Eight games into the season, Stanford has played enough games for some trends to develop. We can begin to see which areas are improving over the course of the season, and which are not.
At this point, there are two major trends, and they run in opposite directions. Stanford's defense is showing improvement in the second half of the season, after struggling earlier. Unfortunately, Stanford's offense is going the other direction.
Stanford's offense began with some encouraging performances early in the season. Stanford was around 400 yards of total offense or better in each of the first three games, and scored over 30 points in two of those games.
Starting with the fourth game of the season, however, Stanford's offense has been distressingly anemic. With the exception of one decent game against TCU, Stanford's offense has really struggled. The offense has not been able to generate consistent production. Stanford has gained fewer than 300 yards in four of the last five games. Almost every measure of offensive performance has deteriorated in the last five weeks:
| ||First Three|
|Rushing yds/gm (excl. sacks)||181||104|
|Rushing yds/att (excl. sacks)||5.5||3.3|
Stanford has fallen back into last place in the conference in total offense, which is where Stanford's offense finished in four of the five seasons of the Teevens/Harris era. Of course, the season is not over. But at this point in the season, from a statistical standpoint, Stanford's offense has regressed to roughly the same level as some of the Teevens/Harris offenses:
|2007 (8 games)||21.9||325|
A good part of the decline in Stanford's offensive production must be attributed to the quality of the opponents in recent weeks. In Stanford's last five games, Stanford faced the three top defenses in the Pac 10 (USC, Oregon State, and Arizona State), along with another pretty good defense (TCU). Some numbers on the defenses of Stanford opponents in recent weeks:
- Oregon State is #1 in the nation in rushing defense, #1 in the nation in sacks, and 13th in total defense
- USC is 4th in the nation in total defense, 7th in rushing defense, and 10th in pass efficiency defense
- Arizona State is 7th in the nation in scoring defense, 9th in rushing defense, and 7th in pass efficiency defense
Having faced those defenses over the last few weeks, Stanford's offense has been through the toughest stretch of opposing defenses of the season. Thankfully, Stanford will not have to face any defenses of that caliber for the rest of the year.
Part of the decline in the offense may be attributable to injury as well. The decline of the offense more or less coincided with the loss of starting left tackle Allen Smith. The offense also has lost its starting tight end (Jim Dray) and its top two running backs (Anthony Kimble and Toby Gerhart). The replacements for the injured players have filled in capably, but still, there was a reason that Smith, Dray, Kimble, and Gerhart were at the top of the depth chart. Other players also have been hampered by various injuries, such as Mark Bradford, Owen Marecic, Chris Marinelli, and Jeremy Stewart.
The decline in offensive production did not really coincide with the change in quarterbacks. The offensive slump began with the Arizona State game, in which T.C. Ostrander was the quarterback. Stanford's statistical performance in that game was similar to Stanford's statistical performance in the four games quarterbacked by Tavita Pritchard: 235 yards of total offense with Ostrander against Arizona State, compared to an average of 264 yards of total offense in the games with Pritchard.
Whatever the reasons for the offensive decline, Stanford needs to find some way to reverse it. Gaining 258 yards per game, as the offense has done over the last five weeks, isn't going to get the job done. This week, Stanford has the opportunity to get things back on track offensively. Statistically, Washington has the worst defense in the Pac-10. Washington is allowing 474 yards per game, including 214 yards per game rushing. Washington's defense may be even worse than San Jose State's, and Stanford went for over 500 yards against San Jose State.
After Washington, Stanford faces Washington State, Notre Dame, and Cal. None of those teams has a defense comparable to USC, Oregon State, or Arizona State. Both Washington State and Cal are in the bottom half of the conference in total defense. Notre Dame has a fair-to-middling defense. So with all due respect to the opposing defenses, the remaining schedule should not be as challenging as were the last five games.
Stanford's offense clearly is better than last year's offense. But last year's offense was the worst in school history, so improvement isn't much of an accomplishment. Last year should not be the benchmark. The real question is whether the offense can turn the corner and move toward real respectability. The offense has something to prove. The remaining schedule provides the opportunity to do it.
On the defensive side of the ball, the recent trend is more encouraging. For the first six games of the season, Stanford's defense was allowing an unacceptably poor 461.5 yards per game, which was within a couple of missed tackles of the school record for most yards per game allowed (465 yards per game in 1993). The defense may have hit bottom against TCU in the sixth game, allowing almost 500 yards to a fairly undistinguished TCU offense.
Since that time, the defense has turned in two solid efforts in two games. Arizona and Oregon State have respectable, middle-of-the-pack offenses. Both of those offenses have the capability to put up big numbers. Arizona had huge games against Washington and Washington State (gaining 535 yards and 567 yards respectively), while Oregon State had a very impressive offensive output against Arizona State (514 yards). So Arizona and Oregon State are not bad offensive teams. Yet Stanford's defense was able to do pretty well against each of them, allowing 369 yards to Arizona and just 315 yards to Oregon State.
In the last two games, Stanford's defense has improved in almost every statistical category:
| ||First Six|
|First downs allowed/game||21.0||17.0|
|Total yards allowed/game||462||342|
|Passing yards allowed/game||294||191|
|Passing yards allowed/attempt||8.9||6.1|
|Rushing yards allowed/game||167||152|
|Rushing yards allowed/attempt||4.0||4.0|
|Rushing yds allowed/gm (excl. sacks)||191||184|
|Rushing yds allowed/att (excl. sacks)||5.0||5.5|
|Tackles for loss/game||7.8||8.5|
Some of the defensive improvement in the last two games most likely is due to the quality of the offenses Stanford has been facing. While Arizona and Oregon State are respectable offensive teams, they're not at the level of some of the teams Stanford faced in the first half of the season. Oregon, Arizona State, and USC are the top three offensive teams in the conference, and Stanford faced all of them in the first half of the season.
We certainly can't assume that Stanford has left behind the defensive problems we saw in the first half of the season. Two games of solid defense aren't enough to draw many conclusions. But at least we can say that Stanford played better defense in the last two games than in the first half of the season.
Since the first game of the season, I've been reporting on statistics such as sacks and tackles for loss to see whether Stanford's "attack defense" was working as designed. In the first half of the season, the Cardinal defense was doing well in creating sacks and tackles for loss, but the defense also was allowing lots of big plays and lots of yards. In the last two games, Stanford has done a better job of limiting big plays by the opponent and has improved its overall defensive performance, while still generating a high number of sacks and tackles for loss.
Stanford still lags in the third statistic I've been using to evaluate the "attack defense" – turnovers. Stanford has forced just 14 turnovers in 8 games, which is tied for last place in the conference. That's an area in which it would be nice to see some improvement.
Looking ahead, Washington's offense is statistically comparable to, or somewhat behind, Arizona's and Oregon State's offenses. Washington has had its moments with the ball, but the Huskies are not one of the top offensive teams in the conference. The Washington game will provide Stanford a chance to show whether the Cardinal defense can build on the improvement of the last two weeks. Washington State and Cal are pretty good, but not great, offensive teams. Notre Dame is a poor offensive team. So, the opponents on the rest of the schedule provide varying levels of challenges for Stanford's improving defense. Last season, Stanford's defense improved considerably over the course of the season even as the quality of the opponents got tougher. Let's hope we see the same thing this season.
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