One Last Look at 2005

With just 24 hours until the kickoff of the Cardinal's 2006 season, you have probably put the last morsels of '05 reflection behind you. But before closing that door, join us in taking a new look at some numbers from the 2005 Stanford Football season. They might change the way you assess that 5-6 season and provide a new lens for viewing both the Cardinal offense and defense the next 14 weeks.

One of the reasons I love TheBootleg.com is its contrarian analysis – when Big Game Brett Musberger says something on the air that causes me to scratch my head, I will log on here and see that five Booties have already ripped apart the logic of the offending statement.  So it is in that spirit that I present the following gem I stumbled across while researching college football online (read: procrastinating that LSAT in a month) and offer up some of my own contrarian analysis.  Warning: some of this will fly in the face of everything we thought we saw last season for Stanford Football.  But the numbers don't lie, and better understanding what did happen last season is key to better understanding this team.

First of all, I will be relying heavily on this new website, cfbstats.com, regularly this upcoming season, and I hope my fellow Booties reference it frequently in discussion.  The situational statistics are unlike anything I have seen before, and they definitively flesh out trends that we would otherwise months debating the existence or strength of.

Stanford's site is http://www.cfbstats.com/2005/team/674/index.html.  Click on offensive and defensive situational stats, and no these people are not paying me – the site is just good.

So what can we glean from yet another look at Stanford's up-and-down 2005 season?  Where to start?

I think the most remarkable pattern these stats show is that, diametric to conventional wisdom, Stanford's rush defense was actually at its strongest in the fourth quarter!  The 3.74 yards allowed per carry and long of 29 are better than for any other quarter, suggesting that the conventional wisdom that Stanford's rush defense collapsed because of tired defensive linemen may be bogus.  In fact, Stanford's rush defense numbers in the second and fourth quarters are better than the numbers in the first or third quarters, when the defense would presumably be fresher.

Now, before I get carried away, these numbers do not debunk what I thought I saw: the Cardinal defense was the weakest when it mattered the most, likely out of fatigue.  And while a winded front seven could still plug rushing holes, it looked like it had trouble pressuring the quarterback.  With more time to pass, we would expect opponents' aerial numbers to improve in the last quarter, and indeed, that trend plays out.

Stanford's defense was never champion caliber, but there was talent throughout the unit, and the squad posted its share of big plays.  However, the passing defense got worse as the game went on.  Completion percentage went up every quarter – from a middling 55.9% in the first quarter to a horrific 63.1% in the fourth.  And after posting quarterback ratings in the 130's for the first three quarters, opposing quarterbacks posted a 150.6 rating in the fourth.

Not only did opponents' passing efficiency increase, but so too did passing frequency.  After rushing more than passing in each of the first three quarters, and passing no more than a combined 93 times in a quarter, 2005 Stanford opponents passed on 130 of 247 fourth quarter snaps.  They moved the chains 53 times on those 130 passes – nearly twice the passing first downs of any other quarter and, unsurprisingly, the 33 completions of over 15 yards, 10 completions over 25 yards and seven touchdowns in fourth quarters were all nadirs for the Card.  In competitive games, I am sure the statistics were more lopsided, as Cal, Oregon and USC largely sat on their leads in the fourth after carving up Stanford the three quarters previous.  Even so, the 1,151 passing yards allowed in the fourth were nearly double the 585 in the third.  Houston, we have a problem.

Two thoughts.  First, these numbers, or at least the passing numbers, seem to jive with public sentiment among Booties: Stanford has decent talent at the top (and the NFL Draft certainly has affirmed that in recent years) but the depth and fall-off is atrocious.  (And one reason the rushing numbers actually improved in the fourth might be that teams had no motivation to run when they could pass at will.)  As Stanford's defensive starters tired and/or the backups saw more time in the game's latter stages, the numbers imploded.

However, the lack of quality depth leads me to my second point.  Presumably, the same lack of depth exists on the other side of the ball, and the major reason I see for Stanford's fourth quarter collapses is… (drumroll)... the offense.

As much as the passing defense numbers fell off, Stanford's offensive drop-off from last season makes opponents' fourth quarter defense look like the New England Patriots.

Don't take my word for it, though; look at the numbers yourself.  In the rushing game, the Cardinal's yards per carry dropped from 3.74 in the third quarter (and over 2.0 in each of the first two quarters) to just 1.68 in the fourth.  The fourth-quarter long of 17 and the 12 first downs on 102 fourth down carries are both laughable as well.

In the passing game, the purported strength of Stanford, the picture is just as ugly.  Just as yards per carry dropped by over two, completion percentage dropped by over 20, from 68.2% in the third (and over 60% in each of the first three quarters) to 47.2% in the fourth.  Folks not as versed in football statistics may not register the implication of these numbers, so let me illustrate it using some familiar 2005 numbers.  USC completed 65% of its passes, worse than Stanford's third quarter.  San Jose State completed 47.5% of its passes, better than Stanford's fourth.  Oregon rushed for 3.9 yards per carry, about the same as Stanford's third quarter.  I just scanned through the entire underbelly (Sun Belt, MAC etc.) of Division I-A football, and I cannot find a team that fares anywhere near as poorly as 1.7 yards per carry.  Basically, in one quarter, Stanford's offense, especially on the ground, dropped from top-notch to high school.

Two points.  First of all, with the offense giving up such poor field position and failing to controlling the clock, opponents scored more frequently, creating the illusion that Stanford's defense was the unit that primarily responsible for wearing down in the fourth quarter.

Second, presumably opposing defenses tire at least as quickly as the Cardinal offense, so I am at a loss to fully explain this horrific offensive fall-off, but I have a couple of ideas.

- Lack of conditioning or overall depth

- A startling lack offensive line depth that did cause Stanford's offense to tire more quickly than opposing defenses in the fourth.  Given that the rushing numbers halved, this seems to be a large part of the problem.  The passing numbers would fall off, too, since Trent Edwards had a lot less time to find the open man.

- Overly conservative play calling.  Growing up a Michigan fan under Lloyd Carr, I admit I have been so exposed to hyperconservative play calls that the sheep in my dreams are running their halfbacks through the 'A' gap, but my eyes did sense 2005 Stanford sitting on its lead in fourth quarters.  Mistake prevention is a central tenet of Walt Harris', and maybe it was a good idea considering the lack of impact talent last season, the close wins Stanford did eke out and the excellent penalty and turnover marks.

But the numbers suggest that Harris was too conservative in 2005: Stanford passed just 46.5% of snaps overall when the offense's strength was clearly the pass.  That ratio drops to 41.4% of the time in the fourth, when, if anything, it should have been higher as the Card were coming from behind as frequently as not.  Anecdotally, against UCLA, one or two offensive first downs would have allowed Stanford to enter this season off a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, yet (in my view) playcalling prevented the Card from their best shot at moving the chains.

- Overly conservative play.  Perhaps players grew more nervous in the fourth and played "not to lose" – ensuring just that.  And sure enough, numbers do support the idea that the offense had the most difficulty moving the ball at the most crucial times.  Exhibit A: in the Card's 30 rushing attempts in 3rd & short (three yards or fewer) last season, the team made just nine first downs and averaged -0.6 yards!  Maybe Stanford should take the game backwards 80 years and resort to punting on third down – at least it would catch opponents by surprise.  Exhibit B: Stanford gained just 1.4 yards per red zone carry.  Those are so poor as to all but prove the idea that the offense, specifically the rushing attack, was the unit holding the team back.  When it mattered most, it appears Stanford's play was at its worst.

Sorry to be so negative, but those numbers are not pretty.  And, like in any retrospective exercise, the glass is half-full too.  Given that Stanford somehow went 5-6 with those numbers, imagine the upside if the team turn the fourth-quarter corner this year.


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