Setting the Tone: Stanford's success rates on first drives in 2013

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Cardinal good at setting the tone early on? It sure seems like it

We do what we were trained to do... what we were bred to do... what we were born to do. No prisoners. No mercy.

A good start. - 300

Being a red-blooded American male, I enjoy the movie 300. I get the feeling that the Stanford football team does too - they're all about a good start.

Scoring first, setting the tone and playing from ahead are some well-worn cliches come football season. GameDay hosts babble about it all the time, and I even brought it up in my Rose Bowl preview that Stanford would score first. (Hooray for me.) However, one thought has occurred to me over and over again this offseason: Stanford lost two games where it came out and dominated on its first drive - Utah and Michigan State.

So how did Stanford actually do on their first offensive drives in 2013? Here's a quick table:

Opponent Plays Yards TOP Result
SJSU 6 67 2:58 TD
ARMY 4 4 1:13 Fumble
AZ ST 5 16 2:54 FG miss
WSH ST 7 61 4:05 FG
WASH 7 47 3:18 INT
UTAH 7 75 3:24 TD
UCLA 8 30 4:03 Punt
ORE ST 3 3 1:43 Punt*
ORE 3 4 1:30 Punt*
USC 3 -1 1:58 Punt*
CAL 3 45 1:00 TD
ND 7 75 3:13 TD
AZ ST 2 62 1:19 TD
MICH ST 7 77 3:44 TD

As you can see, the Cardinal scored points on exactly 50 percent of their first drives of the game, while turning the ball over twice, going three-and-out three times and ending one drive in a missed field goal. On top of that, they also scored on a Ty Montgomery kickoff return to start the game against Washington. That counts for something, right?

Going a little deeper than just results, though, Stanford had 6 games where they opened with drives of 7 or more plays, and they opened two games with TD drives of two plays. (And one game where the sixth play of the drive was a TD, preventing it from hitting that 7-play mark.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of the table is the pattern that Stanford had three consecutive games with three-and-outs on their first drives, then responded to that with four consecutive TD drives to end the season. It seems that David Shaw and company adjusted well as the season went on and even put special emphasis on it after struggling to set the tone in ugly games against Oregon State and USC. On another note, one negative was that the Cardinal used 5 timeouts on their first offensive drives of games in 2013 - including two in that disastrous first series at USC.

Did they do anything particularly different on these first drives of games? It doesn't really appear so. Over the course of the season, Stanford ran the ball on 65% of their plays, while on first drives they ran the ball 62.8% of the time. That's not exactly a big enough statistical difference to say it's significant.

Overall, I think it's safe to say that, for the most part, Stanford succeeds at physically imposing itself early on in games (the fact that they forced Oregon to punt twice and turn it over on downs on their first three drives last November can also support that conclusion).

Of course, the irony of my initial thought and is that a good start against the Spartans proved to ultimately be in a valiant but fruitless battle.

But for the most part, one thing holds true: Stanford is ready to come down the tunnel and kick ass every single game.

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