Game Week: Stanford's O vs. UCLA's D

Nov. 25 -- Stanford does not have a great offense, and it'll be hurt even more by the loss of Ty Montgomery, but they have improved a little in recent weeks...

Stanford’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

Stanford’s offense has been the butt of some jokes through most of the season, and for pretty good reason. With an inexperienced offensive line, spotty quarterback play, no workhorse running back, and a propensity for bizarre play-calling in the red zone, the Stanford offense has taken a large step back from the previous two years, when the Cardinal’s calling card was its steady ball-control offense and stout defense. Stanford has lost three of its games by a combined nine points (Utah, Notre Dame, and USC) and in each of those performances, you could very easily point the finger at the offensive performance and David Shaw’s somewhat strange decision-making as key points in the losses.

Against the Trojans, Shaw made several questionable decisions in the red zone, using Ty Montgomery as a wildcat frequently despite the formation not having a great deal of success in that game or in the past two years of Stanford football. Against Utah two weeks ago, Shaw elected to punt from Utah’s 34-yard line with the game tied and 2 minutes to go. After the game, he said that it was an obvious, clear decision to punt the ball, but in overtime, Jordan Williamson, Stanford’s kicker, managed to make a field goal from the exact same distance that Shaw passed up. In any case, punting from the 34 yard line is virtually never going to be the right decision, and it’s definitely never going to be the obvious choice.

Kevin Hogan
That said, there have been some positive signs for the Stanford offense in recent weeks. Perhaps most importantly, the offensive line, which replaced four starters from last year, is finally looking like it’s starting to gel a little bit, with the Cardinal able to generate a really good rushing attack two weeks in a row, against the very good Utah defense and against the very bad Cal defense. It also seems as if the coaching staff is getting more confident in the offensive line’s ability to run block – on the season, Stanford has been pretty balanced, with 387 rushing attempts against 336 passing attempts, but in the last two games, Stanford has rushed the ball 85 times and passed just 49 times.

Stanford as a whole has generated a pretty mediocre 5.5 yards per play, which is 55th in the country but below average by Pac-12 Standards (only Oregon State, Washington, Utah, and Colorado gain fewer). Last year, by comparison, the Cardinal generated 6.3 yards per play. The rushing offense has taken a big hit from last year, with the Cardinal gaining an average of 4.2 yards per rush this year as opposed to 5 yards per rush last year, and the passing offense has been less successful as well (7.3 yards per attempt this year vs. 8.9 last year). Schematically, Stanford has used a wider mix of formations, sometimes going out of a spread setup with three receivers, sometimes going into the elephant package with multiple offensive linemen, sometimes using two-back split formations, sometimes using an I-formation. It’s really a dizzying array of looks, but the sheer quantity of formations, especially in recent weeks, have just been used to disguise the different ways Stanford will run the ball. The Cardinal likes to use sweeps, power runs, end arounds, and a variety of other types of runs to keep defenses from anticipating where the play is headed.

As we mentioned up top, quarterback play has been spotty, which may also be leading to the greater emphasis on running the ball in recent weeks. Redshirt junior quarterback Kevin Hogan (6'4, 225) has earned a reputation over the last two years of being that steady, doesn’t-make-mistakes Stanford quarterback, but this year, that really hasn’t been his modus operandi. Hogan has thrown eight interceptions this year and just fifteen touchdowns, and he’s also had a few fumbles lost. He was asked to throw the ball a lot more at the beginning of the year than he is likely used to, which probably led to some of the struggles. He’s also been sacked a good deal more than he was in the past, with 21 sacks already through 11 games after 14 in 2013 and just 11 in 2012. His usage has declined since the midpoint of the season, though. After throwing more than 30 times in three consecutive games, which included two awful performances for Hogan against Notre Dame and Arizona State, Stanford hasn’t passed the ball more than 29 times in the last four games.

His job doesn’t get a whole lot easier this week. Junior Ty Montgomery, his star playmaker at receiver, has been ruled out for the game after injuring himself last week. That drastically changes Stanford’s offense, and not for the better. Montgomery was the most dynamic player in the offense, with the ability to run routes downfield as well as carry the ball on sweeps and stretch runs. Since David Shaw has a crush on the formation, Montgomery was also the designated Wildcat quarterback. With Montgomery out, Stanford will have to mold someone else to that role, and there aren’t many obvious candidates. Freshman Christian McCaffrey (6'0, 197) is a bit of a speed threat at running back, so you could see his role increasing on those stretch runs to the outside, but Stanford just doesn’t have another player who can do what Montgomery does as a receiver. Stanford does have a few other talented receivers – junior wideout Devon Cajuste (6'4, 229), redshirt freshman tight end Austin Hooper (6'4, 249), and redshirt sophomore wideout Michael Rector (6'1, 185) being the main three – but they’re all more of the big, possession-type receiver than the big-play type.

After having dominant running backs the last five or six years, stretching all the way back to Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal is without a workhorse this year. Stanford has gone to more of a committee approach, with redshirt junior Remound Wright (5'9, 204, Pictured above), redshirt sophomore Barry Sanders (5'10, 198), redshirt junior Kelsey Young (5'10, 191), and McCaffrey (along with Hogan and Montgomery) all getting a substantial amount of carries. Wright has been the closest thing to a workhorse, but he’s not really a significant playmaker. His longest run of the season is 30 yards, and he’s averaging just 4.4 per carry, which really isn’t a great number in the Pac-12. Sanders is a bit more of a big play threat, but has a tendency to bounce runs outside that seems to cause some consternation on the Stanford coaching staff. Young is similar to Wright, albeit a bit smaller. None have really seized the job, but the group as a whole is generating more production over recent weeks, but that may be more of a credit to the offensive line than anything.

The offensive line has had some real, serious problems adjusting to life without the majority of its starters from last year. As we mentioned above, pass protection has been a real issue all year, and it hasn’t really improved all that much recently. Where the group has improved, at least from watching the games, is in terms of run-blocking. They’re doing a much better job of creating holes and playing their assignments, which is allowing more of those prototypical Stanford drives involving a long string of four and five-yard runs. The group is led by star junior left tackle Andrus Peat (6'7, 316), who may be a top ten pick in the NFL Draft this year. Peat actually has been a little inconsistent this year, with Nate Orchard actually causing him a lot of issues two weeks ago, but his athleticism and strength make him one of the premier left tackles in college football. Junior Joshua Garnett (6'5, 325) has become one of the more trusted guards for Stanford, especially in the running game. Garnett will often be asked to pull on runs to the outside, and he does a nice job of playing in space, and has improved as the season’s gone on. Redshirt sophomore Graham Shuler (6'4, 287), at center, has been up and down this year, but he and the right guard duo of redshirt sophomore Johnny Caspers (6'4, 297) and redshirt junior Brendon Austin (6'6, 296) have played more solidly of late. Junior Kyle Murphy (6'7, 298), at right tackle, rounds out the group, and he’s a pretty good athlete on the edge, though he too has been prone to inconsistency this year.

UCLA’s defense has improved significantly from the first six games of the year and has now churned out three very good performances in the last five games (against California, Arizona, and USC). The defense was particularly dominant against what had been a pretty good Trojans’ offense, limiting USC’s running game while also putting a significant amount of pressure on quarterback Cody Kessler. UCLA’s defense allowed just 13 points, and six of those came on a meaningless clock-killing drive by USC in the 4th quarter when the Trojans were already down by 24 points.

What’s changed for UCLA has been the aggression of the scheme. UCLA is stunting its defensive linemen more, blitzing a bit more from diverse spots, and pressing its corners to the line of scrimmage. The combination has forced offenses into more errors and allows UCLA’s players to play a bit freer. The defensive line, in particular, has really started to come into its own. Owamagbe Odighizuwa was a force against USC, generating two sacks and more than a handful of hurries on Kessler. He’s been playing much more consistently of late against both the pass and the run, and it’s happening at an opportune time. It’s also helped that Takkarist McKinley, the sophomore junior college transfer, has been a significant presence in the few snaps he gets per game. He’s an excellent one-on-one pass rusher, and he showed it again against USC, generating a sack and a pressure.

Takkarist McKinley, Owamagbe Odighizuwa (Steve Cheng, BRO
Finally, UCLA’s defense appears to be playing like the unit many expected at the beginning of the year. Fabian Moreau, Myles Jack, Eddie Vanderdoes, and Deon Hollins are all playing much better as the season has worn on, and the results have been impressive. The Bruins have already put together great performances against three of the best offenses in the Pac-12, and if UCLA beats Stanford on Friday, they’ll get another shot at the best.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

The Stanford offense has certainly made strides in recent weeks, but so has UCLA’s defense, and the Bruins’ defense has simply better talent than Stanford has on offense, and the UCLA defensive staff is prone to far fewer coaching blunders than Stanford’s offensive brain trust.

Stanford has size and physicality on its side against most teams, but this UCLA defense has shown itself to be plenty physical, especially last week against USC, so we’re not sure how much of an advantage Stanford will have in that respect. Stanford struggles the most on the interior of its offensive line, and the interior of UCLA’s defensive line is probably where it’s strongest. With the variety of stunts that UCLA has used in recent weeks to confuse offensive lines, we’d imagine that the goal will be to put pressure on Stanford’s guards and center with more of the same and force them to make blocking decisions on the fly.

Stanford has good offensive performances when it’s able to generate long drives and stay on schedule. Forcing sacks and tackles for loss against this offense, by that token, can be even more devastating than usual. Hogan isn’t a great thrower, and putting him in 3rd and 6 or longer should be the goal all game. If UCLA can do that with consistency, it’s a matter of when, not if, he’ll make a poor decision and throw into coverage, especially without Montgomery.

We’d expect UCLA to come out with the same aggression it's shown in the last few weeks, perhaps working in a few blitzes early to set the tone like they did last week against USC. UCLA should be able to stop Stanford’s interior running game, but Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks will need to play very disciplined on the edges, as Stanford does like to use misdirection. Hogan has a few tricky moves where he’ll fake a roll out to one direction and then quickly spin and throw to his back side, which he’ll often do on screen plays.

In the end, this offense isn’t as much of a challenge to defend as USC, Arizona, or California, especially without Montgomery. If UCLA plays the way it’s played in the last few weeks, this matchup should go the Bruins’ way.

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