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Stanford Football vs. Arizona Wildcats Preview

Stanford has a "new" starting quarterback, but what else needs to happen for this offense to score?

He is risen.

After losing the starting quarterback job to Ryan Burns prior to Stanford’s opener against Kansas State, Keller Chryst has ascended to the role of Stanford’s starting quarterback, not based on merit, but really a brilliant concoction of inactivity and the coaching staff’s own insecurities and shortcomings. Allow me to explain.

Offensively, Stanford is bad.  Like, rotten meat from an Upton Sinclair novel bad.  The stink is so repugnant it simply cannot be ignored. There are now endless ways to quantify how ineptly Stanford matriculates the ball and does that thing which awards a team six points and the opportunity for one or two more.  Let these two pieces of information suffice:  23% of Stanford’s possessions end in turnovers, the highest (worst) rate in the FBS. 26% of possessions end in a field goal or touchdown, which is 114th.

I have been advocating for most of the season that one of the issues is that the offensive line, inexperienced and unstable as a group due to injury, is not comprised of the kind of talent as previous versions.  Kyle Muprhy and Joshua Garnett were both NFL draft picks, and there doesn’t appear to be anybody on the line playing at that level individually this season.  That being said, Stanford currently profiles along the lines of Tulane and Kent State, and there is no argument to me made that they have talent levels similar to those two schools.

So Stanford’s coaches reached for the lowest hanging fruit from the tree of change, tapping Chryst to start in lieu of giving freshman K.J. Costello a chance to play and in the process burning his redshirt. Never mind that the value of said redshirt is trending downward, the real issue is whether or not the coaches have made significant changes to the playbook, playcalling, personnel and formation tendencies, play-calling protocol, game preparation, and talent evaluation which to this point in the season has coupled a decent defense with a staggeringly inept offense.

Aside from switching quarterbacks to the player who lost the quarterback competition, the best thing Stanford is probably doing this week is playing Arizona’s defense. The Wildcats are horrific.  They are 10th in scoring defense in the Pac-12, and they are very amenable to both forms of advancing the ball.  They have the second worse rush (5.9 YPC) and pass defense (8.3 YPA).  They are ninth in the Pac-12 in sacks, 11th in tackles for loss, and they are 9th in opponent third down conversions.

It’s not fair to Burns that if Stanford improves its fortunes in the coming weeks it will be in large part not due to internal adjustments but rather a string of tackling averse turnstiles posing as Pac-12 defenses (Arizona, Cal, and Oregon still remain on the schedule).  Conversely, it wouldn’t totally be fair to dismiss any progress as completely the result of playing inferior competition.   So how are we to judge the staff and the team moving forward?

First off, focus on how Stanford succeeds to the extent that they do.  Are they consistently putting playmakers in positions that stress the defense?  McCaffrey and Love have been criminally underused as receivers, especially from the slot position.  The why of this is irrelevant, though it is fair to note that the coaches have both at their disposal and according to them, the knowledge that they are both available, for the first time this year.

Secondly, Stanford needs to take vertical shots, but needs to do so with its tight ends and running backs, not just its wide receivers.  Stanford turned its 2014 offensive struggles around in large part by using base personnel in spread formations, creating very favorable match-ups for its non-WR skill positions. That needs to return, and pronto.

Finally, Stanford needs to be playing cleaner, and more consistently.  Track how many times the Cardinal strings plays of five or more yards together.  One of the more frustrating parts of this whole offensive calamity is that Stanford has shown flashes of explosiveness and an ability to make plays, but they are constantly being sabotaged by what Coach Shaw terms “inefficiencies.”

Arizona is not hampered on offense nearly to the extent it is on defense.  Quarterbacks Anu Solomon and Brandon Dawkins return Saturday night, and this is an offense that put 28 points up on Washington in the exact same venue.  Rich Rod will be a formidable adversary for Lance Anderson’s defense.  The Cardinal isn’t going to win this game 17-10.  Thus far the ‘Cats have proven explosive (1.35 IsoPPP, 30th in the country) if not efficient (40.15 success rate, 92nd in the country).

Change arrived this week. How many points are coming with it?

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