it out in less than 2.5 seconds as the Huskies bring four men.

  • Pass 7:  Joe Mathis completely beats A.T. Hall, who has allowed six sacks on the year, by the way.   Stanford gave up 20 sacks in 2015, and has already allowed 12 in four games. One other note on this play.  The Huskies again rush four and with Harrell remaining in the backfield, Stanford has six to block four and still gives it up to Mathis.  As the play develops, Harrell slides over to the middle of the line from the left.  I can’t say if he did this by design or not so we can’t definitively blame him, but it would have been nice to keep him on Hall’s side to help with Mathis.

  • Pass 8:  Sometimes you have to credit the defense.  Burns holds onto the ball, but it’s by design as this was a screen to McCaffrey.  The UW line sniffs it out, and even if they hadn’t, they still would have had seven guys between McCaffrey and the goal line.  The Cardinal did well to get six yards here.

  • Pass 9:  Again, we have to start with the play before, which resulted in a delay of game even though Burns was under center with five seconds left on the play clock. The coaches have had struggles getting in players and personnel, but this one has to go on Burns.  He has to see the play clock there. He does come back with a nice short completion to Schultz for four yards, getting rid of the ball in less than two seconds.

  • Pass 10:  On easily the best play of the half for Stanford, Burns finds Irwin against a five-man rush a split second before he’s clobbered up the middle.  This play gives me hope that Burns can grow into an effective passer.  He stood tall even though he knew he was gonna get popped, got rid of the ball very quickly, and hit Irwin for a big gain against a soft Husky zone no doubt counting on the blitz to get to Burns. This play really cemented the idea for me that most of the struggles first half were on the offensive line.

  • Pass 12:  Caspers again makes a horrendous effort in trying to block Greg Gaines, and the 318-pound Sophomore from La Habra makes a Burns sandwich between himself and the turf. This party was over in 2.24 seconds, again, an indictment of the pass blocking.  Tough to complete a 13-yard pass in that amount of time.


At least in the first half, Burns was plagued by a porous offensive line barely holding up when he was getting the ball out quickly. There’s no escaping the fact that this line has to improve.  Yes, this Husky defense was the best Stanford will play for the remainder of the year, but that doesn’t mean Stanford gets a pass from addressing its issues.  They need to get better.  But it’s not gonna happen in a week, so what can the Cardinal do in the meantime?

Three things will help Stanford.  First of all, the Cardinal needs to dedicate some type of help for Hall, be it a chipping back, double-teaming tight end, or fullback in the backfield. We don’t necessarily need to write off A.T. yet, but leaving him one on one over and over again right now is a recipe for disaster.

Secondly, let’s talk about two things Shaw-Vita-Gren can do to help their own cause. One of the brilliant adjustments they made in 2014 was to use stretch formations with base personnel.  This created mismatches for McCaffrey the receiver as well as for the backs and tight ends. Stanford’s making things to easy for its opponents by giving clear indication of its intent based on personnel group and then by formation.

Finally, McCaffrey and Love need to be on the field together more, and as receivers.  Imagine a pro set where Love suddenly motions wide, forcing a linebacker or safety out at the numbers to cover him.  Then imagine him running a go route and having McCaffrey wheel right behind him.  The point is not necessarily that this is gonna cure all of Stanford’s problems, but right now the Cardinal is tethering both these guys to the line of scrimmage as receivers.  Get them down the field together.  Stress the defense.


Notes on the other issues


  • Linebackers:  This group is struggling mightily to impact games, both inside and out.  The three-group roulette wheel at ILB seemed like a good idea at the time, but neither of the couplets are really distinguishing themselves in terms of shedding blocks, generating pressure, and least of all, in pass coverage. To add to the struggles, the outside linebackers are not setting edges or getting any rush off the edge.  One of the reasons Jake Browning looked like Jesus Christ Superstar back there is that on his 23 dropbacks, he faced pressure only three times, per Pro Football Focus. On his 20 strolls through the daffodils, Browning had a passer rating of 146.5 and a completion percentage of 73%, despite radar-locking and throwing at least three interceptable balls.  On the three plays where he was pressured, his QB rating was 68 and his completion percentage fell to 50% (1-2...Sample Size!!).  Peter Kalambayi had 6.5 sacks as a Sophomore, then 4.5 last year, and while his 2.5 this year puts him on a pace to beat both totals, he hasn’t recorded one since the first game against Kansas State.  He also has but three quarterback hurries.   Sacks are not the end all/be all, but somebody from this level of the defense needs to step up pronto.

  • Secondary:  Oy. Meeks and Holder were sorely missed, but the Cardinal safeties are doing little to distinguish themselves either. With Luke Falk and the Air Raid coming to town, DB Coach Duane Akina and Defensive Coordinator Lance Anderson have some long nights ahead of them this week if the starting corners don’t return. Stanford currently sits at last in the Pac-12 in interceptions and in the middle of the pack in passes broken up. Both of those are a function of the work of the entire defense, but as it stands, the Cardinal’s secondary is a much more inviting target.

  • Injuries:  Not much you can do here, but Stanford clearly needs Marx, Holder, and Meeks back.  I’d also add Brandon Fanaika to this list as well.

  • Playcalling:  We talked about how the coaches can help their struggling players above, but I’d still argue overall that it’s tough to do much with those play sheets when your team is getting whipped at the point of attack all night.

So Stanford sits at 3-1, and will need to be two loss column games better than Washington to win the Pac-12 North. Credit to Coach Chris Petersen, who in just over two seasons has already caught and passed the team who has won three of the past four Pac-12 championships, at least through four games. Stanford is looking way up at Washington right now, and there is no way to address that head to head until 2017.  What matters now is how much ground they can gain on the rest of a league that looks like it’s making gains on Coach David Shaw’s program.  “You’re either getting better or you are getting worse” reads a huge sign on one of the walls enclosing Stanford’s practice field.  There’s no question which happened in Seattle last Friday night.  Last year, Stanford responded well to adversity, reeling off a 9-game win streak after its first loss and a four-game streak to close the season after its second. How far has this team fallen from 2015 in this regard?  The first part of that answer comes Saturday night.


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