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Small Tweaks, Big Gains: How Coaching Adjustments led the Cardinal to a win over Oregon

The Stanford run game was dominant last Thursday, with Kevin Hogan's wheels setting up critical scores

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford knew it had to run the ball to beat Oregon. And run it did - at will.

They did it with Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson and Remound Wright and Kelsey Young and - most importantly - Kevin Hogan.

Here’s the perfect example of a coaching adjustment:

One of the goals on offense is to have your players experience simplicity while your opponents experience complexity. Or, as David Shaw puts it:

‘What you want to do on offense is present the illusion of sophistication but all in all remain very simple and basic.’ So very often we’ll throw a whole bunch of different stuff at them, but we’re going to run a basic day-one installation play. Something we’ve run thousands of times. Something very, very simple. But for the defense, it looks very complicated. So we want to present these illusions, then run a regular play that we just want to execute right.’’

If you’re trying to fool an opponent, installing an entirely new play is a good way to do it -- but then again, since your players haven’t practiced the play, they might end up fooling themselves. So you want to have some nudge that makes the play totally novel for your opponents while being very familiar for yourself.

Enter this play. It’s not a traditional read-option play; Hogan runs those all the time. It’s an inverted veer, actually. And it’s a play Stanford has run all the time this year -- with Dallas Lloyd. So 10 of the 11 players of the field have practiced the play; the 11th, the QB, can adjust fairly easily. Meanwhile, because of Stanford’s tendency to run traditional read-option plays from the Seale-in-shotgun package, calling an inverted veer goes against tendency -- it’s unexpected for the opponent, but pretty easy on the players.

That play is part of a general theme: the running game. The star of the show against Oregon. It’s hard to run your running back 45 times a game, but unlike other weeks, the non-Gaffney skill players pitched in: 21 carries at 5.57 yards a pop - something I had worried about before the Oregon game.

That’s partially from the other running backs chipping in from conventional formations, but two other adjustments have helped aid the running game. First, for two games in a row the coaches have enjoyed using the fly sweep and reverse game, scoring two big gains with Ty Montgomery and Kelsey Young. This is very good, of course: they’re good with the ball in their hands and it helps spread the defense out a tad, loosening up the box a bit (while not needing the still-erratic Hogan to do too much damage with his arm).

Second, speaking of Hogan, there’s the quarterback running game. I think the thought process has been revealed over the course of the season: the coaches tend to run Hogan less against (what they perceive to be) worse teams, presumably to save him the hits; that running, a dependable source of yardage for Hogan, makes him and the offense a bit more erratic; and hence there have been some stinkers on the road.

It’s perhaps not an accident that Hogan’s best games by QBR have come against Oregon, UCLA, and ASU -- tough games; in which Hogan was allowed to run wild and free. I would expect Hogan to run more against USC -- because I think USC’s developed into a threatening team. We’ll need Hogan’s legs to win relatively comfortably - but the adjustments seem to already have been made.