Is it finally time for some McLovin’?
One of the biggest criticisms of this year’s offense has been that Stanford has two of the most talented playmakers in the conference at its disposal in Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love – so why not use them at the same time?
After a performance in Tucson on Saturday that looked more like the Stanford team that we’ve looked for all season – McCaffrey with 169 yards on 23 carries, Love with 78 yards on 12 carries. So where has this been all year, anyway?
According to Shaw, it’s been on injured reserve.
The team had spent its offseason working towards using both McCaffrey and Love in combination packages and in tandem with each other, in addition to Love occasionally spelling McCaffrey for drives at running back. That said, it was impossible to install gameplans with such concepts for the first half or so of the season because Love was injured and limited in practice for a few weeks at the start – and then, of course, once he got healthy, McCaffrey got hurt and had to be held out of significant practice action for a while.
So while it might seem like the team finally “added” that last component of McLovin’ out on the field together against Arizona, Shaw disagrees, saying that having only half of his running backs tandem healthy for most of the season actually forced the “adding,” since the coaches hadn’t been anticipating having to play without one or the other.
“You saw quite a few things this past weekend with one on the field, the other on the field, then both on the field at the same time,” Shaw said. “That’s a great combination and it’s what we’ve been wanting to play all year, with the combination of both guys, along with using our receivers and three-receiver sets.
“That was our anticipation coming into the season, to do a lot of change in personnel and to utilize those two special talents.”
So let’s talk about the changes in personnel for a second. Obviously, on most plays, McCaffrey is in the backfield as a running back, but it’s certainly not uncommon to see him lined up all over the field as a receiver as well. That’s a flexibility that we all expected from Love coming into the season as well, but one that we haven’t necessarily seen.
With McCaffrey, it’s not immediately apparent what’s going to happen when he splits out wide as a receiver – a lot of the time, it’s a screen, but he’s able to run the whole route tree with the best of them, meaning that opposing DBs need to be on alert.
But we’ve still only really seen Love used in the screen game when he’s split out wide or as a decoy, which makes the job a little bit easier for opposing defensive backs when they’re trying to diagnose the plays that Stanford is running based on the formation.
But here’s what Bloomgren has to say about Love as a receiver:
“We are confident that he can run a certain number of routes and feel good about him catching the ball for sure. The thing is, if we're going to do that, why not do it with Christian? Christian has already reached a mastery of those routes.”
I agree with that to a certain extent – that obviously, the execution on any of these passing plays is going to be better with McCaffrey, who’s about as polished of an all-around player as they come. But just because McCaffrey is better doesn’t necessarily mean that Stanford shouldn’t be doing that with Love – if that’s the case, why are we handing the ball off to Love at all, while we’re at it?
The whole beauty of having backs like McCaffrey and Love is that on any given play, it’s tough to nail down exactly what they’re going to do – whether they’re going to take a screen for 10 yards or whether they’re going to take on linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field to exploit their open-field ability. I’m no coach, but I don’t see taking half of the mystery away by defining something that Love isn’t going to do because McCaffrey is going to do it better as a good thing.
“I believe Bryce will, but it's just kind of like the evolution you saw with Christian. His first year, he was a special play guy -- run these few plays -- and his role grew as the year went,” Bloomgren said. “And then he became a running back last year.
“Really, that's how Bryce was. Last year, he was a special play guy. Get him on some reverses. Get him on some special screens and bubbles. Now, Bryce is a running back, and I guess the third progression is that Christian has become a receiver, and a really good receiver. I can see Bryce taking that same step.”
Bloomgren’s train of thought implies that the coaching staff is trying to develop Love in the same way they did McCaffrey, but are we really expecting Love to be able to master each stage of the progression as thoroughly as McCaffrey did? When is it time to take the next step there and unleash him as a receiver as well?
The one caution with all this has, of course, been that we’ve only seen Week 1 of the McCaffrey-Love tandem gameplan so far, and given the depth of the Stanford playbook, you’d better believe there’s a lot more to come. Let’s hope that we see more of the true potential and flexibility of this duo as we continue to turn the pages of that playbook in the remaining weeks of the season.
“You’d love to be eight or nine games into that as opposed to being one game into both of those guys,” Shaw said. “You also need to fight the temptation to put everything into one gameplan. You want to keep the receivers involved, keep the tight ends involved and keep our dynamic players involved as well.”
Bright was only somewhat healthy on Saturday in Tucson, playing a handful of snaps as an extra off-tackle offensive lineman. It’s looking increasingly likely that he’s going to play in a similarly limited role this coming Saturday against he Beavers.
“He looks like he’s going to be ready to go in some form,” Shaw said. “We’re not going to put 60 plays on him, but I think he’ll rotate in and he’ll play a little bit. We’re putting together a plan for him.”
Caspers “did some work” in practice on Wednesday, but the coaching staff is going to wait until the end of the week to see if he’ll be able to play against Oregon State. If he does play, look for him in an extra-offensive lineman role as well, particularly with Nate Herbig impressing in his debut against Arizona.
It would be a minor shock if Marx did end up playing on Saturday, and the current plan is for Marx to go through pregame warmups this week and then try to play next Saturday at Oregon.