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Stanford's Offensive Woes Run Deeper Than the Passing Game

Yes, Josh Nunes has been erratic, but the Cardinal offense as a whole has lost its edge.

Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images

Darius Tahir (@dariustahir) with the ugly truth about Stanford's ineffective offense.

I don’t mean to pick on Jon Wilner specifically, but he actually articulated what a lot of people are saying:

The key for Stanford (I’ll have much more on Big Game in coming days): Avoid turnovers that give the Bears easy points, and run the ball successfully on early downs so Nunes doesn’t face long-yardage situations.

It’s a perfectly reasonable thought, avoiding 3rd-and-longs; you’re going to be more successful, inherently, when you have fewer yards to gain. But I think the phrasing here minimizes the problems of the offense and frames it as mostly a Nunes-and-the-passing-game problem. The problem with the offense isn’t (just) that the passing game has been lacking, it’s that everything has lost its edge.

I went back and compiled 3rd and 4th down conversion attempts of less than four yards from the first six games of the season. The overall success rate of these attempts is at 47.7%, higher by 13% than Stanford’s average all season.

Yet my guess is that this rate is probably quite low when compared to other teams; if Stanford’s 3rd/4th-and-short rate were its overall rate, it’d be nestled in the top 25 nationally. So it seems likely that the 3rd/4th-and-short rate is, at best, average. The team, after all, has been stoned a number of times in such situations, a cruel reversal from last year, when the offensive line and Jeremy Stewart were dominant in such situations.

A game-by-game look at the numbers reveals that there’s not a terribly inspiring correlation between offensive success and generating manageable 3rd/4th downs. Stanford faced 10 such opportunities each against San Jose State and Notre Dame, going a combined 7 for 20.

On the other hand, there’s not really a good negative correlation either – against UW the team went 3-for-5, but that’s the same number the team had against USC (which was a reasonably successful offensive outing, yards-per-play-wise, marred by Jordan Williamson’s continued field goal adventures and poor execution in the red zone).

At any rate, the successful games do not look terribly successful either – this is an offense with a low ceiling and floor so subterranean it doubles as a mineshaft.

Basically, the offense comprehensively isn’t doing its job. What’s the problem? Well, basically everything: the passing game is producing a passable-ish yards per attempt at 6.8, but the 53% completion is in this context a problem – you can get away with a low completion rate if you’re taking big chunks of yardage at a time. If you aren’t, the passing will not be consistent enough. As has been argued about repeatedly, a large portion is on Nunes’s accuracy issues, but then again his receivers are doing him less than no favors – if Ted Miller (or Kevin Gemmell) isn’t trying to be nice about you, you are quite bad indeed.

The offensive line has been pretty good in pass protection, but has lost a big part of its edge on run blocking; overall, the unit would probably be fine for most teams, but Stanford needs a dominant offensive line if its receivers are going to play in such a mediocre fashion.

The only unit to really play well on offense is, naturally, the tight ends.

Losing Luck really only explains a big part of the problem. But then there’s also losing your best deep threat (Fleener), your most consistent possession receiver (Griff Whalen), your best two linemen (Martin/DeCastro), your short-yardage specialist (Stewart) and your change-of-pace back (Gaffney). That’s a lot of talent, and unfortunately the replacements have not stepped up to the extent the team needs. What’s worse is that there’s a significant risk things, well, will get worse: Taylor leaves, of course, but Ertz and Toilolo are draft risks also. It’s hard to see replacements for these guys, except for players who have done well in limited touches (Kelsey Young, Remound Wright).

This malaise might well persist; Shaw might be well advised to accelerate the future on offense now -- it seems pretty clear at this point that the veterans besides Ertz, Toilolo, and Taylor are not terribly good, and while the replacements might well do worse, the move might reveal important information or gain the players some experience.