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Identifying Stanford’s biggest offensive issue

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Charlie’s Cardinal Corner wants to run the ball better next season

Arizona v Stanford Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

4-8. Let that sink in for a moment.

The last time Stanford finished 4-8 was in 2007 under Jim Harbaugh. However, that season was much more successful than this one; in 2007, they completed arguably the greatest upset ever over USC, and they beat Cal in another impressive upset. This season did not come with any big upset or any Big Game victory. Instead, it came with complete disappointment.

How does Stanford bounce back?

David Shaw and the Cardinal need to look themselves in the mirror ahead of next season. They need to remember what made them so great on offense: a physical and explosive run game.

The Cardinal averaged 105.5 yards running per game. Yes, they did not have a Heisman worthy running back that the team grew accustomed to seeing in the backfield, but even in 2014, when Remound Wright led the running back committee, the team averaged 158.8 yards running per game.

In 2014, the team finished with eight wins—instead of eight losses. It was a transition year, and if Stanford wants to make 2019 nothing more than a transition year, they’ll need to go back to running the ball.

We’ve seen Stanford try to win through the air. Despite a record-setting performance versus Washington State, Davis Mills and the Cardinal only found the end zone three times. He passed for 504 yards yet struggled in the red zone. He threw an interception there, and two of his three touchdown passes came from outside the red zone.

As the field gets shorter, running becomes more imperative. With less space to operate, it becomes harder to pass, which is something the announcers against Washington State noted. It’s no coincidence that Mills’ completed only 50 percent of his passes in the red zone—15 percentage points than his season average. It’s also no coincidence that his 4.1 yards per passing attempt inside the opponent 20-yard line is four yards worse than his season average.

A solid running game makes a world of difference near the end zone. If a defense respects it, it’s easier for a quarterback to go over the top with a fade—a past Stanford staple. If a defense doesn’t respect the run, an offense should be able to hand the ball off effectively and make the disrespectful defense pay. If a defense respects both, the opposing offense has options.

This season, Cameron Scarlett ran the ball 72 times in the red zone. He averaged 2.0 yards per carry, so it’s no wonder defenses could expect pass plays. Defenses focused on stopping the pass, yet the Cardinal still couldn’t run up the middle.

As a result, the Cardinal only scored touchdowns on 16 of their 34 red zone trips, or 47 percent of the time. In comparison, in 2014, the Cardinal scored touchdowns on 31 of their 52 trips, or 54 percent. The 2015 Stanford team, led by Christian McCaffrey, reached the end zone on 66 percent of their red zone trips.

Running the ball needs to be the primary focus heading into the offseason. In my opinion, it directly relates to red zone success, and luckily, there is promise that the Cardinal can fix the issue. The younger offensive linemen should improve after seeing so much experience, and hopefully, the team sees a healthy Walker Little return. Furthermore, freshman Austin Jones looked good in his limited action and could be a solid lead back as a sophomore.

Only time will tell if 2019 will be the Stanford football empire beginning to fall or merely a transition year. If we want to fix a downward trend, we need to start by identifying the issues, and running the ball effectively was clearly Stanford’s biggest one on offense.