If it’s a Stanford loss, it must be the offense.
If it’s the offense, it must be David Shaw’s abject playcalling, which surely turned many a touchdown into another tribute to the 100th anniversary of World War I, with its trench warfare self.
The offense was bad and Shaw did contribute a couple of dumb playcalls, to be sure. But the issue runs deeper; it always does. If you’re in a mood for pessimism, feel free to be creative; add some variety to your game. First, give credit to Michigan State, which played fantastically and surely would've been a threat in a hypothetical 2013-14 college football playoff.
But I’ll start with the crowd-pleaser.
Stanford fans, after a loss, will blame all problems on the offense and (therein) Shaw’s playcalling. What were the issues here? Take away some of the noise -- the wide receivers could’ve done better on at least three drops that I recall, one of which turned a beautiful deep ball into a pick.
But drops happen; sometimes you get a bad number. But let’s go deeper. While I recall a lot of praise for the staff’s planning and playcalling after the Pac-12 championship game, think of the Rose Bowl and this game as twinned games. The Stanford offense went deep extensively; connected sometimes and looked poor when they didn’t. The Stanford offense surrendered five sacks against ASU and were similarly whipped against the Spartans, in spirit if not in stats.
A boom-or-bust offense is what Stanford is, for whatever reason; the coaches need to rediscover its intermediate pass game over the offseason. (One tip: Devon Cajuste in the slot more frequently.) Also strange is the coaches' attitude toward Hogan’s legs. It’s understandable that you’d prefer not to run him terribly often (if at all) against the weaker teams on the schedule; it seems a bit strange that he’s on a pitch count against bad teams. Hogan ran eight times against MSU, and was nearly always effective. Why not run him more? The coaches have often been able to engineer a run game when the conventional runs slog; but only to a point. Hogan’s arm is brilliant one day, so-so the next; Hogan’s legs are reliable. Use them!
But also keep some perspective about this specific performance. MSU is considered a really good defense -- against conference opponents it surrendered 4.34 yards/play; Stanford averaged 5.6 yards/play. Focus on trends -- Stanford’s had a few games with bizarre yards/play stats and overall offense (Utah; Oregon; now MSU). 5.6 yards/play isn’t exactly wonderful, but it should get you more than 54 plays, 305 yards and 13 offensive points (barring epic turnover problems.). Stanford’s 6.9 yards/play should result in a better offensive performance (and a win) against Utah. The exception proves the rule -- why was Stanford able to earn a solid offensive performance against Oregon despite averaging 4.77 yards/play? Extreme efficiency: basically it ran every time and was able to pick up virtually every third-and-medium and third-and-short. The Stanford offense needs to rediscover efficiency in 2014.
The defense could also have performed better. The two dropped picks were wonderfully frustrating, and perhaps this is a different game if Kevin Anderson picks Cook with the Cardinal up 10. But the fact remains that Cook averaged 9.2 yards per attempt on 36 passes. This was not an outcome I anticipated -- Cook averaged 7 yards per attempt over the season. Additionally, by my count MSU converted 4/8 of 3rd downs with greater than 8 yards to go. That’s not good at all.
Special teams were arguably as good as the defense, and while there weren’t any big gaffes in the game, it also missed opportunities to chip in with some big plays.
No big returns for Ty Montgomery. Ronnie Harris kicking the ball into the endzone on a punt. An almost-successful fake FG, of course. But the most important factor in the game were the hidden yards -- Stanford started with much worse field position than the Spartans did. Stanford started three drives behind the 10 yard line; a fourth drive behind the 20 yard line. That’s a quarter of drives overall for Stanford, and that’s a big problem, and surely a factor in Stanford’s sputtering drives.
While it would’ve been nice for the Stanford defense or offense to contribute in solving its field position woes, the Stanford return game didn’t help much either. Montgomery, as noted, was mostly contained. But it was the punt return game which gave the worst account for itself. Stanford managed two punt returns for four yards; in other words, it was penalized more yards on punt returns (8) than it advanced the ball (4). The punt return game was average at best this year, and a definite step down from Drew Terrell’s understated competence. This year, before the Rose Bowl, Stanford averaged 8.94 yards per return, 51st in the country -- but then, it only had 16 returns, putting the team 89th.
Overall, I value the number of returns more than the average yards per return, which makes this year’s performance disappointing. Of the many problems to be solved in the spring and summer -- including finding an intermediate passing game, whether through scheme or quarterback change -- finding a better punt return game would be quite helpful indeed.