If you were in the stands at Stanford Stadium last Saturday, you undoubtedly winced at one or more of the big pass plays completed against the Cardinal. Washington State threw tosses of 51, 34, 36 and 31 yards in the game, and all four of those daggers pierced Stanford in drives that reached the red zone. That vaunted Cougar offense scored their only points of the entire first half on the drive where they hit that 51-yarder. Their final score came on the heels of the 31-yarder. Oh, if not for those completed bombs...
But this article is not looking to explain why opponents can throw the deep ball. That is apparent enough. When Stanford attacks with their gambling style so frequently with their front seven, that creates isolated matchups with opponent WRs versus Stanford's DBs. Those matchups will continue, and we can accept them. What we have a hard time swallowing is these completed long passes against tight coverage down the field. Stanford's cornerbacks are there to make plays but have not come up with the big defensive plays to fans' satisfaction. The cry heard in the stands and in living rooms is always:
Why don't they turn their heads?!?
For that answer, I went straight to the source: defensive backs and co-defensive coordinator, A.J. Christoff.
"One of those passes they completed with something they found in our zone coverage," the coverage guru begins. "The others were just good passes and catches. They caught us in our blitz, and we have to get [to the quarterback]. If we don't, we put tremendous pressure on our secondary."
OK, OK. But why don't Stanford's defensive backs turn at that last second to try and make a play on those high, deep balls?
"If you turn your body to look at the ball, the receiver is going to make you pay for it," Christoff explains. "The fade pass has changed a lot in the last four to five years. It used to be a low-percentage play because it was mostly a one-on-one battle to jump for the ball. But now receivers have been taught to use their hands when you turn and show them your back."
At that moment, Christoff decides to make this an interactive interview and gives me the role of the defender. Alright, I'll play along, Coach. I turn my body around to look for for the ball and he puts his hands in my back and easily moves me away from him, creating more space for him to make a play on the ball.
"Receivers are taught to do that, and they can do it effectively without getting a flag," the Stanford secondary coach notes. "That make the fade now a 65-70% play for a receiver on a well-thrown ball. And those Washington State receivers we saw last week, just like Washington and USC, are going to get drafted. The best we can do is stay with the receiver and make the play when the ball comes. I'm happy our guys are in the position where they can make a play; now they just need to do it consistently."
Over on offense, another gametime conundrum for Stanford fans is figuring out the running plays being called from the shotgun. That schematic philosophy has yet to produce any gamebreaking runs for the Cardinal offense. Quite to the contrary, the Stanford running game has producing decreasing outputs in each and every game this year. The WSU game was the worst yet, with just 42 total yards on the ground to show for all of Stanford's efforts. Kenneth Tolon had enjoyed a solid year, averaging 4.0 yards per carry in his first four games. But with a series of unsuccessful draws and inside handoffs from the shotgun, the redshirt junior mustered just 1.3 yards per carry for a dismal total of 22 yards.
"We were a little less aggressive in our running," Tolon admits in reflecting upon the WSU game. "We need to come off the snap more aggressively and attack the defense. I need to get downhill more."
But how about those shotgun draws, Kenny? What is your take on their place in the offense?
"When you run from the shotgun, it gives you a little less time to read the defense," the New Mexico native answers. "But it's really good because we do a lot of our running and our passing from that formation. It keeps defenses guessing. We can disguise what we want to do."
That doesn't precisely answer why the plays were so routinely stuffed at the line of scrimmage last Saturday, however. For more on that, we turn to head coach Buddy Teevens.
"In several of those plays, the quarterback didn't check out of the running play," the head man explains. "When there are seven guys in the box, the quarterback should check out of the run. We have six blockers, and as soon as we have a numerical disadvantage somebody can tackle the ballcarrier free. We didn't do that and we paid for it on some plays. That's a mental breakdown we can't afford."
"This was our first game with those checks in place," Tolon adds.
This is an issue that the players and coaches reviewed this week, and we will wait to see tomorrow in Eugene if the decision-making improves. If that shotgun formation truly provides a cunning edge of disguise and flexibility, it needs to be properly employed. If not, Oregon's defensive strength up front will devour Tolon and the other backs with ease. And without a running game, it will be very difficult for the passing game to get untracked. On the flip side, if the shotgun is employed with better effectiveness and skill, we might see some audible screens Saturday that ignite the Stanford offense and breathe life back into this season.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!