Conservative Second Half Calls?

Stanford's second half fade against #1 ranked USC was a painful saga to watch unfold. The sting of the 14-0 Trojan advantage in the final 30 minutes has brought criticism from all angles, but one of the more frequent charges has been that the Stanford coaches went conservative with their playcalling after halftime. Here is a closer look...

Frustrated fans have immediately charged the Cardinal coaching staff with conservative playcalling on both sides of the ball in the second half of this game.  Stanford reportedly played "safe" to protect their 11-point lead, by tightening their offensive calls and playing a prevent defense with only a three-man rush.  These two charges are overstated, if not factually inaccurate.

On the defensive side of the ball for Stanford, it has been selectively ignored that the Cardinal employed the same playcalls in that successful first half.  Very consistently, Stanford sent a three-man rush or just one extra blitzer on third down and long yardage situations.  There were some successes, and there were some conversions allowed.  But the philosophy was pretty consistent.  You may be one of those fans bemoaning the "conservative" shift on defense in the second half, because you just can't believe what you saw in the second half was the same as the first half.  But consider these numbers:

1st half USC passing: 12-of-15 for 154 yards
2nd half USC passing: 12-of-15 for 154 yards

It is actually commendable that the Stanford defense kept Matt Leinart from hurting them more than he did in the final 30 minutes, when you consider that the Trojans had the ball for 17:23 in the second half versus the 10:36 of possession in the first half.  USC scored 17 points in the first half despite being nearly tripled in time of possession by Stanford, but they put up just 14 points in the second half with 64% more time holding the ball.

Moreover, do not let your sour memory of the final two quarters cloud some of the critical second half successes the Stanford defense had.  Though the Cardinal offense was paralyzed and gave the visiting Trojans field position and time of possession like candy on Halloween, the Stanford defense came up big at many of the right times.  Recall the third quarter, when USC had the ball for the first time and quickly moved the ball 50 yards in five plays to Stanford's red zone.  Protecting the 11-point lead against a threatening USC offense that had scored touchdowns in the red zone with Swiss precision this year, it was the three-man rush that saved the day.  A sack by Mike Silva and Casey Carroll pushed the Trojans back to a 3rd and 16 at Stanford's 19-yardline.  The Card brought just the front three on the ensuing pass rush, and Leinart could not find any target open anywhere on the field.  He was sacked by one of those three "measly" front rushers, Casey Carroll, for a huge 12-yard sack that incredibly pushed USC out of field goal range and held the scoreboard still.

Fast forward to the fourth quarter, with the Trojans even deeper in the red zone and trailing by only four points.  They penetrated to the Stanford nine-yardline and faced 3rd and eight.  The Cardinal defense stacked eight in the box, but at the snap everybody dropped back to reveal again just the three-man rush.  Leinart could only find freshman Dwayne Jarrett under the defense for a harmless six-yard completion that brought up fourth down.  SC kicker Ryan Killeen missed the field goal attempt, accentuating the value of that big defensive stop.

14 points allowed in the second half by that USC offense is hard to criticize.  It is hard to objectively pinpoint how the Stanford defense failed in ways it did not falter in the first half.  Keep in mind how the Trojans made their two scores in the final half.  The first touchdown came on a 63-yard drive that was almost entirely picked up on one play.  It was a 51-yard play-action connection between Leinart and Steve Smith that should have been stopped when Jared Newberry went to tackle Smith 20 yards into the play, but the Stanford senior linebacker rolled off the Southern Cal sophomore and allowed another 30 yards on the play.  The second touchdown of the half came on a short field when Reggie Bush ran back a punt 33 yards to put the ball on the Stanford 41-yardline.  The drive may very well have stalled in the red zone for a field goal rather than a touchdown if not for a pass interference call on Jon Alston in the endzone as he tried to defend LenDale White against a desperation throw by a pressured Leinart.

To say that Stanford went soft and brought no pressure in the second half just isn't true.  They measured when to bring pressure and when to sit back in their coverage, just as they made calls in the first half.  USC was stagnant on offense for a stretch until they moved the ball 66 yards in just over two minutes late in the second quarter.  On that drive, the Trojans passed on four straight plays, and completed all of them for a total of 41 yards.  The first pass came against a five-man blitz and got the drive rolling.  The next completion was made against a three-man rush.  The third completion came despite a Kevin Schimmelmann blitz on one side and Jon Alston on the other.  The fourth and final completion was made against a three-man rush.  The touchdown score came on an improvisational run by Reggie Bush, when he took the ball up the middle on a draw, but then he bounced it outside after he could get nothing and simply beat all the drawn-in Stanford defenders to the corner.  On the second touchdown drive, Stanford did bring blitzing pressure on the first two downs to force 3rd and 10, at which point Leinart connected with Chris McFoy for 15 yards and a drive-inciting first down.  USC never completed another pass on that scoring drive, and their one attempt was the pass interference play, when Julian Jenkins should have had the sack but missed on his lunge for Leinart.

I think there are two differences in how the USC offense was able to attack Stanford's defense in the second half.  It is obvious that the failures of the Stanford offense put the defense in bad spots in the final two quarters, leaving them on the field too long and giving up field position.  It is a sad theme repeated from Stanford games of the 2002 and 2003 seasons, but at some point, good offensive teams will find a way if they are given so many opportunities in the second half.  I lay that at the feet of the offense.  But there was a difference in how Norm Chow attacked Stanford in the second half, as he took more to the ground.  The Trojans attempted only nine rushes in the entire first half, and with the exception of the Bush touchdown run, they were resoundingly unsuccessful.  29 yards on nine carries (including that 17-yard score) is a tepid effort.  But in the final two quarters, Trojan rushers touched the ball 25 times in the backfield, amassing 70 yards.  When you subtract the sacks and scrambles of Matt Leinart, the USC tailbacks totaled 91 net yards rushing.

Some of those runs may have bounced outside, but more often they sliced right through the middle of the line.  Attacking the Stanford defense right at the heart of its 3-4 front paid off late in the game, and there are a number of ways you can explain that.  One might have been tired legs as the defense spent more and more time on the field.  I think it is hard to ignore the absence of suspended senior inside linebacker David Bergeron, who is the team's biggest and best run-stuffer.  His off-the-field violation of team rules in the bye week netted a necessary one-game suspension by head coach Buddy Teevens, which teammates universally supported.  They recognized the unmatched value that Bergeron would bring in the defensive effort against the #1 team in the nation, but they also live by the team credo of "Count on me."  The fifth-year senior, who has been an exemplary leader through the vast majority of his Cardinal career, slipped up at the worst time.  He has to live with the reality that Stanford very likely would have won Saturday night had he not let the team down.

Shifting gears to the other side of the ball, there is a clear statistical case that the offense choked and died in the second half.  291 yards in the first 30 minutes; 36 yards in the final two quarters.  That's one of the more striking contrasts you will ever find.  It is obvious that the offense did not work in the second half, but the evidence hardly bears out the claim that the playcalling went "conservative."

The greatest apparent pet peeve of fans who claim the offense to have pulled in the reigns is running the ball on first down.  The Stanford ground game is a might bit shy of dominant this year, but at least serviceable with Kenneth Tolon and J.R. Lemon averaging a solid four yards per carry.  Picking up four yards on a first down is actually a fine way to seed your offense, if you can do it consistently.  But to fans caught in the emotion of a game, it is the runs for one yard or no gain on first down that drive them batty.  So let's look at the playcalls in the two halves to see if the run/pass mix was indeed more conservative in the second half of play.

1ST DOWN PLAYCALLS

  Run Pass
1st half 8 10
2nd half 2 6

Contrary to what some may think they saw Saturday night, the Card came out throwing in their rare first down calls in the second half.  The run was a much more frequently employed tool (44%) on first downs in the opening half than in the second half (25%).  The root problem was instead the efficacy of those first down plays.  In the second half, Stanford never moved the chains on first down and faced an average of of eight yards to go on second downs.  In the first half, the good guys picked up four first down on first down plays and averaged a gain of 4.6 yards.  You have a much better chance of keeping the defense on their toes when you can pick up consistent yardage like that on first down, but if you only inch the ball ahead like what happened in the second half, you're in for a world of hurt.

Obviously, the USC defense made a significant adjustment at halftime that made life so tough for Trent Edwards and company in the final two quarters.  Let's take a look at the statistics they had at hand going into the locker room to understand why they would have made changes.  Though the Cardinal offense racked up an astounding 291 yards of offense in the first half, Bill Cubit was actually rather measured in the chances he took.  Other than the bomb attempted to Evan Moore on the third play of the game, which fell harmlessly incomplete with no less than three USC defenders surrounding the Stanford wideout, the passing game was entirely confined to short routes.  Edwards picked up just 164 yards on his 20 completions for a mere 8.2 yards per completion.

To put that number in perspective, here are the yards per completion of the top quarterbacks in the conference coming into this weekend:  Aaron Rodgers - 15.3, Trent Edwards - 14.2, Andrew Walter - 14.1, Drew Olson - 13.9, Derek Anderson - 12.7, Casey Paus - 12.4, Josh Swogger - 12.2, Matt Leinart - 12.1, Kellen Clemens - 10.3.

What those numbers tell you, as they told Pete Carroll at halftime Saturday night, is that the threat magnitude of a Stanford completion was downright anemic for Pac-10 play.  Indeed, the passes Edwards was completing were very different from what he threw in the Card's first two games of the year.  That is not to say that the Stanford passing game or offense were anemic in the first half of this contest; to the contrary, the underdogs put up a quick 28 points, which outstripped the combined output of SC's first three opponents in six halves of play this year.  The trade-off that Cubit and Stanford implicitly accepted was short pickups on high percentage plays.  You can stomach 8.2 yards per completion when you are throwing at a 77% clip.  To put that number in perspective, consider that only three of the aforementioned conference quarterbacks cleared 60% completion rates coming into the weekend, including Matt Leinart at 64%.

Specifically, what Cubit had Edwards doing was completing most of his passes on short crossing routes underneath the second level (linebackers) of the USC defense.  Last year, the Trojan defense made mince meat out of Stanford's offensive line with a dominant four-man pass rush.  They were able to pressure the passer often with just their defensive linemen, allowing their back seven to suffocate passing threats in the back end.  Predictably and justifiably, USC employed the same approach in this game, but they were surprised by a couple facts.

1) Stanford's offensive line blocked the USC defensive line in the first half rather well - or at least, long enough for the quick drops that Edwards took for his throws.
2) The Stanford receivers did not run deep into the Trojan secondary, but more often underneath the linebackers for short, conservative routes.  Nobody expected that the Cardinal offense had the ability to operate at such a high precision to get away with the short gains, but Stanford certainly surprised when they marched 76 yards on 14 plays for the go-ahead score in the second quarter.  Not a single completion by Edwards in his 9-of-10 passing performance on that drive went for more than nine yards.  But at a 90% clip, it was plenty lethal.

Given that Stanford picked up just 2.9 yards per carry prior to the final 82-yard stunner by Lemon, which Pete Carroll was ready to dismiss as a fluke play, the second half plan was clear.  If Stanford's running game is picking up short yardage and their passing attack is very deliberately throwing short darts underneath, then you bring your back end players closer to the line of scrimmage to disrupt that narrow band of operation.  One USC recognized that Stanford was not throwing long, they could get away with bringing more pressure.  There was no incentive to keep safeties and linebackers deep in zone coverage.  What was there to contain?

The result was the elimination of those crossing routes being freely run by Evan Moore, Alex Smith, Mark Bradford and Justin McCullum in the first half.  Edwards was able to complete just 3-of-9 passes in the final 30 minutes of the game.  Tolon and Lemon combined for a noggin numbing eight yards on nine carries.  That, folks, is the portrait of an offense stopped dead in its tracks.

"Their linebackers are very talented and started to key on our wide receivers coming across the middle," commented a dismayed Trent Edwards about the USC second half adjustment.

"I don't know if I can put my finger on it," said a befuddled Evan Moore.  "They're just a damned good team and made the adjustments.  The bottom line is that they made plays in the second half when it mattered the most.  One big play and we win the game.  One big drive."

This is not to say that Stanford was helpless and hopeless in the second half, once USC made their adjustments.  Not at all.  It would have been far better to see Stanford counter with their own strategic jab.  But I have a hard time faulting running the same offense in the second half that you put on the field in the first half, when you put 28 points on the board and tattooed the most feared defense in the West for 291 yards.  And the second half calls were certainly no more "conservative" than what had been working in the first half.

USC's defense deserves a world of credit.  What they did in the second half to Stanford was pretty awesome.  Cardinalmaniacs™ wish, however, that Stanford could have stayed schematically nimble and gone to a new bag of tricks to loosen up the encroaching Trojan defense.  Speaking of tricks, I was surprised that Stanford only once in 60 minutes went to any "trickeration" with the fake field goal.  No gadget plays on offense against the best defense they will see all year, against the #1 ranked defending National Champions?


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