Cardinal Numbers: "Roll Card!"

Feeding the need of those of us incurably obsessed with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of Stanford Football-related data, The Bootleg's Senior Statistician Terry Johnson takes a detailed look at the remarkable resurgence of Stanford Football in 2009. Read on for "Terry2"'s look at the 2009 regular season as the Cardinal starts preparing to surpass the Sooners!

Cardinal Numbers: "Roll Card!"

With the regular season complete, we bring you a look at Stanford's 2009 season "by the numbers". These figures aren't final. Stanford still has a bowl game to play, and the bowl game will count toward the official statistics. Still, the 12-game statistics for the regular season provide us a good basis for analysis and for comparison with previous seasons.


The improvement in Stanford's offense has been remarkable. Stanford's offensive performance this year improved in every significant category. Compared to last year, scoring is up about 10 points per game, total offense is up about 90 yards per game, and so forth across the board. Dry numbers on a page (or screen) cannot convey forcefully enough the dramatic transformation of Stanford's offense, but here are a few of the statistics:

Offense: 2008 vs. 2009
First downs/game18.821.8
Total yards/game352441
Rushing yards/game200224
Rushing yards/game (excluding sacks)212227
Rushing yards/attempt4.95.4
Rushing yards/attempt (excl. sacks)5.45.5
Passing yards/game152217
Passing yards/attempt6.48.9
Pass efficiency rating112.1143.9
Sacks allowed/game1.80.5
Pass attempts per sack allowed13.749.0
Third down conversion rate38%48%

Last year, Stanford had an average offense, very much in the middle of the pack (or middle of the "Pac"). This year, Stanford has jumped up into the top tier offensively:

Offensive Rankings: 2008 and 2009
  Pac 10 rankNCAA rankPac 10 rankNCAA rank
Total yards/game6th67th1st13th

The improvement in the offense this year was the continuation of a three-year upward trend. Stanford's offense in 2006 under Walt Harris was a disaster, one of the worst offenses in school history. In 2007, Jim Harbaugh's first season, the offense took a step forward, but still wasn't a "good" offense. In 2008, the offense improved from "sub-par" to "average". This year, the offense has taken the next step, going from "average" to "very, very good". The improvement has been little short of amazing:

Offensive Improvement 2006-2009

This year's Stanford offense ranks quite comfortably among the best offenses in Stanford history. The top offenses in school history ranked by yards per game are:

Total Offense

The "yards per game" metric is an imperfect measure of offensive productivity. The number of plays per game varies over time, depending on rule changes, style of play, and other issues. The 2009 Stanford team averages significantly fewer plays per game than most Stanford teams in the past. I reviewed the statistics for the top 20 teams in Stanford history in yards per game. Those 20 teams averaged 76.2 plays per game. All of them averaged between 70.5 plays per game and 84.1 plays per game. The 2009 Stanford team, in contrast, is averaging only 65.9 plays per game – about 10 plays per game fewer than the average for the top 20 offenses in school history.

I believe there probably are two reasons for Stanford's relatively low number of "plays per game". First, the clock rules were changed before the 2008 season in an effort to speed up games. The average number of offensive plays for all Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams went down by 4.2 plays per game, from 71.9 plays per game in 2007 to 67.7 plays per game in 2008 and 2009. Second, Stanford's offensive style heavily emphasizes the running game. Running plays tend to keep the clock moving, so Stanford tends to end up below the average number of offensive plays in a game.

So, even if Stanford's 2009 offense were every bit as productive as Stanford's top offenses in past years, this year's offense would end up with fewer yards per game simply because it runs fewer plays. To look at offensive productivity independent of the number of offensive plays per game, we can look at "yards per play" rather than "yards per game". Based on yards per play, the 2009 offense is the most productive offense in Stanford history:

Yards per Offensive Play

Here's one way to think about these numbers – After the NCAA changed its clock rules in 2008, the average number of offensive plays for all teams went down 4.2 plays per game. If this year's Stanford team were operating under the old clock rules and were running an additional 4.2 plays per game, it would result in 70.1 plays per game. At 6.7 yards per play, we can project that this offense would be gaining about 470 yards per game.

The 2009 offense also is close to the top of Stanford's all-time list in points per game:

1923Kerr/Nevers (FB)31.6

Stanford's offense has improved as the season went along, with stronger performance in the second half of the season than in the first half:

2009 Offense: First Half vs. Second Half
 First 6
Last 6
Total Yards/Game404479
Rushing Yards/Game210239
Rushing Yards/Attempt5.45.4
Passing Yards/Game195240
Passing Yards/Attempt8.59.2

Rushing Offense

Stanford is an exceptional running team this year. Led by Toby Gerhart's record-shattering season, Stanford's power running game has been outstanding. Among the 66 BCS schools, Stanford currently ranks 5th in rushing yards per game, 3rd in rushing yards per attempt, and tied for 2nd in rushing TDs. Stanford had a very strong rushing offense in 2008, yet still managed to improve on it this year. Stanford increased its rushing yardage from 200 yards per game to 224 yards per game, currently the third-highest per-game average in Stanford history and the highest in over 50 years:

Rushing Yards Per Game

Last year, the Cardinal set a school record with an average of 4.9 yards per carry. This year's team blew past that mark with ease, setting a new record with an impressive average of 5.4 yards per carry:

Rushing Yards Per Attempt

The improvement in Stanford's running game over the last three years has been dramatic. Just three years ago, in 2006, Stanford averaged a mere 65 rushing yards per game, which was the second-lowest per-game average in school history. Stanford's pathetic average of 2.1 yards per carry in 2006 was the worst in school history. In just three years, the Cardinal has improved from arguably its worst-ever rushing offense to one of its best ever, if not the best:

Rushing Offense 2006-2009
Yards per
Yards per

Stanford's improvement in average "yards per rushing attempt" is due in part to a sharp reduction in the number of sacks allowed. Sacks have a highly negative effect on yards per rushing attempt because they decrease the number of rushing yards while increasing the number of rushing attempts. When an offense gives up a large number of sacks, it can reduce the team's average yards per rushing attempt by as much as a yard per attempt or more. For example, in both 2006 and 2007, Stanford gave up about four sacks per game for losses of about 30 yards per game. As a result, in 2006, the Cardinal averaged 3.6 yards per rushing attempt excluding sacks, but just 2.1 yards per attempt with sacks included. In 2007, Stanford averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt without sacks, but only 3.0 yards per attempt with sacks included. This year, Stanford has allowed a very a small number of sacks – only six sacks all year long, for losses averaging just 2.7 yards per game. Stanford is averaging 5.5 yards per rushing attempt excluding sacks, and 5.4 yards per attempt with sacks included. So, sacks have had an almost negligible impact on Stanford's rushing statistics this year.

Passing Offense

A year ago, Stanford shifted away from the pass-oriented offensive style that had characterized Stanford football for 40 years. The Cardinal moved instead to an offense built on the power running game. Stanford's run/pass ratio moved from 51% / 49% in 2007 to 63% / 37% last year. Stanford's offense last year had the fewest pass attempts, fewest pass completions, and fewest passing yards per game for any Stanford team since 1967. The Cardinal in 2008 also had more rushing yards than passing yards for the first time since 1967.

All of those trends continued this year, as Stanford again focused on the power running game. Stanford's run/pass mix this year was almost exactly the same as in 2008. This year's offense again had the fewest pass attempts and fewest pass completions of any Stanford offense since 1967, aside from last year's offense. Stanford again had more rushing yards than passing yards for the only time since 1967, aside from last year. From the standpoint of the basic offensive approach, this year's Stanford offense, not surprisingly given the presence of a future Heisma Trophy runner-up, closely resembled last year's:

Play Selection: 2008 vs. 2009
Rushing Attempts490497
Passing Attempts287294
Run/Pass Mix63% - 37%63% - 37%

There is, however, a big difference in the passing game this year. Although Stanford does not pass the ball more this year than last year, there has been a major improvement in how effective Stanford has been when it does pass:

Passing Offense
Completion Pct.56.4%56.5%
Passing Yards1,8262,605
TD passes1114
Pass Efficiency112.1143.9

As these numbers show, Stanford has essentially the same completion percentage as last year. But the average completion is much longer – 15.7 yards per completion this year, compared to 11.3 yards per completion last year. That's a huge improvement, reflecting more of a downfield passing game this year.

As a result of Stanford's success in throwing the ball downfield, the Cardinal's average yardage per pass attempt has improved from a below-average 6.4 yards per attempt to an excellent 8.9 yards per attempt. Stanford leads the Pac 10 and ranks 9th in the NCAA in yards per attempt (5th among BCS schools). As previous editions of Cardinal Numbers have discussed, "yards per attempt" probably is the most important measure of the effectiveness of the passing game. Stanford's figure of 8.9 yards per attempt shows that Stanford now has a very effective pass offense. This year's 8.9 yards per attempt currently stands as the second-best team average in school history:

Team Passing Yards Per Attempt
YearPrimary QBsYards/Attempt

The other striking area of improvement in the passing game has been the sharp drop in interceptions, from 15 interceptions last year to just four this year. The Stanford offense had a serious interception problem last year, ranking 113th out of 119 teams in interception percentage (5.23%). The Cardinal's interception percentage has gone from the bottom 10 in the nation last year to the top 10 this year. Stanford currently ranks 9th in the NCAA (fourth among BCS schools) with an excellent interception percentage of 1.36%. Based on the records in the Stanford Football media guide, which go back to 1951, Stanford's four interceptions this season are the fewest interceptions ever for a Stanford team. The improvement in interceptions has been a major factor in the consistent success of Stanford's passing game.

Individually, Andrew Luck has been outstanding. He ranks 2nd in the Pac 10 and 26th in the NCAA in QB efficiency (143.5 rating). He leads the Pac 10 and is 4th in the NCAA in yards per pass attempt. He leads the Pac 10 and is 11th in the NCAA in interception percentage. Luck's 2,575 passing yards are the most by a Stanford quarterback since Todd Husak in 1999 (2,688 yards). Luck's interception percentage of 1.39% currently stands as the second-best in Stanford history, behind T.C. Ostrander's 1.31% in 2007. And Luck's current average of 8.94 yards per attempt is on track to set a new Stanford record:

Yards Per Pass Attempt
Andrew Luck20098.94
Randy Fasani20018.86
Todd Husak19998.73
Turk Schonert19798.72
Steve Stenstrom19918.54
Steve Stenstrom19948.47
Jim Plunkett19688.04
John Elway19828.00

As mentioned previously, the number of sacks allowed by the Stanford offense has been reduced substantially, from 1.8 sacks per game last year to 0.5 sacks per game this year. Stanford has given up just one sack for every 49.0 pass attempts, compared to one sack for every 13.7 pass attempts a year ago. That is an outstanding performance by the offensive line. But I give the biggest share of the credit to redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, who has an ability to avoid sacks that we have not seen at Stanford since Todd Husak in the late 1990s.

Last year, we noted in Cardinal Numbers that the Stanford offense had returned to respectability. This year, the Stanford offense has taken a giant leap forward and has become truly excellent.


The defense has not made similar progress. Stanford's defense ranks 8th in the Pac 10 in scoring defense, 9th in total defense, 8th in rushing defense, and 8th in pass efficiency defense. Nationally, out of 120 teams, Stanford's defense ranks 65th in scoring defense, 85th in total defense, 61st in rushing defense, and 95th in pass efficiency defense.

Compared to last season, Stanford's defensive performance shows little progress. There are a few areas of slight improvement over last season, but many of the defensive statistics are similar to or a bit worse than last year's numbers:

Defense: 2008 vs. 2009
Points allowed/game27.426.2
First downs allowed/game21.320.8
Total yards allowed/game380397
Yards allowed/play5.66.0
Rushing yards allowed/game153145
Rushing yards allowed/game (excl. sacks)174159
Rushing yards allowed/attempt4.34.5
Rushing yards allowed/attempt (excl. sacks)5.35.2
Passing yards allowed/game227252
Passing yards allowed/attempt7.17.5
Pass defense efficiency134.3139.1
Opponent pass attempts per sack11.319.2
Tackles for loss/game6.14.3
Third down conversion rate allowed43%42%

The Cardinal's defensive statistics were considerably worse in the second half of the season. This undoubtedly was due to the fact that Stanford faced much better offenses in the second half:

2009 Defense: First Half vs. Second Half
 First 6 GamesLast 6 Games
Points allowed/game20.332.0
First downs allowed/game19.721.8
Total yards allowed/game348445
Rushing yards allowed/game124165
Rushing yards allowed/attempt3.65.4
Passing yards allowed/game224280
Passing yards allowed/attempt7.08.0

Stanford's defense has had some good games this season. When facing poor-to-middling offenses, Stanford's defense tends to hold them well below their average offensive output. But against good offenses, Stanford tends to allow them to gain much more than their average. Specifically, Stanford has faced six offenses that are averaging fewer than 390 yards per game. Stanford held five of those six offenses at least 40 yards per game below their average total yardage. On the other hand, Stanford has faced six offenses that are averaging over 390 yards per game. Five of those six offenses gained at least 40 yards more than their average against Stanford:

Opponents' Total Offense Against Stanford
vs. Average Total Offense
Total Offense
Total Offense
vs. Stanford
Notre Dame452447-5
Oregon St.419463+44
Wake Forest403458+55
Arizona St.334290-44
San Jose State284228-56
Washington St.249349+100

I'm not sure why Stanford tends to hold mediocre offenses well below their average, while allowing good offenses to gain well above their average. It almost appears that there may be some sort of tipping point at which opposing offenses become good enough to exploit Stanford's defense.

Stanford's defense gave up a few more big plays (30+ yard gains) this year than last year. This year's defense did not give up as many long runs, but gave up more long passes:

Big Plays Allowed
Total 30+ Yard Gains Allowed1922
30+ Yard Runs Allowed86
30+ Yard Passes Allowed1116

Of the 22 plays of 30+ yards allowed by the Cardinal defense, 10 of them came in the games against Arizona, Oregon, and Notre Dame.

Rushing Defense

Stanford's rushing defense has improved slightly this year. Stanford has allowed 145 rushing yards/game this year (61st in the nation), compared to 153 rushing yards/game a year ago (77th). Those figures actually somewhat understate the improvement of Stanford's run defense because they include sack yardage. When sacks are taken out of the totals, Stanford has allowed 159 rushing yards/game this year, compared to 174 rushing yards/game last year.

Stanford's defense has allowed more yards per rushing attempt this year, allowing 4.5 yards/attempt this year (89th) compared to 4.3 yards/attempt last year (84th). However, that increase isn't really due to deterioration of the Cardinal rushing defense; rather, it is due to the fact that Stanford is getting fewer sacks this year. With opponents having fewer losses due to sacks this year, their rushing yards per attempt look better. When sacks are removed, Stanford's opponents are averaging 5.2 yards per rushing attempt this year, compared to 5.3 yards per rushing attempt last year. Neither figure is good, but at least there is a little improvement.

Stanford's defense has not done well in making tackles-for-loss. With 4.3 tackles-for-loss per game, Stanford ranks just 110th of the 120 teams nationally. This represents a significant decline from last year, when Stanford ranked 47th nationally with 6.1 tackles for loss per game (assisted by 2008's senior linebacker Pat Maynor, whose aggressive tackling style contributed strongly in that category).

Pass Defense

The pass defense has taken a step backward this year. "Passing yards allowed" have gone up from 227 yards/game last year (86th in the nation) to 252 yards/game this year (105th). "Yards allowed per pass attempt" have gone up from 7.1 yards/attempt last year (72nd) to 7.5 yards/attempt this year (86th). With only 7 interceptions both last year and this year, Stanford continues to be one of the poorest teams in the nation at intercepting passes (111th in interception percentage last year, 112th this year).

The decline in performance of the pass defense probably is due in part to a less effective pass rush. Stanford's pass rush is generating just 1.8 sacks per game, 7th in the conference and 65th in the nation. That is a significant drop-off from last year's 2.8 sacks per game (3rd in the conference, 11th in the nation).


There has been good news and bad news regarding turnovers this year. The good news is that this Stanford team has done a good job of taking care of the ball. Stanford has committed just 15 turnovers – 11 fumbles lost, 4 interceptions. That's the 20th-lowest figure in the nation. This is a big improvement from last year, when Stanford committed 25 turnovers. The improvement has been all in the number of interceptions (15 last year, 4 this year). The number of fumbles lost this year (11) is about the same as last year (10). This year's 15 turnovers are the fewest turnovers Stanford has committed in at least 15 seasons, which is as far back as my turnover records go.

The bad news is that Stanford has not done a good job of causing its opponents to turn the ball over. Stanford has only 15 takeaways this season – 8 fumbles recovered, 7 interceptions. The Cardinal ranks just 109th in the nation in takeaways. In the last 15 seasons, there has been only one other season in which Stanford had fewer than 21 takeaways (15 takeaways in the miserable 2006 season).

Overall, that leaves Stanford with a turnover margin of zero for the season. There have been remarkably few Cardinal games this year in which the turnover margin played a big role. Turnovers were even in six of the Cardinal's 12 games, which is unusual – over the last 15 seasons, there typically have been just one to three games per season in which turnovers were even. Stanford has had a turnover advantage in three games this year – Washington (+1), Arizona State (+1) and USC (+3). In my view, the USC game was the only one of those three games in which the turnover margin was a major factor. Stanford's opponents have had the turnover advantage in three games, two of which Stanford won anyway – San Jose State (-2) and UCLA (-1). The only loss in which Stanford had a negative turnover margin was the Wake Forest game (-2, one of which came on the desperation kickoff return on the last play). Overall, the team with the turnover advantage has won four times in six games.

Special Teams

Stanford has not had to punt much this year. The Cardinal's 32 punts are the second-fewest in the nation. Only Georgia Tech has punted less often. While Stanford's average of 39.7 yards per punt is not particularly impressive (76th in the nation), Stanford's punter and coverage unit have done an excellent job of preventing punt returns. Only 8 of Stanford's 32 punts have been returned. The Cardinal has allowed only 35 punt return yards for the entire season – fewer than 3.0 punt return yards per game. Overall, Stanford is netting 37.3 yards per punt, which is 3rd in the conference and 30th in the nation. Stanford has put 14 punts inside the 20-yard-line, with two touchbacks.

Stanford's punt return team is, broadly speaking, pretty much average. As a team, Stanford is averaging 7.9 yards per punt return, which is 73rd in the nation. Stanford has blocked one punt and has returned one for a TD. Individually, Richard Sherman has returned 14 punts for a 10.2 yard average with one TD, while Drew Terrell has returned 11 punts for a 6.5 yard average with no TDs.

The Cardinal's kickoff team has done quite well, providing a field position advantage on most kickoffs. Notre Dame transfer Nate Whitaker's kickoffs have carried, on average, to the four-yard line, which is a five-yard improvement over last year. Whitaker has 12 touchbacks (second in the Pac 10), compared to just two touchbacks for the Cardinal last year. The Cardinal coverage team has held opponents to just 19.9 yards per kickoff return. Overall, Stanford is averaging a net of 46.4 yards per kickoff, which means that the opponent ends up after the return on its own 23.6 yard line on average. That is the best average in the Pac 10 by about three yards.

Stanford's outstanding special teams unit, of course, is the kickoff return team. Stanford leads the Pac 10 and is 3rd in the nation in kickoff returns with a terrific team average of 28.7 yards per return. Individually, Chris Owusu leads the conference and is 5th in the nation with an average of 32.5 yards per return. His three returns for TDs this season have set a Stanford record and tied a Pac 10 record.

The Cardinal's field goal kicking generally has been reasonably good. Nate Whitaker has good range, hitting a 54-yard kick this year, Stanford's longest FG in 20 years. Whitaker also has had pretty good accuracy, connecting on 14 of 20 field goal attempts (70%), including 8 out of 9 kicks inside 40 yards.

Random Numbers

* Toby Gerhart has set Pac 10 records for rushing TDs in a season (26) and points scored in a season (160). He has tied the Pac 10 record for total TDs in a season (26).

* Toby Gerhart has set a slew of Stanford records, including:
-- Rushing yards in a season – 1,736
-- Rushing yards in a game – 223
-- Rushing TDs in a career – 42
-- Rushing TDs in a season – 26
-- Rushing TDs in a game – 4 (tie)
-- Total TDs in a career – 42
-- Total TDs in a season – 26
-- 100-yard rushing games in a career – 19
-- 100-yard rushing games in a season – 10
-- Consecutive 100-yard rushing games – 6 and counting
-- 200-yard rushing games in a career – 3 (tie)
-- 200-yard rushing games in a season – 3
-- Yards from scrimmage in a season – 1,885

* Stanford's offense has had exceptionally good balance this year, with 2,692 rushing yards and 2,605 passing yards.

* Ryan Whalen's 54 receptions and 861 receiving yards so far are the most by a Stanford player in 9 years, since DeRonnie Pitts had 74 receptions and 882 receiving yards in 2000.

* Stanford has a home-field record of 11-2 since the last home game of 2007. The last time Stanford had a similar home record for a comparable length of time was when Stanford went 11-2 at home in 1991-1993.

* Andrew Luck is Stanford's second-leading rusher with 354 rushing yards. That's just 8 yards short of the school record for rushing yards by a quarterback – 362 yards by Gene Washington in 1966.

* Andrew Luck has the 5th-highest total offense yardage in school history this year:

Most Total Offense in a Season
Steve Stenstrom19933,398
John Elway19823,104
Todd Husak19983,026
John Elway19802,939
Andrew Luck20092,929

* Nate Whitaker has set a school record for most points scored as a kicker, with 92 points. The old record was 91 points by Mike Biselli in 1999.

* Nate Whitaker also has set a school record for most extra points in a season, with 50. He has not missed an extra point attempt. The school record for most consecutive PATs is 71 by John Hopkins.

* Both Toby Gerhart and Chris Owusu have gained over 1,800 all-purpose yards this season, ranking both of them among the top six in school history for single-season all purpose yards. With a game still to play, each of them has a chance to reach 2,000 all purpose yards, a level previously reached by only one Stanford player, Glyn Milburn:

Most All-Purpose Yards in a Season
Glyn Milburn19902,222
Glyn Milburn19922,121
Darrin Nelson19811,998
Toby Gerhart20091,885
Troy Walters19991,877
Chris Owusu20091,843

* The last two home games of the season against Cal and Notre Dame drew the two biggest crowds in the four-year history of the new stadium. The official attendance was 50,510 for each game; official capacity is 50,000. The only other game that reached capacity attendance in the new stadium was the USC game in 2008, with official attendance of 50,425.

* Stanford's 32 punts this season are tied for the fewest punts ever by a Stanford team, based on records going back to 1951. The 1957 team also punted 32 times.

* Safety Bo McNally has 9 career interceptions, which puts him in a tie for 8th-most interceptions in Stanford history along with Oshiomogho Atogwe, Tank Williams, Vaughn Bryant, and several others.

* Defensive end Thomas Keiser, with 9 sacks so far this year, will become the first Stanford player to lead the team in sacks in two straight seasons since Riall Johnson was the sack leader in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

* This year's 51-42 victory over Oregon was the highest-scoring Stanford game in 12 years (as measured by the combined scoring of both teams) and was also the fourth-highest scoring game in Stanford history, with 93 combined points. Stanford's four highest-scoring games in the last 25 seasons (again as measured by combined points) all have been against Oregon:

Highest Scoring Games, 1985-2009
107Stanford 58, Oregon 491997
93Stanford 51, Oregon 422009
91Oregon 63, Stanford 281998
91Stanford 49, Oregon 422001

* Interestingly, none of the six players who played as true freshmen in 2006 will be completing his eligibility in four years. Richard Sherman, Austin Yancy, Brian Bulcke, and Toby Gerhart all will be eligible for a fifth year due to injury, Levirt Griffin retired due to injury, and Sione Fua went on a mission.

* Stanford's tight ends have 36 receptions so far this season (Coby Fleener 20, Jim Dray 10, Konrad Reuland 6). Those 36 catches are 22% of the team's total completions. That's the second-highest percentage of total catches by tight ends in the last 18 seasons, which is as far back as my records go. The only year since 1992 in which TEs had a bigger percentage of the receptions was 2004, with 28%. Alex Smith led the team in receptions that year with 52.

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