The Big A HUGE Game.
Stanford heads up to Berkeley after suffering a brutal loss last week in South Bend. And not necessarily brutal because of the laughable refereeing in overtime that cost the team a chance to continue the game (although it added to the pain), but because the offense has now shown real weakness and has yet to score a touchdown on the road. The offense that boasts 6 or 7 future NFL draft picks playing right now has been kept out of the end zone two out of the last three weeks. Even more frustrating for Cardinal fans is the fact that the team scored 54 points against Arizona in that same stretch.
So it is possible!
Let's take a look at some of ways for the Stanford offense to maintain a level on consistency that they will need with Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, and UCLA still out in front of them.
- Avoid negative plays and improve passing percentage. Stanford lead the country in fewest negative plays a season ago and Stepfan Taylor only lost 33 yards all of 2011. Through 6 games he is at 24 lards lost and 17 of that has come the last three games. Stanford still does a great job at minimizing sacks (just giving up 1 a game), but the ability to overcome negative plays has been diminished greatly, as the Cardinal are converting nearly 20% less of their 3rd down opportunities than a year ago. Along those same lines, Stanford hard a difficult time even making a first down after an incompletion. In the third quarter against the Irish, Josh Nunes went 0-3 and Stanford had three 3-and-outs. Even if the completions are for 2 or 3 yards, Josh Nunes has to improve his accuracy and be able to hit the check downs to keep the chains moving.
- Get back the big play ability. Stanford has had 11 plays this season go for 40 or more yards. Unfortunately, 5 of those are from the defense and special teams. Last season, Stanford had 7 different players with a carry over 30 yards...this season, only two have done it. If the Cardinal cannot sustain long drives that finish in the end zone, they need to get back ability to rip off big chunks of yards on the ground or through the air. WR Kelsey Young has been a spark when he gets his hands on the ball, so look for the coaches to increase his receptions/carries over the next few weeks. The TEs have been the most consistent performers in the passing game, but having a deep threat outside would soften the safeties and allow for more room over the middle. True freshman WR Kodi Whitfield has the most potential and I expect him to be a target over the next few weeks, or until Ty Montgomery returns and shows that he can make teams pay for single coverage. As good as Stepfan Taylor has been this season, he just hasn't been able to break many long ones because of the opposing defenses' focus on stopping him. Stanford has to mix up the play calls and designs to put Taylor in the position where he can use his speed and quickness in the open field to break some long plays.
- Execute in short yardage/goalline situations. Stanford's strength over the last few seasons was the ability to gain tough yards regardless of what the defense stacks up. This season has been a different story, and nothing illustrates that better than the 4 unsuccessful plays (although I would argue at least one was successful) inside the 5 yard line against the Irish in overtime. Stanford cannot maul people up front, and as a result, the short yardage package needs to adjust. The splits between the offensive lineman can widen which stretches out the defensive front and doesn't allow the edge rushers to crash into the backfield and disrupt the timing. Wider splits would also allow the offensive players more room and time to pull and lead if the play needs it. Straight play action hasn't been very effective, but bootlegs or opposite side roll-outs might catch a defense off balance since Stanford hasn't shown that ability. Converting 3rd and shorts and punching the ball into the end zone from inside the 5 are both going to be crucial elements going forward if Stanford is able to keep up with some of the high scoring offenses still left on its schedule.
Cal and Stanford are certainly trending in opposite directions coming into the weekend. I expect the road TD drought to end on Saturday in Berkeley, but the Cardinal's goal must be to regain the consistency that was such a trademark over the last few seasons. The ingredients are there for sustained success, but the question is can they players and coaches put it all together in time. I look forward to finding out the answer when the 115th Big Game kicks off on Saturday.