Cardinal Numbers: Defensive Doldrums

For those of us obsessed with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of statistical data, Terry Johnson warms us up for the Arizona desert and Saturday's critical matchup with the Wildcats in Tucson. Read on for signs of hope as well as areas of continuing concern as the Cardinal gears up for the all-determining second half of the 2007 season.

Stanford football has arrived at the halfway point of Year 1 of the Harbaugh Era. It has been an up and down season, with some great moments and also some disappointments. Improvement has been evident in a number of ways, but consistency has been lacking.

The halfway point of the season provides an opportunity for a midterm analysis of Stanford's statistical performance to date. The statistics for the first six games show some areas in which Stanford has made much progress, and other areas in which Stanford still needs considerable improvement.

The bottom line question in any evaluation of the Stanford program is whether the program is back on the right track after the struggles of the last five years. Thus, in analyzing the statistics, I have compared this season's numbers not only to last season's numbers, but also to the cumulative statistics of the five Teevens/Harris seasons.

Offense

Stanford's offense so far this year has improved over last year's offense in almost every statistical category – which is a good thing, because last year's offense was one of the worst Stanford offenses ever:

Offensive Statistics
2007 to date vs. 2006
 2007
(6 games)
2006
(12 games)
Points/game24.710.6
First downs/game20.313.6
Rushing yards/game120.365.1
Rushing yards/attempt3.32.1
Rushing yds/att. (excl. sacks)4.63.6
Passing yards/game236.3166.8
Passing yards/attempt6.26.3
Total offense/game356.7231.9
Pass attempts/sack allowed9.56.3
Turnovers/game1.32.2
3rd down conversion pct.29%30%

The lack of offense plagued Stanford throughout the Teevens/Harris years. The ineptitude of Stanford's offense over the last five seasons has been especially painful in light of Stanford's proud football heritage. Stanford long has had a reputation for its innovative, explosive offenses. Clark Shaughnessy invented the T formation here, and Frankie Albert ran it to perfection. Bill Walsh honed his west coast offense here, before taking it to the 49ers. John Brodie, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, James Lofton, Darrin Nelson, Troy Walters, and others became All Americans here because of Stanford's offensive proficiency.

But in the last five seasons, Stanford's offenses did not reach even a minimally competent level. The Stanford offense ranged from weak to pathetic to unwatchable. Stanford finished last in the conference in total offense in four of the last five seasons, never averaging more than 327 yards per game during that time. To me, a top priority for the new coaching staff was to bring back a real offense to Stanford.

Fortunately, Stanford's offense so far this year has improved compared to Stanford's offensive performance over the last five years:

Offensive Statistics
2007 to date vs. 2002-2006
 2007
(6 games)
2002 to
2006
Points/game24.718.7
First downs/game20.316.6
Rushing yards/game120.393.0
Rushing yards/attempt3.32.7
Rushing yds/att. (excl. sacks)4.63.8
Passing yards/game236.3199.8
Passing yards/attempt6.26.1
Total offense/game356.7292.8
Pass attempts/sack allowed9.58.9
Turnovers/game1.32.1
3rd down conversion pct.29%33%

Some comments about Stanford's offense to date:

In the big picture, Stanford's offensive statistics this season are not overly impressive. Stanford ranks in the bottom half of the conference in most offensive categories. The statistics look good only in comparison to Stanford's miserable offenses of the last five seasons. But after the last five seasons, it actually represents progress to be somewhere in the pack along with other teams in the conference, rather than having by far the worst offensive production in the conference. Stanford has taken a step up to mediocrity. The offense now needs first to avoid backsliding, then it needs to take the next step up. It's not yet a good offense. But at least there has been some measurable progress.

After three decent games offensively to start the season, Stanford's offense produced very little in the next two games against Arizona State and USC – just 235 yards of total offense in each game. A few weeks ago, I raised the question of whether Stanford's offense had "hit the wall." The TCU game provided some encouragement that Stanford's offense has not stagnated at the low level of the two previous games. Stanford's offense gained 364 yards and scored 34 points against TCU, which was a respectable showing against a pretty good defense. This provides hope that the improvement is real and will continue through the second half of the season.

Stanford's running game has been much improved this season. Stanford's ground game is averaging a strong 4.6 yards per carry (after excluding sacks, which allows us to focus on the effectiveness of running plays). After a couple of unproductive games against Arizona State and USC, the running game bounced back against TCU with a very respectable 170 rushing yards (or 215 rushing yards, excluding sacks). In the last three seasons combined, Stanford running backs had just one 100-yard game (by J.R. Lemon in 2004). This year, in half a season, Stanford running backs already have had three 100-yard games (two by Anthony Kimble and one by Toby Gerhart). That's definite progress.

Stanford's passing yardage also is up this year. However, Stanford is averaging just 6.2 yards per pass attempt, which represents no improvement over last season, nor any improvement over the last five seasons. I've previously suggested that we should hope for at least 7.0 yards per pass attempt, which is roughly the median figure for Stanford teams over the long run. Stanford's current passing performance falls short of this benchmark. Neither Stanford quarterback is close to 7.0 yards per attempt. T.C. Ostrander is averaging 6.4 yards per attempt, and Tavita Pritchard is averaging 5.6 yards per attempt. Pritchard's low figure is attributable to his slow start against USC. In the first half against USC, Pritchard averaged just 2.6 yards per attempt. In the second half of that game, he averaged 6.3 yards per attempt, and against TCU, he also averaged 6.3 yards per attempt.

Stanford has reduced its turnovers to just eight turnovers so far this season, which is quite good. The offense has had only six turnovers in six games (the other two were on special teams). The offense has lost only two fumbles so far this season. So Stanford is doing a good job taking care of the ball. Here's hoping that trend continues.

Defense

The story on defense isn't as rosy. Progress is evident in some areas defensively. We can see how Defensive Coordinator Scott Shafer's "attack defense" is supposed to work, and sometimes it does work. But overall, the defense has struggled mightily this year, especially the pass defense. There has been no consistency, and there have been too many big plays surrendered. Many of the defensive statistics are quite poor:

Defensive Statistics
2007 to date vs. 2006
 2007
(6 games)
2006
(12 games)
Points allowed/game33.731.4
First downs allowed/game21.022.4
Rushing yards allowed/game167.3210.5
Rushing yards allowed/attempt4.04.9
Rushing yds allowed/att. (excl. sacks)5.05.2
Passing yards allowed/game294.2177.0
Passing yards allowed/attempt8.96.5
Total yards allowed/game461.5387.5
Opponent pass attempts/sack11.023.2
Tackles for loss/game7.83.8
Turnovers forced/game1.81.3
3rd down conversion pct. allowed35%48%

It's somewhat difficult to make a meaningful comparison of this year's defense to last year's unit because last year's defense changed so much over the course of the season. Last year's defense was downright terrible in the early part of the season. At the halfway point, last year's defense was giving up 36.3 points per game and 455 yards per game, not too different from this year's current figures of 33.7 points per game and 461 yards per game. Actually, last year's defense in the early part of the year looked considerably worse than this year's defense. At least this year's defense has some playmaking ability, while last year's defense in the early part of the season showed no ability to stop anything.

However, last year's defense improved considerably over the second half of the season. In the second half, the 2006 defense allowed about 26 points per game and 320 yards per game. That was a major change compared to the early part of the 2006 season. I'm hoping that we will see similar improvement in the defense this year. That kind of improvement wasn't evident against TCU, but the potential is there.

In comparing this year's Cardinal defense to the numbers for the last five seasons, this year's defense to date shows some progress in a few areas. But this year's defense looks worse on the bottom line than Stanford's defenses for the last five seasons, largely because of the problems in pass defense this season:

Defensive Statistics
2007 to date vs. 2002-2006
 2007
(6 games)
2002 to
2006
Points allowed/game33.729.4
First downs allowed/game21.021.0
Rushing yards allowed/game167.3157.0
Rushing yards allowed/attempt4.04.1
Rushing yds allowed/att. (excl. sacks)5.04.8
Passing yards allowed/game294.2250.7
Passing yards allowed/attempt8.97.4
Total yards allowed/game461.5407.7
Opponent pass attempts/sack11.015.8
Tackles for loss/game7.85.8
Turnovers forced/game1.82.1
3rd down conversion pct. allowed35%41%

Some comments about Stanford's defense to date:

As we've been discussing all year long, Stanford's "attack defense" is creating more big plays than we've seen in the past. Stanford's sacks and tackles for loss have increased considerably. Stanford also is doing a better job of third-down defense this season than in the recent past.

However, the new defense is not forcing as many turnovers as we would hope. Stanford has forced 11 turnovers this season, 1.8 per game. That's more than last year's dismally low figure (1.3 per game), but less than the average turnovers forced in the last five seasons (2.1 per game). When Stanford's defense is working well, it can force multiple turnovers and change the game, as we saw against USC. But Stanford's defense forced only one turnover against TCU. The defense gave up more big plays than it made against TCU, and we saw the results.

Stanford's most glaring defensive shortcoming has been its air defense. Stanford is allowing 294 passing yards per game (111th out of 119 Division I-A teams) and an exceptionally poor 8.9 yards per pass attempt (117th). I do not think Stanford is allowing 8.9 yards per attempt because its opponents are throwing a lot of deep passes. Rather, Stanford is allowing a high completion percentage (63%) and seems to be allowing a lot of short and mid-range completions that have turned into big gains. I don't have any "yards after catch" statistics, but I would guess Stanford's defense is giving up quite a lot of yards after the catch.

Overall, Stanford is giving up more points and more yards than it has given up in the recent past. Stanford is giving up over 461 yards per game and 33.7 points per game. Both of those figures are quite close to the defensive statistics of Stanford's worst defense ever, the infamous 1993 defense, which gave up 465.4 yards per game and 35.4 points per game. Not trying to be negative, but objectively, by some basic statistical measures, this year's defense is quite comparable to our worst defense ever.

The bottom line is that this year's young and inexperienced defense is just not getting the job done. Stanford just isn't going to win many ball games if the defense continues to give up 450 or 500 yards every week.

Random Numbers

Stanford has scored more touchdowns so far this year (17) than it scored all of last year (15)...

Anthony Kimble has six rushing touchdowns so far this season. Last season, Stanford as a team scored three rushing touchdowns during the entire season...

Clinton Snyder is averaging one sack per game (six sacks in six games), which ranks 3rd in the Pac 10 and 10th in the nation. The last Stanford player to average one sack per game was Riall Johnson, who had 15 sacks in the 2000 season...

Mark Bradford now is tied for 9th on Stanford's career receptions list, with 141 receptions. He's tied with Glyn Milburn, Chris Walsh, and Ken Margerum. Next up, in 8th place on the list, is Ed McCaffrey, with 146 receptions. At Bradford's current pace, he could finish the season as high as 5th in career receptions...

Richard Sherman had 112 receiving yards against TCU, giving him his third 100-yard game in the six games so far this season...

With 496 receiving yards at the halfway point of the season, Richard Sherman is close to a 1,000 receiving yard pace. Only four Stanford players have had 1,000 receiving yards in a season: Troy Walters (twice), Gene Washington, Justin Armour, and DeRonnie Pitts...


The Bootleg Top Stories