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Stanford's red zone blunders against USC cost Cardinal a win and signal a problematic ongoing trend

Let's get specific about what ails the Cardinal in the red zone

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I don't like starting a story with numbers. But let's start with a simple one: in Stanford's last two games against FBS opponents, the Cardinal are 0-2.

In those two losses, Stanford's offense has scored 23 points. And 23 points in two games will not get it done. And it all comes down to red zone failures.

The Cardinal made it to the USC 32 yard line on every drive on Saturday and scored only 10 points.

You're aware of this trend if you've been watching this space for a while. From last December: "A closer look at Stanford's road red zone woes." From last November: "Stanford's success in the red zone slipping."

Red zone failures cost Stanford against USC on Saturday. And in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State. And at USC in 2013. And at Utah in 2013. And at Notre Dame in 2012.

So why, how, does Stanford keep making these mistakes?

Some of it is not David Shaw's fault. He didn't throw a bad pick against USC last year. He didn't miss any of those field goals. He didn't snap a ball over Ty Montgomery's head on Saturday. That's all true and it's to be expected. College kids making "oh-shit-why" mistakes are part of the essential intrigue of college football.

But David Shaw is paid millions of dollars to score points. That is the simplest distillation of his job title. So the blame ultimately lies at his feet.

In the past, Shaw had legitimate reasons why the offense stalled in the red zone from time to time. Josh Nunes wasn't a capable starter. The lack of quality tight ends hurt the offense's multiplicity and ability to exploit mismatches in the red zone. But today, Shaw doesn't have the ability to blame his personnel. He has a good enough starting quarterback, an extremely talented collection of playmakers across the board, and an offensive line that, while somewhat inexperienced, is starting five juniors. They should be able to score points.

So given all that, I think David Shaw should be able to answer these questions:

  • Why are we still running the wildcat, particularly in the red zone?
  • How did we take a delay of game coming out of a timeout?
  • Why is freshman fullback Daniel Marx carrying the ball on 4th and one on the USC three yard line? Is he really the best option down there? If so, why? Is he better carrying the ball than Patrick Skov?
  • Why did we punt from the USC 29- and 32-yard line? Is the potential gain in points higher if you punt it than if you go for it?
  • Why are we running a play-action pass with a pulling guard with 24 seconds left and the clock running?
  • Why is Barry Sanders, who has shown very real big-play ability, only touching the ball three times in one of the most important games of the year?

The truth is that something has to change for the Cardinal in the red zone or it will continue to lose games like they lost against USC this year and last year. And even in wins, the red zone offense has been awful at times.


So what's the solution here?

Part of this is just execution - making sure the players are better at their jobs on a play-by-play basis. That's fair to say and it's the coaching staff's responsibility to address execution issues. They have to make sure the players are in position to win.

Part of it is not outsmarting or outcoaching yourself. Stanford was excellent all game when it lined up and used what worked. It didn't have to use any sleight of hand to beat USC. Short passing out of 3-wide sets appeared to be the majority of the gameplan, and Kevin Hogan executed it well. He was 22-30 for 285 yards through the air. He made some mental mistakes, but wasn't the reason Stanford ended up losing on Saturday.

There's no need to run a whole package of special plays with special personnel in the red zone. It seems like a surefire way to muddle your offense. The run with Daniel Marx confirms that, like passes to Rollins Stallworth were last season. Let's think of the message it sends: "Everywhere else on the field we do this. But inside the 30, we have to do something way different, okay?" I don't think that's a sustainable recipe for success.

Let's not run the wildcat. This should be self-explanatory by this point.

Let's make use of the tight ends. Austin Hooper has proved to be an absolute beast so far. He and Eric Cotton should be speed mismatches against linebackers and size mismatches against smaller nickel cornerbacks. Let's run the ball with Kevin Hogan, who has proved to be extremely capable at finding the goal line.

Let's run the ball with the backs that have proven themselves to be as our best runners. Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders are explosive talents who we turn away from when it gets to the red zone. If the logic behind this is that the Cardinal need a big power back to find the end zone, that's a flawed idea. The top five rushers in NFL history - Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin and LaDainian Tomlinson - are all 5-foot-11 or shorter. And their teams seemed quite alright turning to them near the goal line. Your most talented players should touch the ball, particularly when you need to turn possessions into points.

And if none of that works at the end of the year, let's hire someone else to the offensive staff. I'm not calling for anyone's head - David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren are smart, capable guys and they've done a good job so far - but they might need another voice both inside the offensive meeting room and in their ears on gameday.

I say that because part of me is curious what effect losing Pep Hamilton to the NFL had on Shaw. While Hamilton hasn't exactly been a resounding success as the Colts offensive coordinator (his play calling in the red zone was pretty bad on Sunday night against the Broncos), but he was the designated red zone specialist of the offensive coaching staff. Re-hiring Pep Hamilton is neither a realistic or a particularly desirable option, but perhaps Shaw and Bloomgren need another experienced voice on staff to solve these red zone problems.

Above all, it should be noted that this season's far from over. Excluding Oregon and Notre Dame, every other team on the Cardinal's schedule has looked vulnerable in their first two games. That includes UCLA and Washington, two critical road games for Stanford's hopes in the conference race.

But none of that will matter unless the coaching staff is able to extract more points from the offense in the red zone. The problems of Saturday and the last two years have to be put to rest. And the excuses have to be put to rest as well.

It's time to score some points.