After three years of having a defense-first team, Stanford may be forced to change their identity next season.
The Cardinal will have to endure heavy losses on defense, faced with the task of replacing leaders such as A.J. Tarpley, Henry Anderson and Alex Carter. Only five starters will return for the Cardinal D next season, leaving them with a very young and inexperienced defense, albeit a talented one on paper. Therefore, it is a reasonable assumption that the nation's #3 defense from last season is due for regression. This regression forces the Cardinal's offense to compensate in order to improve as a team, raising an important question: Can Stanford's coaching staff successfully turn the 2015 Cardinal into an offense-oriented team?
Andrus Peat and Ty Montgomery are the only starters from 2014 that will make the jump to the NFL. Peat was the rock of the offensive line at left tackle, although having a somewhat down penalty-ridden season, including three infractions against UCLA. With Kevin Hogan returning for his final season at Stanford, Ty Montgomery may not be as big of a loss as many Cardinal fans think. There is no doubt that Montgomery is a great receiver, but play-calling and Ty's explosive reputation made Hogan force throws to him, especially when under duress. Hogan may have had too much faith in the receiver, and did not go through his progressions as well with Montgomery in the lineup. With Montgomery out of the lineup, Hogan was a much better quarterback, averaging a Total QBR of 93 with Montgomery injured and a QBR of 57 in ten games with him. Hogan was markedly better without Montgomery in 2014, boding well for 2015 on a team with very few losses on offense.
Recent History of Offensive Teams
Andrew Luck's Stanford teams were loaded on offense, but did not quite have the same caliber defenses as the post-Luck Cardinal. In 2011, Stanford's defense allowed a paltry 5.4 yards per play, yet the team still went 11-2 and went to the Fiesta Bowl. For comparison's sake, the 2014 Cardinal yielded just 4.2 yards per play, yet still stumbled to a 8-5 finish. Stanford has succeeded with a middle-of-the pack defense in the past, even without being ahead of their opponents in turnover differential, averaging 0.4 turnovers per game more than their foes.
However, the 2015 Cardinal team lacks the ground attack that Luck enjoyed in Stepfan Taylor, and therefore probably cannot afford to turn the ball over frequently. To become a successful offense-first team, Stanford will have to cut down on turnovers. The Cardinal has the potential to have the same offensive firepower as Luck's final team, albeit with an inferior, although not bad, quarterback in Hogan and less system-oriented depth at running back.
Devon Cajuste, Austin Hooper, Michael Rector, and Christian McCaffrey all compare well to the weapons that Luck had, if not better. Dalton Schultz, Greg Taboada, and Eric Cotton could eventually team up with Hooper to better the lethal group of Coby Fleener, Levine Toilolo, and Zach Ertz that Luck had. Doug Baldwin and Griff Whalen were solid receivers and have continued their success at the next level, but lack the electricity that Hogan's weapons do now.
Coach David Shaw clearly is capable of running a team predicated on offense with such dynamic threats at the skill positions, and did so previously with lesser talent on the outside. However, Stanford's success next season will depend on Hogan's ability to continue his recent success and the young but talented offensive line's ability to mesh.
"Square Peg in a Round Hole"
In order take advantage of its offensive weapons, Stanford will need to tweak its scheme to play to its strengths. Playing with a lackluster running game for most of the year, the Cardinal struggled to move the ball and finish drives when they did. Shaw and a Luck-led offense were able to overcome relatively weak defensive play and average receivers because they were able to rely on the running game to get solid gains on first down and set up manageable second and third downs.
Although Stanford may have to alter its overall offensive philosophy to do so, utilizing Christian McCaffrey and other smaller weapons will help the Cardinal defense revert to its Luck-era success. (More use of McCaffrey was a huge boon to the Cardinal offense at the end of the season.)
Running Remound Wright and others up the gut didn't work until the offensive line began to play better late in the season, but the Cardinal still finished 103rd in Football Outsiders' opportunity rate, or carries that went for over five yards. Going forward, the Cardinal will likely have to tweak the scheme to to run more screens, off-tackle runs, swings passes and sweeps to McCaffrey. In doing this, the Cardinal will work toward McCaffrey's supreme strength of making plays in space. Shaw will have to build upon from his adjustments that were readily apparent in the Foster Farms Bowl, the UCLA game, and Big Game. The Cardinal may end up looking more like Oregon than themselves, but a successful identity is always preferable to a familiar one.
Among other tweaks could be throwing more deep passes. Hogan's Yards Per Completion dropped last year as the offense became more focused on intermediate passing than the deep throws of 2013. Thankfully, two deep threats return. Michael Rector is an exceptional play maker downfield, as evidenced by his absurd 30.8 yards per catch in 2013, and Devon Cajuste can dominate down the field as well as a guy who's big enough to be a tight end, but can run a 4.4 40 time.
Manipulating the scheme to one of a spread offense with more vertical passing and outside runs could make Stanford's offense a force to be reckoned with next season. Overall, it won't take much improvement; the Cardinal were just 19 points short of going 12-1 after all. The defense is likely due for an (understandable) decline, but the talented offense is on the rise. With perhaps more playmakers than Andrew Luck had in his career, a history of success as an offense-oriented team, and a system trending upward, Hogan and the Cardinal have the requisite pieces to become an offensive dynamo in 2015.