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Improving Stanford's Offense: Washington Game Provides Room to Grow

The Huskies' tough D gave Stanford's offense fits on Saturday - so how can the Cardinal improve going forward?

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

2013 brings improvement!

The Stanford offense, at times, actually appeared to be able to move the ball in a threatening manner towards the opponent’s end zone. Instead of a debacle, we’ve moved up to mere mediocrity against Justin Wilcox’s unit. The real question is whether this revealed structural weaknesses for opponents to exploit, or was simply a one-time thing. I suspect there are elements of both.

One-time issues:

1. Hogan's inexperience: It's easy to forget, but Hogan is still young in quarterback terms -- he hasn’t even completed a full season’s worth of starts. Indeed, the experience from 2012 -- where Hogan was given a more limited role -- is not really relevant to the role he’s being asked to perform in this year, in which he’s actually being asked to carry the team for stretches of play.

I don’t think I need to rehash the problems Hogan had Saturday night: he looked hesitant, not recognizing the opportunities that were there, and was inaccurate. The type of fast decision-making he’ll need to solve a very good defense like Washington’s typically comes with reps.

2. Washington does this to everyone -- so far: The season is still early, but Washington has really roughed up opposing quarterbacks. Isolating to BCS-level opponents, we’ve got Boise State passing at 3.8 yards per attempt; Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois chipped in for 6.2 yards per attempt and B.J. Denker of Arizona worst of all at 3.2 yards per attempt. Judged by this standard, Hogan’s 5.0 yards per attempt looks downright solid.

ESPN’s new QBR stat may be instructive: it makes a distinction between a "raw" rating (simply scoring a game without reference to opponent strength) and "adjusted rating" (which accounts for opponent strength). Hogan’s raw rating was 37.6, which is legitimately awful. His adjusted rating, however, was 77.9, which is a pretty decent outing. (QBR is scored on a 1-100 scale.)

3. Uncharacteristically poor execution, team-wide: Aside from Hogan, there were some definite errors in execution from various players. The most memorable -- because recency, because importance -- was Lee Ward’s whiff on a block on 3rd and 1 in the final offensive drive. If Ward makes the block, Hogan gets the first down easily and the team (probably?) runs out the clock, with much less controversy for everyone involved.

Structural problems:

Overall, the offense is well ahead of pace from last year; however, there are structural and strategic problems that are limiting the offense, perhaps unnecessarily.

1. Hogan's mobility: Reducing the amount Hogan’s been on the move has been a theme so far this year, and in some ways it’s reasonable against overmatched teams. Why increase the number of opportunities he can get hit? We saw more purposeful Hogan running against Arizona State, and it was a helpful additional element.

Against Washington, the element of designed runs -- rolling the pocket, zone-option, etc. -- was nearly nonexistent save for one drive. But that drive was a successful one, ending in a field goal. Why didn’t the coaches continue to work that element in? It’s a strange omission, to go away from something that was working. (It’s possible I missed something that the Huskies did to take away this option.) I’m not asking the coaches to turn Hogan into Collin Klein on a game-by-game basis, but when the offense is bogged down, why not turn to running more frequently?

2. Playmaker problems: As we know, the endlessly debated preseason question concerned obvious playmakers (or lack thereof). So far, mostly so good -- Ty Montgomery has been destructive; Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson are effective complements.

However, there are two problems with the skill position players. Let’s start with the Barry J. Sanders/Kelsey Young types. They’re quite capable, if circumstances are right. The problem is that their presence is an immediate tip-off that something’s up, with the defense reacting instantly. Young and Sanders had one touch each, and the defense reacted as if they had precognition. The problem is that each are typically only allowed a certain constrained set of plays, making their presence a warning to the defense.

This is doubly a shame: that the offense is making itself so obvious, and that Young and Sanders, players with high explosive potential, are being so limited. The other constraint on the offense comes in our base set -- the typical two wideout, one tight end, one fullback, one running back I-formation. The problem with this formation so far this year is that Luke Kaumatule and Lee Ward (or Patrick Skov) have been no threat to touch the ball whatsoever. If a defense can simply cross two players off the list immediately, you’re already conceding a strategic advantage to the defense.

Part of this problem will be remedied whenever Ryan Hewitt is fully functional: Hewitt’s had two catches for three yards so far; last year, with Hogan quarterbacking, Hewitt had 11 for 110. Still, given that he’s a fifth-year senior, the coaches need to figure out a post-Hewitt plan for life on offense. Fullbacks are still worthwhile positions; fullbacks who are only usable as blockers make life very difficult.