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The Curious Case of the Stanford Passing Offense

A closer look at the numbers reveals a few more complex issues with the Cardinal's aerial attack

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine me in summer 2013. You tell me, "You know, Kevin Hogan's going to average 8.92 yards per attempt this year." I would've booked my tickets to Pasadena right then and there -- and missed our actual January appearance in Southern California.

A similar story is playing itself out over the first quarter of the regular season, but I'm used to the cognitive dissonance this time around. Hogan's 9.53 yards per attempt is flat-out excellent. Efficiency -- a problem last year, as evidenced by his 61% completion rate -- appears better with 73% completion rate, and a fine 1.35% interception rate.

But, as you've surely noticed, the offense has been inconsistent so far. What's up this time? Well, it's the offensive line -- but the problems manifest themselves in a way that's off the balance sheets.

The obvious and typical complaint is in sacks, which the NCAA unaccountably designates as rushes. Hogan's been sacked 5 times, already more than a third of his total in 2013, and nearly half of his abbreviated 2012. Hogan's been sacked on 6.33% of his dropbacks, which is awful. Especially when considering the opposition.

Hogan was sacked on 4.53% of dropbacks in 2013, and 6.74% in 2012 against a much better schedule. To find a full season with a sack rate that poor, you'd have to go way back to 2008, when Stanford QBs were sacked 6.81% . (Luck's 2011 was down to 2.65%; 2010 an absurd 1.58%; 2009 was 2.7%.)

But I'm convinced these stats still understate the negative effect of the offensive line on the passing game. Look at Hogan's rushing stats. Once you filter out the 5 sacks for 27 yards, Hogan's rushed for 61 yards on 15 carries -- a nidge over 4 yards per carry. That's under the un-sack-adjusted totals Hogan's posted in the past two years -- 4.2 YPC in 2013, and 4.8 in 2012.

And the vast majority of Hogan runs have not been designed; I believe the coaches have only busted out the inverted veer call once so far this season. On the surface, you can wonder why Hogan's scrambles have been less effective than in previous years, which is a valid question I don't have an answer to.

But I'm convinced the more important points are the big picture ones. First, it signals a shift towards a relatively pass-oriented offense. The apparent 102 rushing plays versus 88 passing plays looks like a typical Stanford split. But lump in the scrambles and the sacks and it becomes apparent that the coaches intend the offense to be pretty pass-happy.

That leads to the second point: Hogan turning a sack into two yards feels positive, because you can easily envision the alternative. But too many scrambles clogs an offense, especially when you'd rather be throwing to Montgomery, Cajuste, Hooper, Rector ... and so on. Effectively, it's a hidden incompletion.

Once you factor all the plays, Hogan's 2014 yards per play of 7.86 is a bit behind his 2013 mark of 7.89. That's not great, considering this is surely the weakest part of the schedule. (Though, to be fair, that it's a more frequent and more consistent 7.86 than last year is an important counterbalance.)

Those problems aren't mostly on Hogan. They're on the line. That unit carries the team's destiny.