It’s easy to make a defense for the Stanford Cardinal. They won an important road game this past weekend without their best player. A healthy return of former Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey could help provide a kickstart to boost this team through the end of the season. But that rose-colored picture of Stanford’s season ignores the problems this team is having.
The Stanford offense against Notre Dame was obviously poor without McCaffrey there to carry the load, but let’s not forget that it has also been bad with him in there. Against the Washington Huskies in week four, McCaffrey was bottled up, accumulating only 49 yards. The following week against Washington State, he collected even fewer yards on his eight carries. On the season, even counting McCaffrey’s great first three games and Bryce Love’s admirable spot start, Stanford ranks 96th in the country in rushing offense. There’s still a long way to go.
In large part, that’s because the offensive line has struggled to open up consistent holes. It has also fallen short in pass blocking. Against Notre Dame, Stanford allowed three sacks, a tally equal to its season average. The Cardinal are one of the worst teams in the country in protecting their quarterback from a pass rush - they’re 101st in sacks allowed.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren chimed in on the line’s performance prior to the Notre Dame game: “There's not anything [we're doing] that we can say right now that we are a good Stanford offensive line, in terms of what our standard is.” He went on to say that he like the players’ effort, but it wasn’t breeding results.
That lack of confidence and execution from the offensive line has hobbled the efficiency and effectiveness of the quarterbacks and therefore, the offensive attack. Quarterback Ryan Burns is averaging just 7.2 yards per attempt, and the Stanford offense as a whole is averaging fewer than five yards per play. This group that now ranks outside the top 100 nationally was actually 18th in yards-play-play last season.
The defense came through in the second half of the game against the Irish, but the offense hardly did. The score was 10-0 in favor of Notre Dame at halftime. By the time the final whistle blew, Stanford had more points generated by the defense - an interception return for a touchdown and a safety - than by the offense. While Bryce Love stepped up to carry the load in the 2nd half, it’s still fair to call it a bad sign when his one touchdown is the extent of a unit’s production. Coach Shaw summed up his thoughts by saying, “offensively, the inefficiency drives me nuts.”
The fact that this poor performance was generated against an opponent having an absolutely disastrous season does nothing to stem the worries. According to ESPN’s David Lombardi, this was the third straight game the Cardinal offense was under five yards per play. The last time that happened being before the Andrew Luck era had begun.
If McCaffrey returns from his undisclosed injury in time to play in the Colorado game, it should obviously help the team’s production. He and Love would form a potent and much-needed pairing, though the rest of the Stanford offense would still have to pick it up to turns things around. The Buffaloes are battling it out for a Pac-12 South division title at the moment - they’re a step up from Notre Dame - and we have already seen that having McCaffrey alone isn’t enough.