Saturday's victory over the Trojans of USC was nothing short of epic. After a slow start to the season, a win was a necessity to reach the level of success the Cardinal envision. With a lofty #6 rating, consecutive top 5 recruiting classes, and the aura of being one of the top college programs of all time, USC represented a difficult opponent with huge value to the Cardinal. The Cardinal prevailed.
Stanford's offense was hyper efficient, scoring on 7 of their 9 drives (discounting the victory formation to end the game). What made them successful?
Drive 1: Punt
Stanford's first drive resulted in a punt, one of just two on the day. With an array of runs and passes, the scripted drive showed the diversity fans so love to see. An unfortunately timed sack (on second and one) halted a beautiful drive, however Hogan's inability to get rid of the ball on said play was one of his few mistakes of the day.
Drive 2: Touchdown
The second drive proved more fruitful for the Cardinal, and Stanford got on the board thanks to an 8 play, 66 yard drive.
Stanford gained its first firstdown of the drive thanks to a beautiful Christian McCaffrey run. While I'm still skeptical that between the tackles running is the best use of Christian's talents, his ability to navigate the holes is obvious. On this particular 11 yard gain, Joshua Garnett opened a huge hole on the left side enabling McCaffrey to go five yards before first contact.
Even in a blowout against UCF, Stanford struggled between the tackles. Against a far superior opponent in USC, Stanford had no trouble in the power run game.
Stanford's next big play came courtesy of freshman Trent Irwin. On a third down, Trent found a soft spot in zone converage, settling nicely and creating a big target for Hogan to throw to. Irwin's secure hands were on display, catching Hogan's slightly errant pass for an 11 yard gain. Irwin is already showing a veteran ability to convert third downs.
Bryce Love followed suit with a 21 yard catch and run swing pass out of the backfield. Love is 2015's Christian McCaffrey. He is electric with the ball in space and with defenses occupied with various other weapons, Love should be depended on to win mismatches and create big gains.
The drive was culminated by an Austin Hooper 18 yard touchdown catch. Nothing to say here but Hooper is a big time tight end, reminiscent of the Ertz days. He was Hogan's favorite target Saturday and his dynamic ability to run any route is invaluable.
Another key play from the drive was Devon Cajuste's dropped touchdown pass just prior to Hooper's score. Cajuste has proven himself a weapon in years past but due to injury, he has started the season a little slower than usual. When he finds his form, the offense will take another step forward.
Drive 3: Field Goal
Stanford scored a field goal on their next drive, mainly thanks to a 41 yard streak to Francis Owusu. Hogan demonstrated yet again his impeccable accuracy on the deep ball, as USC's coverage on the play was near perfect. Hogan put the ball in the only spot it could be, resulting in the big gain.
There is no second-guessing of the playcalling today, as Stanford was nearly perfect offensively. That said, because there was little need, the Cardinal took few homerun shots down the field like the play to Owusu. With Hogan's accuracy and coinciding low risk on these throws, look for the Cardinal to take more shots as teams commit more defenders to stopping the intermediate game.
Stanford could have had more on this drive were in not for a Graham Shuler chop block penalty. The call itself is always a little questionable as are most offensive line related calls but it wasn't a smart play on Shuler's part. Stanford nearly converted the subsequent long down and distance anyway, but had to settle for a Ukropina 42 yard field goal. This drive is a great example for the Cardinal to learn from. With the talent across the board, the only thing that can hold this team back offensively is mental mistakes. Shuler played a great game otherwise, but there is always something to be learned.
Drive 4: Touchdown
Stanford dominated their next drive, seeing a total of 0 third downs on their way to the end zone. Key plays included a Kevin Hogan 22 yard scamper, showing his ever valuable legs. On a day where Kevin was nearly perfect throwing the ball, it's easy to forget about his versatility. His legs made for some key conversions even after the injury. Should the Cardinal have more difficulty in the passing game, Hogan should be used on quarterback keepers which will help the receivers and backs gain separation as defenses are forced to commit more men to stopping Hogan.
Drive 5: Touchdown
Drive 5 was easily my favorite drive of the day, as it exemplified Shaw's ability to open the playbook and showed just how dynamic this offense can be. Down 4 points and poised to receive the second half kickoff, the Cardinal easily could have sat on the ball content in their position. Instead, they attacked a clearly vulnerable Trojan defense.
With 1:23 left in the half, the drive started on Stanford's own 22 yard line. A first down run made it seem like Stanford would concede the half, but they quickly became aggressive. A 24 yard completion to Austin Hooper started the move. After an incompletion and a short run, Hogan gained another first down with his legs, scampering for 10 yards on a third and eight.
Hogan followed with a 22 yard to Dalton Shultz to the Trojan 17. With 8 seconds on the clock, Stanford had one chance to find the endzone before the half. A conservative coach could easily take the points, but Shaw trusted his veteran quarterback with to make the smart play. The playcall was also a thing of beauty. Hogan rolled to his right, utilizing his legs to move the defense and avoid a potentially disastrous sack. Stanford's quarterback found a wide-open Devon Cajuste in the front of the end zone for a 17 yard score to take the lead just before the half.
I can't help but to think back to Stanford/Oregon in 2013. Before the half, Stanford was inside the Ducks' 10 yard line with one shot at the end zone. Shaw threw the patented fade (to Rollins Stallworth of all people) resulting in an incompletion and an annoyed fanbase. The low risk playcall was emblematic of Shaw's style and displayed his lack of trust of his quarterback. Saturday was a totally different case, as Shaw played to multiple of the offense's many strengths.
Drive 6: Punt
Stanford received the second half kickoff with a chance to really take control of the game. Unfortunately, the offense had their worst drive of the game, going three and out, losing seven yards, and seeing their quarterback suffer an injury.
Fortunately, Hogan was able to stay in the game with a notable limp.
Drive 7: Touchdown
Finding themselves down 3 points, Stanford needed to get on the board on drive 7. The day and analysis is very Hogan heavy, and deservedly so. On the seventh drive of the day, however, Stanford marched 77 yards, of which only 4 came from a completed pass. Key plays came via big runs (Remound Wright with a 22 yard gain), little runs (Wright's one yard td run) and penalties (an automatic first down thanks to a defensive hold and a 15 yard Pass Interference penalty).
Drive 8: Touchdown
Working with a short field, Stanford had to go just 46 yards for their final touchdown. Key plays from the drive included another Trent Irwin third down catch, another Kevin Hogan 10 yard scamper, and another Austin Hooper third down conversion. This drive also saw Stanford take its only (!!!) delay of game of the day. It was a horrendously timed inexcusable penalty which is eased by the benefit of hindsight, but the mental mistake could have killed the drive. Instead, Hogan connected with Hooper for a long third down gain and Remound Wright, 5'9" goal line specialist scored his third touchdown of the day.
Drive 9: Field Goal to seal the deal
Up seven points, Stanford needed any score to put the game away. Against a tired Trojan defense, Stanford ran the ball between the tackles to gain yards and milk the clock.
The Cardinal did find themselves in a key third and long situation, but a smart screen call to McCaffrey earned the Card a first down. You'd have to be blind to not see how gassed the Trojan D was at this point, or to not notice how poorly defended this play is but it's still a great call.
Ukropina sealed the deal with a 46 yard field goal to put the Cardinal up 2 scores. The senior kicker and recent scholarship winner is still perfect on the year and was as important as any player in this win.
Time of Possesion
In the formula of Stanford teams of previous years, time of possession was a major part of the mix. Without the bruising running game, it's harder to hold the ball. Stanford was able to dominate TOP Saturday, holding the ball for 2/3 of the game. With Stanford's thin defensive line, time of possession is a huge part of the offense carrying the club. Multiple drives nearing 7 minutes in the second half were huge in keeping the defense off the field.
-The offensive line never shows up in the scorecard, but they were tremendous as a unit. Josh Garnett was as steady as ever and was backed by less experience players like Johnny Caspers and Casey Tucker. It's not the domination we saw in the Gaffney/Gearheart/Taylor days, but they were certainly an above average line on Saturday.
-In a conference that is racking up ugly jerseys as quickly as they rack up top 25 teams, Stanford's simple but beautiful away kits looked as great as always.
-Having Christian McCaffrey return punts and kicks in addition to being your every down between the tackles back seems like a bad idea
-Stanford's offense was just about perfect and it still feels like they aren't playing to their potential. Rector and Cajuste were fairly quiet and there's a plethora of talent not even on the field yet.
-Todd McShay kept talking about Stanford doing a jump pass. What?
-Christian McCaffrey dropped a pass for presumably the first time in his entire life.
-Stanford could win 70-0 and I would still be annoyed by the inevitable 2 timeouts burned to avoid a delay of game and the 2 delay of games themselves.