Stanford didn't score an offensive touchdown against Washington last week for the first time since 2007, but that doesn't begin to tell the story of Stanford's offensive slide. Stanford was virtually unstoppable the last three seasons and was near the top of the list in the entire country in important offensive categories like 3rd down conversion, time of possession, fewest sacks allowed, red zone scoring, and of course points per game. Here is where the 2012 version sits with a third of the season already in the books. National ranking in parentheses, and note that there are 120 FBS schools:
3rd down conversion: 29% (111)
Rushing offense: 128 ypg. (92)
Passing offense: 197 ypg. (96)
Total offense: 326 ypg. (105)
1st downs: 17 pg. (107)
Passing efficiency: 113. (103)
Scoring offense: 26 ppg. (73)
Time of possession: 29:53 (59)
Red Zone: just 13 opportunities and 5 TDs
Despite losing four of its players to the NFL draft, there is still a tremendous group of experienced leaders as well as young talent to maintain a productive offensive unit. The reason for the dramatic drop off is a lack of balance that Stanford had established. Andrew Luck was the #1 overall NFL pick, but the key to Cardinal offense was the ability to move the ball on the ground with a power run game and go up top if a defense overcommitted to stopping the run by bringing the safeties up to the line of scrimmage. Stanford averaged over 200 yards per game rushing and passing from 2009-2011, so they basically forced defenses to declare its strategy on every play, and then would allow Luck to check to the right call while under center and put the offense in the best possible matchup.
The difference this year is that QB Josh Nunes and the receivers/tight ends have not been able to consistently make teams pay by bringing the safeties up and playing man-to-man on the outside. Washington actually employed a 5 DL and 4 LB scheme when Stanford loaded up to run the ball and that left just two secondary players deep to defend. The Cardinal had its opportunities to hurt Washington but wasn't able to connect with any regularity. Stanford had converted over 50% of its 3rd down opportunities from 2009-2011, but continued its struggles against the Huskies and went 5-18 which led to 9 punts. Stanford has already punted 23 times this season (5.75 per game) after averaging 34 punts over the last two seasons (2.9 per game). The question now is what can the Cardinal do to reverse the trend because defenses will continue to overplay the run until Stanford forces them to change.
- Stanford has employed the fade route to beat man coverage and it hasn't been the answer. Crossing routes or in-breaking routes are the easiest way to beat man coverage because receivers can quickly create separation and they are easier throws for Nunes, who has struggled with accuracy. If Nunes can deliver a ball between the facemask and belly button, it allows the receiver to break a tackle or keep his speed up which will lead to yards after the catch. The Cardinal has been woeful in this area through 4 games. Screen plays have also been fairly effective and can slow down a defense, but Stanford has to be careful of overusing this scheme.
- Play action roll-outs and reverses will also keep teams honest and not allow the backside defender to crash down the line to make a stop in the backfield. Roll-outs are also a great way to get the ball into the hands of FB Ryan Hewitt who was a consistent playmaker and first down machine in 2011. While throwing on the run certainly isn't a strength of Nunes, the ability to keep a defense honest is critical when trying to establish some balance. Reverses also can stagger an over-aggressive defense because it won't be able to key so quickly on Stepfan Taylor in the backfield. Jamal Rashad-Patterson has shown the speed to take a reverse to the outside and turn it into big yards, as has young Kodi Whitfield. Getting production out of WRs other than Ty Montgomery will take some of the pressure off of the young man who suffered a couple of key drops in the Washington game.
- Get back to running power. Over the last few weeks Stanford has strayed slightly from the power play which has become the team's signature. Zone schemes, isolation, and traps have been somewhat effective, but the double team block at the point of attack that power affords combined with TE Levine Toilolo's athleticism make power an effective play against most fronts a defense can put together. Establishing that play also would help a psyche that has to be wounded after two sub 100 yard rushing efforts against Duke and UW after going nearly 5 seasons without that happening once.
The idea for Stanford is create just a little doubt or hesitation in a defense, something Washington showed very little of a week ago. Getting linebackers and secondary one step out of position can lead to the big plays that Stanford craves on offense. Once one facet of the offense can establish itself, whether it's the run or the pass game, it really does create a snowball effect and make everything easier to execute. A defense is then forced to choose how it will get beaten. Until Stanford can regain its balance on offense, they will continue to stumble against the tough Pac 12 defenses.