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Stanford D Only Half-Bad

The Stanford defense has played four very bad halves over the past two seasons.

Jason O. Watson - Getty Images

Darius Tahir (@dariustahir) shines a light on the Stanford D at its worst.

Most observers would suggest the Stanford defense has had four very bad games against four very good offenses since 2011: at USC, vs. Oregon, vs. Oklahoma State in 2011, and vs. Arizona in 2012. They’re not wrong, but it’d be more accurate to say the Stanford defense has had four very bad halves in those games than everything else.

The statistics are revealing. In 2011, against teams other than the previously-listed three, the defense gave up 5.2 yards per play in the first half, and 5.19 yards per play in the second half—above-average-ish, and basically the same in whatever half. In 2012, against teams other than Arizona, the team gives up a stellar 4.11 yards per play in the first half, and 4.66 yards per play in the second. (Complicating things a bit are Duke’s garbage-time statistics in the final quarter-and-a-half or so; my instinct is that the gap will narrow over the course of the season.)

It’s those four bad halves that tell the tale. In 2011, averaging the halves together reveals Stanford gave up 7 yards per play in the first half, versus 5.6 yards per play in the second. Comparing the latter figure to Stanford’s overall average, it’s not too bad—a bit higher than average, but you expect that when facing three of the best ten or so offenses in the country.

Disaggregating the statistics a bit and separating them into individual games reveals the same basic pattern—one not-so-bad or good half, one terrible half. In the first half, USC was held to 6 points and 4.44 yards per play, a preview of coming attractions in 2012. Both Oklahoma State and Oregon were held in check in the first quarter of their games – Oregon pulled off the rare feat of being held to -1 yards in the first half, and being up 8 to 0 – and then destroyed the Stanford defense in explosive, quick-strike second quarters.

The big underlying issue in all three games is essentially the same: big plays. Oklahoma State amassed 6 plays of 20+ yards; Oregon got 3 (but was helped substantially by short fields caused by turnovers); USC got 4.

The Arizona game is similar, but it has its own flavor. The first half for Stanford’s defense was good as a matter of yardage – it gave up 4.4 yards per play, scarcely different than the yards per play it had previously established. Yet the 13 points it surrendered is a disappointment. Why – what happened?

Simple: the defense couldn’t get itself off the field. The defense faced 9 third- or fourth-down conversions in the second quarter, and allowed Arizona to convert 6 of them. That’s bad. As a consequence, the team faced more plays in the first half (52) than in the second (51). Given the tempo’s negative effects on the team, it’s fair to wonder what would’ve been if it had gotten itself off of the field more promptly.

The second half featured that malaise we’ve diagnosed: 7.6 yards per play allowed, a bad number. From the naked eye, it looked like Arizona’s high, fast tempo played a role – Arizona ran about 90 plays per game coming into the game; Stanford’s defense suffering through 13 more plays didn’t do it any good. (Stanford also surrendered 6 explosive, 20+ yard plays, never a good way to defensively distinguish yourself.)

So why does Stanford seem to have a one-horrid-half problem against really good offenses? I don’t know. Depth? Perhaps. It’s hard to come up with explanations that give a good reason for why one half would be bad, but not the other. Nevertheless, it’s a thing that exists.

Should you feel nervous about its existence for the rest of the season? I don’t know what your assessment of the chances were of beating Oregon before the Arizona game, but in my book they were never high, so in that sense I am not nervous. But I think in some ways it’s reassuring: aside from the pratfalls, the 2012 Stanford defense looks better than the 2011 version. The 2012 team did play a complete game against USC, after all. So, (probably) don’t worry about the defense; it may just be a one-game thing. Now, speaking of possible one game things, we’ve got the offense….