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Struggling Stanford: Defense and Coaching

Optimistic fans hoped that this year's team would be a step up from last year's in all phases. A nasty defense would get nastier, and a more experienced Kevin Hogan would lead an improved offense powered by a stable of running backs and a crop of young but talented receivers. The first few games of the season could be read to support that bright view: Stanford won easily against its first two overmatched foes despite keeping the offense vanilla and playing the reserves quite a bit. The ASU game looked fantastic through the first three quarters, and the disappointing fourth period was easy to blame on putting in the second teams a little too early. A 55-17 pasting of Washington State, in which Stanford looked unbeatable on both sides of the ball seemed to suggest that concerns about the team were overblown. But next up was the Washington game, in which the special teams bailed out a struggling offense and inconsistent defense.

Then came Utah, when the wheels came off the wagon. This time the struggles on offense and defense were too much to overcome. There have been at least four of great articles in the past two weeks about Stanford's problems. But they've all focused on the offense. That concern isn't misplaced; the offense has clearly been struggling. However, the defense and the coaching are also potentially problematic, and nobody seems to be writing about them. So I thought I'd chime in.

The Defense

This is supposed to be one of the nation's best defenses. It's deep and talented and experienced. But it is under performing in pretty much every category, compared with last year. Stanford faced some of the best offenses in the country last year: Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State, and Wisconsin, and beat them all. In 2013, Stanford is 36th in the country in points allowed per game. That's not horrible, but It's hardly one of the best defenses in the nation. Compared with last year's, this year's defense trails in every statistical category (see chart below). The 2013 defense allows 26 more rushing yards, 17 more passing yards, and, most importantly, five more points per game than the 2012 defense. And the the 2013 defense hasn't played Oregon, UCLA, Arizona, or Wisconsin (the three highest rushing totals and yardage totals against the 2012 defense).

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But the number of points a defense surrenders is the ultimate barometer of its effectiveness, and that five point difference is huge. How huge? The 21 points Stanford scored against Utah last Saturday would have been enough to win 11 of Stanford's 14 games last year (exceptions: Arizona, Oregon State, Pac-12 Championship). But if Stanford hadn't been down six points, it could easily have kicked a field goal at the end of the game to make its point total 24. Twenty-four points would have been sufficient to win another of Stanford's 2012 games (Oregon State) and tie one more (Pac-12 Championship).

That's right: the 2012 defense was so good that it allowed more than 24 points only once all season (48 to Arizona). And we know now that the reason Arizona managed to put up 48 points and over 600 yards offense (by far the most allowed by the defense all year in either category) was that Derek Mason was experimenting with rotating the first- and second-team defenses in and out as units to prepare for Oregon. So that game hardly counts. Regardless, Stanford has already played three games this year in which scoring 24 points would have meant a loss (Washington, Utah, ASU).

So while we're all hoping that Shaw and his crew find a way to kickstart the offense, what we're really asking for is an improvement over last year. And even despite the miserable offensive showings in the last two games, that's what we've seen. The 2013 team is averaging 30 more yards and 8 more points per game (and more rushing and passing yardage per game) than the 2012 team. Those numbers are admittedly inflated a bit by the special teams points in the last two games, but if you take those out the 2013 offense still beats 2012 by 6 points per game.

But while we've seen a slight uptick in offensive effectiveness, the defense has become far less effective. I don't know why--maybe someone who knows more about football than I do can shed some light. The only thing that immediately comes to mind is lack of depth on the defensive line. As the major weakness so far in 2013 appears to be defending the run game, that may well be part of the problem.

Coaching

David Shaw has always been a conservative coach. Last year, much of that conservatism could be attributed to having a quarterback who was really just a game manager and couldn't always be counted on to make big plays when the game was on the line. Shaw has continued in that vein so far this year, barely throwing at all in the second half against Washington or in the fourth quarter against ASU. Then he puzzled all of us for passing on 3rd and 2 and 4th and 2 at the end of the Utah game, despite the fact that Tyler Gaffney was averaging a whopping 6.8 yards per carry. However, it's always hard to second guess individual decisions in any meaningful way. What really strikes me is that this team seemed totally unprepared to play either Washington or Utah. After the way the team came out and stomped on ASU and WSU early, that seemed strange.

As for making adjustments, it's hard to say. After surrendering only seven first half points to Washington, the Stanford defense allowed 21 in the second half. On the contrary, I think the defense adjusted quite well against Utah. After surrendering 21 points in the first half, the defense limited Utah to two field goals in the second (and zero points after 14:13 left in the fourth quarter). It's hard to ask for much more from a defense, especially in the second half.

At the same time, the offense seemed to struggle against Washington and Utah in the second halves. Whether that's conservatism on Shaw's part or the opposing defense starting to figure out the Stanford offense, the problem seems to lie with the coaching. If it's conservatism, Shaw needs to be willing to be flexible and let Hogan throw more. If it's the opposing defense figuring out the offense, the coaches need to add some wrinkles later in the game to keep them honest. Either way, it seems like the solution is probably to open up the playbook a little more in the second half.

A Note on the Officiating

I'm always one to admit when my team loses fair and square (i.e. Washington 2012, Fiesta Bowl 2011, etc.). But it's very frustrating to have the officials cost you a game. Don't misread this article: Stanford played poorly against Utah and should never have been in a position in which it needed a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes. It deserved to lose that game, and the Utes deserved to win. Nonetheless, even as badly as Stanford played, it still probably would have won this game but for a few blown calls.

Give credit to Dennis Erickson. He came out with a great offense game plan: spread out the Stanford defense with sweeps and screens, then gash it up the middle and over the top. The other part of the Utah game plan wasn't so noble: grab any Stanford player near you, on either side of the ball, and hold on for dear life until the refs start throwing flags. But it worked: the officials never made the calls (Utah was flagged only four times the entire game), and but for two blatant missed calls (Dres Anderson pushing Devon Carrington out of the way to make a TD catch, and a Utah cornerback putting Devon Cajuste in a bear hug on Stanford's last offensive play of the game), Stanford would most likely still have managed to win. In fact, a correct call on either of those plays could've changed the outcome.

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At left: Dres Anderson pushes Devon Carrington out of the way to make a TD catch. At right: a Utah cornerback smothers Devon Cajuste on 4th and 2 from the Utah 6 at the end of the game. Click to enlarge.

Two critical plays, two critical missed holding calls. I didn't mean to make this a post about officiating, which is why I put this last. But those calls are still really bugging me, so I couldn't help myself.

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