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The Good, The Weirdly Inefficient, and the Awful

The Stanford offense has come in three flavors this season.

Ezra Shaw

Darius Tahir (@dariustahir) on the state of the Stanford offense and what we can expect going forward.

A little past halfway through the Stanford football season, we know now that there are three varieties of Stanford offensive game: awful, weirdly inefficient, and actually good. Let’s establish a baseline for offense – I consider 6 yards per play to be the rough dividing line between a competent-to-good offense and one that’s struggling, if only a bit. (Averaging exactly 6 yards per play would put you at 6th in the Pac-12, above Oregon State and below Arizona State.)

The awful games have been complained about and dissected so extensively that it hardly seems worth recapping the things that go wrong there: the offensive line gets no push on running plays; Nunes struggles to throw accurately and what does get to its intended target often doesn’t get caught. (Maybe the only good thing the Stanford offense has done consistently and improved upon over the course of the year is pass blocking, which it struggled a bit with early in the season, and has improved into a very good unit from that perspective.) There are three awful games: vs. SJSU, @ UW, @ ND.

Duh, math: there are four games that are at least competent from a yardage perspective (you can figure them out from process of elimination, right?). Yet hearing people assess Stanford’s offensive performance, you’d think the awful games were more common. Why?

Well, there’s category two – weirdly inefficient games. Both against USC and Cal, Stanford averaged a bit above 6 yards per play. That’s an impressive statistic against USC: their worst performance from a yards per play perspective. In fact, it’s their worst performance by far – their next-worst performance was against Syracuse, with 5.23 yards per play. (We can only claim to have beaten up Cal the third-worst of all its opponents – but when the top two are USC and Ohio State, well, it becomes understandable.)

I consider the mission statement of the Stanford offense to be this Toby Gerhart quote about the 2009 USC game:

"We were up big at the end and hitting ‘em in the mouth – we ran 15 of the last 18 plays from the exact same formation, where we’d motion the tight end one way or the other and I’d run to that side. At one point one of their linebackers yelled, ‘If you guys run "Power" one more time, I’m walking off the field.’ It was classic."

This was pretty much the end of each game: the offensive line creating huge holes against tired defensive linemen, with Stepfan Taylor darting through to burn clock. At the time, the clock was more important than the score, and the offense accomplished that goal. (On the other hand, given the pillage the Stanford OL inflicted on each team, not scoring the dagger is a disappointment.)

So what happened? Those two performances suggest that the offense can be pretty functional against good-to-reasonably-good opposing defenses. Well, inefficiency: Jordan Williamson missed two eminently makeable field goals; the offense couldn’t convert red zone opportunities; the offense had too many turnovers.

So – not quite a success, not quite a failure.

The two successes, against Duke and Arizona, suggest Stanford can maul the bad-to-awful defenses of the country; no need for further analysis, right?

I was surprised to be able to break down the offense like this – I thought the picture would be, overall, worse. What does it suggest overall? Well, first, David Shaw needs to figure out how to hit 6 yards per play: the team is 4-0 when it does; 1-2 when it doesn’t (though, sadly, both of the losses were very winnable.) Second, it suggests consistency is a big problem: the yards per play is 4.18 (SJSU), 3.66 (UW), 4.18 (ND) when having an awful game. It seems to be something or nothing for the Stanford offense – I have a hard time believing too many other mediocre offenses in the country are capable of averaging 6 yards per play against the USC defense. Third, of course, it suggests that even when the offense is having a good day, it often needs to work on converting yards into points.

The root cause is obvious to anyone who’s watched the team, really: the passing game. Nunes is too inaccurate and his receivers don’t catch well enough. Also there’s not enough speed overall on the team. Nunes has decent yard per attempt numbers – 6.9 YPA – but his completion percentage means that gains in the passing game won’t be consistent enough to score often. Considering the number of long passes in the offense, better catching would probably impact the YPA more than the completion percentage.

Can the offense’s problems be solved? If in the sense of, "I expect a completely different offense with better coaching"; no, probably not. Personnel is the main roadblock for the offense, and as QB switches don’t really work too often – and when they do, they usually involve QBs much worse than Josh Nunes – it’s hard to imagine the improvement coming there. Receivers might catch better; I’ve been hoping the first six games were a fluke but then again the seventh wasn’t exactly a wonderful display.

I think improvements can come through marginal improvements: fewer delays of game, slight personnel edits – e.g. less Anthony Wilkerson, more Kelsey Young and Remound Wright; more Kodi Whitfield; more young offensive linemen, etc. But fundamentally the offense is what it is this year. (Unless you’re a Nottingham Truther.)