Cardinal Numbers: Seven would be heaven!

For those of us obsessed with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data, TheBootleg.com Columnist Terry Johnson bravely attempts to draw meaningful conclusions from a convincing home win over a clearly hurting opponent in San Jose State. It appears "7" will be a critical number for the Cardinal this season, and not just because of Toby Gerhart's jersey! Read on to see why.

Let's review the situation.

Stanford suffered a disappointing loss in its opening game. After playing competitively well into the second half, Stanford let the game get away, eventually giving up 17 points in the fourth quarter.

Stanford and its new coach really needed a win at home against San Jose State. Stanford controlled the first half, but allowed San Jose State to hang around within striking distance, due in part to an interception of a Stanford pass in the red zone. Then Stanford came out and scored on its first possession of the second half, and that broke the game open. Stanford dominated from that point forward, turning the game into a rout. The fans enjoyed the show, with many hanging around until the end to celebrate their team's first win under its new coach.

Stanford ended up winning by 37 points. Stanford out-gained San Jose State by about 350 yards. Stanford's stat sheet shows over 500 yards of total offense, with over 250 rushing yards and over 25 first downs. Stanford held San Jose State to just over 30 rushing yards.

So, what does it all mean?

Well, when all of that happened in 2002, it turned out that it didn't mean much of anything. Buddy Teevens got his first win at Stanford in a 63-26 demolition of San Jose State. But he never approached that kind of performance again, winning only one more game all year long to finish with a miserable 2-9 record. The San Jose State game turned out to be an aberration.

Here we are again, playing out a similar scenario in the first two games. The San Jose State game last week had a lot of statistical similarities to the San Jose State game in 2002. Both games provided a wealth of very positive statistics in every phase of the game. For obvious reasons, I'm reluctant to draw many conclusions based on the statistics from last week's game.

However, despite some misgivings, I have a few comments...

Offense

For the second straight week, Stanford moved the chains throughout the game. Stanford rolled up 26 first downs against San Jose State, after having 21 first downs last week against UCLA. The fact that this happened two weeks in a row suggests that maybe it wasn't a fluke. For a team that averaged fewer than 11 first downs per game over the last nine games of last season, that looks like progress.

Obviously, Stanford's success in running the ball against San Jose State was crucial. Stanford's 276 rushing yards was Stanford's biggest single-game rushing total in over five years, and was a huge improvement over the 52 yards Stanford managed against UCLA. The running game, of course, was driven by Toby Gerhart, who looked extremely impressive in gaining 140 yards, but it's also notable that Anthony Kimble contributed 80 yards. That was the second highest single-game total of his career (he had 83 yards last year against Arizona State).

Overall, Stanford averaged 5.8 yards per carry against San Jose State, compared to 2.0 yards per carry against UCLA. That comparison is somewhat misleading, however. Much of the difference was due not to Stanford's improvement in running the ball, but to Stanford's improvement in pass protection. The sacks in the UCLA game distorted Stanford's yards per carry. Excluding sacks, Stanford averaged 6.1 yards per carry against San Jose State, compared to 4.5 yards per carry against UCLA. As a point of comparison, in the last two seasons, Stanford averaged 3.6 and 3.8 yards per carry after excluding sacks. So, Stanford's yards per carry in each of the first two games were reasonably good.

Stanford's success in running the ball took the pressure off Stanford's passing game. As a result, Stanford's passing yardage declined from 346 yards against UCLA to 230 yards against San Jose State. Most Stanford fans would view the decline in passing yardage as a good thing, because it resulted from the Stanford's success in running the ball. Given that the decline in passing yards is a positive development, we need to look at other statistics to measure the effectiveness of the passing game. I like to look at yards per pass attempt. The statistics gurus who have crunched the numbers and have done the analysis seem to be pretty much in agreement that there's a good correlation between yards per pass attempt and winning, while there's not a very good correlation between total passing yards and winning. (For those who want to explore this subject, here are a couple of articles: What Makes Teams Win?; Stat Relevance Watch)

I like to see our passing offense average at least 7.0 yards per attempt over the long run. There's no magic to that number, but if you look back at Stanford's statistics over the years, 7.0 yards per attempt has been a pretty good benchmark. About half of the Stanford teams since 1968 have averaged 7.0 yards per pass attempt or better, so that's roughly the median. The Plunkett/Bunce teams averaged over 7.0 yards per attempt. All of Bill Walsh's teams averaged over 7.0 yards per pass attempt. So did all of John Elway's teams and all of Steve Stenstrom's teams. Three of Willingham's teams – the Rose Bowl team, the Seattle Bowl team, and the Liberty Bowl team – averaged over 7.0 yards per attempt. Here's the list of Stanford teams that have averaged 7.0 yards per attempt since 1968 (because we're looking at team performance, these are team averages, not averages for individual QBs):

Team Average of 7.0 or More
Yards Per Pass Attempt

YearStarting QBYds/Att.
1999Husak9.0
1968Plunkett8.5
2001Fasani8.3
1994Stenstrom8.0
1982Elway7.8
1993Stenstrom7.8
1979Schonert7.8
1969Plunkett7.7
1977Benjamin7.7
1980Elway7.6
1970Plunkett7.6
1995Butterfield7.6
1990Palumbis7.5
1981Elway7.5
1991Stenstrom7.4
1971Bunce7.4
1978Dils7.3
2005Edwards7.3
1992Stenstrom7.0

On the other side of the ledger, none of Jack Christiansen's teams averaged over 7.0 yards per attempt. Neither did any of Jack Elway's teams, nor any of Buddy Teevens' teams. The Willingham teams with Chad Hutchinson never reached 7.0 yards per attempt, nor did Walt Harris' team last season. Overall, I think 7.0 yards per attempt provides a pretty good benchmark for evaluating the passing game.

So, how is Stanford doing this season in yards per pass attempt? Against UCLA, Stanford had 346 passing yards but averaged only 5.9 yards per attempt, which is poor. Against San Jose State, Stanford gained only 230 passing yards, but averaged 7.7 yards per attempt, which is pretty good. So there was progress in the passing game last week, though it was not against a tough opponent. For the season, Stanford still is averaging just 6.5 yards per attempt. We need to raise that number as the season progresses.

Defense

As was the case with the offense, virtually all of the defensive statistics from the San Jose State game were very good. Again, I don't want to draw too many conclusions based on this one game, but I have a few observations.

By holding San Jose State to only 163 total yards and 32 rushing yards, Stanford turned in almost a mirror image of its horrid defensive performance against UCLA. Undoubtedly, Stanford's defense isn't as good as it looked against San Jose State and isn't as bad as it looked against UCLA. Let's just hope Stanford's defense is closer to the team that showed up against San Jose State.

The two games, when combined, result in a below-average set of defensive statistics. For the season, Stanford is now allowing 394 total yards per game, 185 rushing yards per game, and 4.9 yards per carry. Those numbers are better than they were after the UCLA game, but they're still poor. We need to continue to see improvement.

Last week, I suggested that an "attack" defense should generate turnovers, sacks, and tackles for loss.

Against San Jose State, the defense generated its first turnover of the season, but only one. Creating one turnover in two games just isn't good enough. I'd like to see at least two takeaways per game by our defense, ideally three or more takeaways. In the last ten years, Stanford's best takeaway figures were generated by Stanford's two best teams: Stanford had 30 takeaways (2.7 per game) in both 1999 and 2001. It would be nice to approach those levels again.

Stanford had three sacks against San Jose State, which is nothing special but at least was better than the single sack against UCLA.

Stanford continued the trend established against UCLA of having relatively high numbers of tackles for loss. Stanford had seven tackles for loss against San Jose State, after having nine tackles for loss against UCLA. Stanford's average of 8.0 tackles for loss per game is well in excess of Stanford's 3.8 tackles for loss per game last season. That's a promising sign.

Random Numbers

Richard Sherman has led the team in receiving yardage in each of Stanford's last seven games...

Stanford last defeated Oregon in the memorable 49-42 upset in Eugene in Willingham's last season, 2001. Since then, during the five seasons of the Teevens/Harris era, Oregon has won five games in a row against Stanford. The same is true of USC, Cal, and Notre Dame, as well as Oregon: Stanford beat all of them in 2001, but has lost five straight to each of them since then. That gives Stanford a record of 0-20 over the last five seasons against those four schools, compared to a record of 16-20 against all other opponents during that time...

Oregon comes into Stanford Stadium with its offense hitting on all cylinders. Oregon leads the Pac 10 in scoring (46.3 points/game), total offense (519.3 yards/game), rushing offense (325.7 yards/game), and passing efficiency (176.4 efficiency rating)...

Bo McNally continues to lead the Pac 10 in tackles, with 13 tackles per game. With 26 tackles, Bo has twice as many tackles as Stanford's next leading tackler, Wopamo Osaisai (13 tackles)...

Derek Belch leads all Pac 10 kickers in scoring and in field goals, with 9.0 points per game and 2.0 field goals per game...

Injured Fred Campbell went out in style -- his last tackle was his first career sack...


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