Cardinal Numbers: 2008 in figures

The statistics confirm what your eyes have seen these past seven games: "the rebirth of Stanford's running game over the last two seasons has been little short of remarkable," Terry2 writes. The defense is improved too, but the picture there is more mixed, especially in the secondary. If you like a statistics-based, analytical approach to sports, you'll love this edition of Cardinal Numbers.

A look at Stanford's 2008 season to date, by the numbers...


Stanford's 2008 offense has improved from last year. Scoring is up almost five points per game. Total offense is up as well. Compared to last year, the offensive picture is positive in most categories:

(full season)
(7 games)
First downs/game19.217.7
Total yards/game323334
Rushing yards/game111184
Rushing yards/game (excluding sacks)141198
Rushing yards/attempt3.04.9
Rushing yards/attempt (excl. sacks)4.25.6
Passing yards/game211150
Passing yards/attempt6.06.1
Passing efficiency107.0109.3
Sacks allowed/game4.02.0
Pass attempts per sack allowed8.812.4
Third down conversion rate29%40%

Stanford's rushing offense is way, way up. As we all know, the Stanford running game is the story of our season up to this point. Stanford is second in the Pac-10 in rushing offense at this point with 184 yards per game. The current average of 4.9 yards per carry is exceptional. If that 4.9 yards per carry figure were to hold up for the full season, it would be a school record. (Records go back to 1951.) The rebirth of Stanford's running game over the last two seasons has been little short of remarkable:

Yards per
Yards per
Yards per
Yards per
2008 (7 games)1841984.95.6

Passing offense is down on a yards per game basis, from 211 yards per game to 150 yards per game. That decline is largely due to the fact that Stanford is throwing fewer passes this year than last year (24.7 attempts per game this year compared to 35.3 attempts per game last year). At only 150 yards per game (last in the Pac 10), Stanford is on a pace for its fewest passing yards per game since 1967, its last before Jim Plunkett.

However, yards per pass attempt is widely considered a more meaningful metric than passing yards per game. Yards per pass attempt this year are up slightly, at 6.1 yards per attempt this year compared to 6.0 last year. Both figures are poor – yards per attempt ideally should be at 7.0 or higher. The passing game at least is holding its ground compared to last year, and hasn't dropped to the lowest depths of the Teevens era (5.2 yards per attempt in 2003), but the passing game still needs to improve considerably.

Stanford's pass protection has improved somewhat this season, even after taking into account the fact that Stanford is passing less often. A strong running game helps take pressure off the pass protection. And it helps to be ahead sometimes, rather than trying to come from behind by passing the ball.

A word of caution – Stanford's offense has consistently followed a pattern over the last several years of starting off the season stronger than it finished. Too many times, the offense has appeared to be improved in the first half of the season, then has regressed as the competition has become tougher, the opponents have had a chance to scout us, and injuries have accumulated. So, I'm going to reserve judgment on our offense until I've seen it for the full season.

Nevertheless, we are seeing better offensive performance as the season goes on. There has been a significant uptick in the four most recent games. Of course, that undoubtedly has a lot to do with the quality of our opponents in those games. But I think the playcalling also has improved. Whatever the reason, the trend is somewhat encouraging:

 First 3 GamesLast 4 Games
First downs/game15.019.8
Total yards/game242403
Rushing yards/game131224
Rushing yards/attempt3.75.7
Passing yards/game111179
Passing yards/attempt4.86.9


Through seven games, Stanford's defense is showing improvement over last year's defense in some significant areas, while not doing as well in others:

(full season)
(7 games)
Points allowed/game28.227.0
First downs allowed/game21.222.9
Total yards allowed/game436386
Rushing yards allowed/game169114
Rushing yards allowed/game (excl. sacks)193132
Rushing yards allowed/attempt4.23.3
Rushing yards allowed/attempt (excl. sacks)5.24.2
Passing yards allowed/game266272
Passing yards allowed/attempt7.67.3
Pass defense efficiency134.4137.3
Opponent pass attempts per sack11.313.8
Tackles for loss/game8.46.3
Third down conversion rate allowed36%43%

This year's defense is showing slight improvement in points allowed (27.0 this year compared to 28.2 last year). This year's defense is significant improved on a yardage basis, allowing 50 fewer yards per game than last year. A big reason for the improvement in yards allowed is that this year's defense is giving up fewer big plays. Last season, big plays were the Achilles' heel of Scott Shafer's high-risk, high-reward defense. This year's defense doesn't get as many sacks or tackles for loss as last year's, but gives up significantly fewer big plays:

 30+ Yard Gains
2007 (first 7 games)17
2008 (first 7 games)7
2007 (full season)31
2008 (projected full season)12

Stanford's rushing defense has improved considerably from last year, currently ranking fourth in the Pac-10. Stanford is allowing 55 fewer rushing yards per game than in 2007. Stanford also has cut its yards allowed per attempt from 4.2 to 3.3. Stanford's run defense is turning into a bona fide strength.

Stanford's pass defense this year clearly has been the weakest part of the defense, often getting picked apart. Even so, the pass defense is still giving up roughly the same number of passing yards per game as last year's defense. In fact, despite Stanford's inconsistent pass defense throughout this season to date, Stanford actually is allowing fewer yards per pass attempt than last year. So there's some improvement in the pass defense as well as in the run defense.

As noted above, Stanford is getting fewer sacks and tackles for loss this year. Sacks are down slightly, from 3.1 per game to 2.7 per game. (This year's sack figure got a big boost from one game, the San Jose State game, and may decline a little as the season goes on.) Tackles for loss are down from 8.4 per game to 6.3 per game. Last year's defense was good at creating sacks and exceptional at creating tackles for loss, albeit at the cost of giving up quite a few big plays. This year's Stanford defense has returned to more typical levels of sacks and tackles for loss.

The defense, like the offense, is showing some improvement as the season goes on. As mentioned above, this undoubtedly is due in part to the quality of the opponents in the more recent games. However, it has been typical for Stanford's defense to improve over the course of the season in the last few years, so perhaps the improvement is real:

 First 3 GamesLast 4 Games
Points allowed/game33.322.3
First downs allowed/game27.019.8
Total yards allowed/game447341
Rushing yards allowed/game14989
Rushing yards allowed/attempt3.82.9
Passing yards allowed/game298252
Passing yards allowed/attempt7.17.4

One area in which this year's team is badly deficient is in creating turnovers. This team has created only eight turnovers in seven games (three interceptions, five fumble recoveries), or 1.1 turnovers per game. That is well below Stanford's average of 2.2 turnovers created per game over the last nine seasons. In fact, 1.1 turnovers created per game is even lower than the 1.3 turnovers created per game in Stanford's horrid 2006 season.

Because Stanford isn't generating many turnovers, the Cardinal's turnover margin is an abysmal -8 (eight turnovers created, 16 turnovers lost). That's just not a viable turnover margin for a winning team. That has to improve. Perhaps the good news is that last year, Stanford got better at creating turnovers as the season went on, creating 3.0 turnovers per game in the last four games compared to 1.25 turnovers per game in the first four games. We can hope that the same thing might happen again this year.

Special Teams

Stanford's performance on special teams is pretty good.

The punting game is doing quite well. Stanford is leading the Pac-10 in net punting with 38.6 net yards per punt. That's a function of good punting and very good punt coverage. David Green is averaging 41.2 yards per punt, with 11 punts inside the 20 and two touchbacks. Stanford has allowed only 37 punt return yards all season long. Only six of Green's 29 punts have been returned.

Stanford's kickoffs have not been deep, carrying only to the nine yard line on average. But Stanford, to some extent, has been able to compensate for short kickoffs with excellent kickoff coverage, allowing only 18.8 yards per return.

Stanford's field goal kicking has been a pleasant surprise, with Aaron Zagory converting seven of nine field goals with a long of 52 yards. He has been perfect inside 40 yards (4-for-4). He has made all 21 of his extra points.

Stanford's rotating cast of kickoff returners has done pretty well, but we have yet to break a really long one. Overall, the team is averaging 22.2 yards per kickoff return. Delano Howell leads the team with an average of 26.2 yards per kickoff return.

Random Numbers

Stanford's current four-game home winning streak is its longest since 2001-2002. The last time Stanford won five straight home games was in 1996-1997. Stanford can match that streak by beating Washington State in the next home game on November 1...

Anthony Kimble has now scored 15 career rushing touchdowns, which ranks ninth in Stanford history...

Kimble now has 1,642 career rushing yards. With 47 more, he will catch Vincent White for tenth place on the Stanford career rushing yardage list...

Ryan Whalen leads the team in receptions with 27. Whalen had only seven receptions in the first four games of the season, but he has 20 receptions in the last three games...

Toby Gerhart's total of 641 rushing yards to date is the most rushing yards in a season for a Stanford player since Brian Allen ran for 899 yards in 2001...

At his current rate, Gerhart is on a pace to finish the regular season with 1,099 rushing yards. That would break Tommy Vardell's school single-season record of 1,084 yards in 1991. That was the last time Stanford had a 1,000 yard rusher...

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