Stanford changed up what had been their style since the start of the Jim Harbaugh era this past Saturday in their 38-14 victory against Oregon State, and reaped the benefits.
To say that Stanford's offense has underwhelmed so far this year would be an understatement. They rank 80th in the FBS in yards per game (382.8), 88th in points per game (25.8), and 123rd in red zone scoring percentage (64.7%), ranking ahead of only SMU and UConn, who are a combined 0-13 against FBS opponents.
However, the Cardinal offense appear to have taken a step forward, putting up 38 points, a season-high against an FBS opponent, on a middle-of-the-pack Beavers defense. Stanford got most of its offense through multiple wide receiver sets, short screen passes, and Kevin Hogan runs, a different strategy than the ground-and-pound offense they employed under Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, and Tyler Gaffney.
Stanford has not completely abandoned their strategy to gain control of the trenches, though. In their 38-14 victory against Oregon State, the Cardinal owned both the offensive and defensive lines. The team racked up their second offensive output against FBS opponents, gaining 438 yards. The Cardinal offensive line allowed only one sack, tied for a season low.
However, unlike when Stanford used to use good blocking to run the ball, this past Saturday, Stanford's offensive line play allowed it to set up several quick, short, passes, getting the ball out of Kevin Hogan's hands and into those of an exceptionally talented receiving corps. 19 of Hogan's 28 passes were thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and he completed 15 of these throws. After completing these short passes, Hogan let his receivers and their blockers operate, leading to big gains, such as Christian McCaffrey's 42-yard touchdown catch, a play on which Hogan threw the ball only 6 yards down the field.
This dink-and-dunk style suits Hogan's skillset much better than a pro-style offense. Although Hogan may not be the best pure quarterback in the world, ranking 9th in the conference in passing yards and 8th in passing touchdowns, he does bring some strengths to the table. Hogan runs effectively, as seen on his read-option touchdown late in the 1st quarter. Here, Hogan sells the run effectively, causing no. 54 Brandon Bennett-Jackson around left-tackle Andrus Peat, creating a huge hole. Hogan caps the play with a stiff-arm that sends safety Ryan Murphy to the turf.
Hogan's did throw two interceptions, though, costing the Cardinal two possessions that could have put the game out of hand even sooner. On his first pick at the Oregon State 18, Hogan overlooks a wide-open Devon Cajuste on the back side to throw to his double-covered star wideout, Ty Montgomery. The ball ends up in the hands of Murphy, costing the Cardinal a very good chance to put up points. On the Cardinal's next drive, at the team's own 16 yard line, Hogan tries to throw to Montgomery again, but with a zone blitz in his face, he throws a pick right to Michael Doctor, who returns it to the 5-yard line. Oregon State subsequently punched it into the end zone, amounting to perhaps a 10-point swing off two Hogan mistakes.
Those 10 points might not seem like much in a 24-point victory, but against Oregon this Saturday, the Cardinal is going to need all the offense they can get. For what seems like the umpteenth year in a row, the Oregon-Stanford game basically decides Stanford's postseason. Stanford can erase all of their struggles earlier this season with a victory in Eugene, which would move them into first place in the Pac-12 North. Lose, though, and Stanford will have to beat arch-rival Cal, top-25 ranked Utah or UCLA just to make any bowl at all.
Although Stanford's defense will likely play a deciding factor in how the Cardinal fare against the Ducks, they probably won't shut out Heisman-contender Marcus Mariota and an offense which averages 45.5 points per game. In that case, the Cardinal will have to score and score often in order to stay in the game.
Stanford has scored against the Ducks the past two years with a ground-and-pound, control-the-clock offense. However, an elite running back is not walking through the door of the Cardinal locker room this year. Remound Wright and his 3.2 yards per carry against ranked opponents won't beat the Ducks, and although Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders have performed well, the coaches are loath to run them between the tackles over and over again. Yet, if Stanford thinks outside the box and outside of its jumbo sets, a whole new slew of doors will open. By playing up-tempo, no-huddle offense, Stanford allows Young and Sanders to contribute, and gets the ball off to physically talented receivers like Montgomery, Rector, McCaffrey, and Cajuste with room and blockers to operate. Hogan can also use his legs, his best tool. This offense might not allow Stanford to grind the clock to the same degree, but Stanford needs to have a larger number of points, not a larger time-of-possession, to win the game.
It'll be tough for Stanford to beat the playoff-hungry Ducks on the road, and an even tougher task for them to run the table into the Pac-12 title game. Their offensive system clearly hasn't worked so far, malfunctioning on the biggest stages. It's easy for Stanford to tryout new offensive schemes against inferior opponents, yet it takes a special kind of mental fortitude to stick to them in big games. Yet, by bucking school tradition and sticking to what worked against last Saturday, the Cardinal might just give itself a chance to pull off the upset.