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Final Score Didn't Reflect How Dominant Stanford Was Against USC


With an eye toward the future, Darius Tahir (@dariustahir) takes a closer look at just how dominant Stanford was in its fourth-straight win over USC.

As the sign reminded us, (L)uck had nothing to do with it. Compare yard-per-play efficiency from 2011 to 2012 (note that I’ve removed overtime stats from 2011):

Year Offensive YPP Defensive YPP
2012 6.04 4.05
2011 6.04 6.02

As you can guess, better. In fact, much better. The stats, if anything, are deceptive from a defensive perspective: they include a 30-yard run at the end of the first half against a prevent defense. (So, yes, USC actually rushed for negative yards in meaningful snaps.)

Dominating the average opponent by nearly two yards per play is pretty remarkable; the only team to pull the feat off last year in the Pac-12 was Oregon. Whatever else the USC freakout has alleged, no one has yet accused the Trojans of being average. So: as you know, a remarkable performance, though you may not have realized the scale of dominance by the time the whistle blew.

A more skeptical eye might be cast at the offensive statistic—it doesn’t seem to mesh with what we saw on the field at all; or, for that matter, the scoreboard. Just how did 6.04 yards per play translate to 35 points in 2011, and only 21 in 2012? Well, field goal kicking is a big part of the reason, obviously. Let’s say Stanford gets six of the nine it left on the table with an average kicking performance (it’s hard to consider a 51 yard kick routine for an average kicker). That gets you to 27 points, which is better but still leaves something to be desired.

The answer, I think, is that Stanford on offense is still an exceptionally brittle team: as long as things aren’t going wrong, it’s a solid offense; if it gets knocked off course, it has a hard time reversing inertia and scoring. In addition, getting touchdowns rather than field goals has been a big problem for the offense. That’s something that needs to be corrected.

(There’s also a weird problem with its running plays. We run the Power play a lot, which will often leave the non-playside DE unblocked—but we’ve often been allowing said DE to tackle our running back. This is a problem that needs to be corrected. Along with the weird delay of game penalties and too-many-men-in-the-huddle, a number of weird little things will add up in the long run.)

If you like being optimistic, note that by the end of the game it was vintage Stanford football—in the fourth quarter, it looked like we could’ve run Power O to Half Moon Bay against the Trojan front seven. The line’s protection of Nunes improved, and Nunes’ accuracy and throwing improved commensurately. As the line goes, you’d imagine, so goes the team. And it takes time. But if it doesn’t—well, the team needs to score 30+ on a more consistent basis; the defense can’t hold teams to less than 20 points forever.

* * *

Defensively, note that there’s a lot of criticism of Kiffin and co. for not opening up the offense and going vertical. Insofar as it implies this is a problem peculiar to this particular game, it’s wrong—they’ve thrown mostly short for a while. The key is that they expect their big, physical wideouts to win battles with DBs and turn those short throws into long plays. They succeeded three times against Stanford, and were otherwise just stoned.

Here’s how Barkley’s numbers looked from the first to second half (a couple notes: totals won’t add up to the box score stats because I looked at all the passing plays, i.e. including penalties and sacks. At times I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to do; it’s a mark of how well the Stanford front played that there was an unusually high number. Anyway, those numbers are reflected in the denominator but not the numerator.):

0-10 yards 10-20 yards 20+ yards
First Half 12/22 (54.5%) 6/22 (27.27%) 2/22 (9.09%)
Second Half 10/20 (50%) 4/20 (20%) 2/20 (10%)
Total 22/42 (52.38%) 10/42 (23.8%) 4/42 (9.5%)

With the caveat that we don’t know what they were trying to do on some plays, the mix of passes looks pretty similar to what the Kiffin/Barkley combination have done for a while now. Simply: the Stanford defense played an extraordinary game; if it can continue to hit anywhere close to this level consistently, the team is an elite one.

* * *

The biggest room for upside is the youth influx. The team is quite young. As Stanford’s communications department has noted, 24 players have made their collegiate debuts this year, with 10 true freshmen. That’s a gigantic number in comparison to last year, wherein only four true freshmen played (and that’s with Wayne Lyons, who effectively redshirted due to injury.) Stanford freshmen are rarely of the immediate barnburning type. Instead, the best ones tend to burst into important roles midseason—these are the Shayne Skovs, A.J. Tarpleys and Ty Montgomeries of the team. (Not to say you can’t become an important and good player if your role stays modest throughout a freshman apprentice. Jordan Richards might well be the best safety in the conference, and James Vaughters has seized a starting role over Tarpley and Lancaster.) The question to be answered at the end of the season: how many Shayne Skovs and Ty Montgomeries are among the 10 true freshmen who have played so far?

The roster overall is quite young. Compare the depth chart from the Notre Dame game in 2011 to the just-passed game last Saturday. You’ll note nine seniors in the two-deep in 2012 as compared to 11 in the 2011 final two-deep (and that’s without considering uber-experienced juniors Andrew Luck, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin.) (Also note the comparison is made solely by what’s available—sadly Stanford erases past depth charts and The Google can only find the last regular season depth chart for games. In this case, the comparison is skewed: younger players tend to overtake older players at the end of the season as they earn more experience.)

In other words, that dominant performance? It was by a team still learning and figuring out who it is. No guarantees—and if it doesn’t, it will be struck hard by reality—but if it does, the potential is a hard thing to contemplate.