After the euphoric sense of relief and salvation from Stanford’s 17-10 victory over Notre Dame, the Cardinal stands at the midpoint of its season, and truth be told, there is little mystery to what the team must do to improve on a 4-2 start that many might have taken were it not this 4-2 start. That’s to say that many saw two losses coming in Stanford’s first six games, but the crusher is that the two losses were division losses. The Huskies and Cougars have pretty much completely boxed Stanford out of the race for the Pac-12 North in a season in which the Cardinal was picked to win the conference.
Injuries have played no small role in the Cardinal’s losses, but nothing has been a bigger albatross for Coach David Shaw than his offense. Stanford sits dead last in the conference in points per game, both overall and in conference play. Advance metrics paint an even more gruesome picture. Stanford’s 1.56 Offensive points per drive is 104th out of 128 BCS schools. Finally, Stanford is dead last in the entire 128-school FBS in Red Zone trips with nine
The two biggest culprits in the eyes of many are Quarterback Ryan Burns and an offensive line that has struggled to maintain any kind of consistent level of play or continuity thanks to some injury misfortune. This is how you end up as the least effective offense in the league despite returning a Heisman Trophy runner-up and having the skill positions stocked with talent.
It’s not hard to quantify Stanford’s struggles. Stanford is 9th in the Pac-12 in yards per carry. The offensive line has surrendered 18 sacks through six games after allowing 20 all of 2015. They’ve surrendered the 8th most Tackles For Loss per game, after allowing the fewest per game in 2015. Added to that, the line has also uncharacteristically committed many untimely and drive-killing penalties. See Love, Bryce, 50-yards, last Saturday night.
For Burns, there have been some flashes and even some sustained sequences of very impressive passing, but add it all up and there’s no getting away from the massive drop-off in quarterback play Stanford enjoyed last year under Kevin Hogan. Burns’ 7.2 yards per attempt is tied for 9th in the Pac-12. In conference play that number is 7.1, tied for 6th. His overall completion percentage is 64%, actually good enough for fifth in the Pac-12 ahead of Josh Rosen. The problem is that when you are only being asked to throw 21.5 passes a game, that yards per attempt needs to be better because the Cardinal is counting on chunk yardage off of play action for its big plays.
Stanford’s offensive line has also failed mightily to establish the run game around which the passing game is constructed. Against Washington State, the Cardinal attempted six runs on first down in the first half, and gained a total of seven yards. For a team with pass protection issues, regularly getting behind schedule is a recipe for quarterback struggles, and that’s what’s happened. On many occasions, Stanford quarterbacks are out of time after executing the play fake, leaving them with very little opportunity to get the ball down the field.
Until Saturday, Stanford wasn’t even winning the the third and fourth and short battles it’s accustomed to winning. CFB Study Hall tracks Power Success Rate, which is the amount of runs under such circumstances that result in first downs or touchdowns. In 2015, Stanford’s power success rate was 76%, good for 12th best in the FBS. Until Saturday in South Bend, that number had plummeted to 65%. The good news is that the Cardinal finally established an uptick in performance in South Bend.
Starting with first down runs, Stanford was a far more recognizable entity in terms of the identity it’s established over the past decade. Stanford ran 19 times on first down and gained 121 yards. That’s a healthy 6.4 average. That of course kept Stanford on schedule. While only five of the Cardinal’s 12 third downs were third and shorts, Stanford converted four of those five, with three by running. Stanford’s 58% third down conversion rate is better than both UW’s Pac-12 leading rate this season and its own league-leading 50% rate from last year. That was against a Notre Dame defense that despite its struggles, has held opponents to 38% on third down this season.
Stanford’s struggles on the offensive line are also a function at least in part of shuffling going on either due to ineffectiveness or injury. David Bright, moved from left guard to right tackle, left the game against the Irish and Casey Tucker, moved from left tackle to right tackle because it was deemed a more natural fit, had to come in despite recovering from an injury. If you are looking for ways Stanford can improve in the second half of the season, establishing a presence up front is without question the top priority. Some of that is going to come with time, some with avoiding injury.
Stanford will need Ryan Burns to raise his level of play. Two days after criticizing the quarterback position postgame, Coach Shaw reiterated that Burns is the starter and will remain as such moving forward. This is the right call, and it means that Burns will get all the snaps he needs to grow and sharpen his play. If his line can give him a bit more time to throw, he has provided evidence that he can get the ball downfield effectively.
Stanford makes the turn with basically the same questions and answers as it had at the start of the season. Christian McCaffrey is on the mend, and Bryce Love has established himself as the star-in-waiting everyone projected. The receiving and tight end groups are still well-stocked. If Burns and his front five can ascend, Stanford can and probably should win every remaining game on its schedule, starting with Colorado this Saturday. How long those two factors remain “ifs” is the question for Stanford Football in the second half.