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Opponent Offense Preview: Stanford

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Christian McCaffrey and 10 other guys.

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Something peculiar happened on Saturday night in the Rose Bowl: Stanford’s all-everything running back Christian McCaffrey failed to score a touchdown. He also failed to reach 200 all purpose yards, breaking an 8 game streak. He still had a strong game rushing, racking up 138 yards on 23 carries. Outside of McCaffrey, Stanford didn’t even score a touchdown until late in the 4th quarter on an end zone fade which proved to be the game winner.

What caused this type of offensive performance from Stanford, who a year ago had an offense as explosive as it was tough and physical - traits you usually don’t see on the same offense. UCLA’s defense certainly gets a lot of credit for their performance, but Stanford ultimately did what they do best: prove they’re tougher and more disciplined than their opponent.

The Basics

Depth Chart from UCLA game

In an era of wide open, high flying, spread ‘em out, throw it deep offenses, Stanford exists as an aberration. While most of the college football world is speeding up, Stanford is slowing down, deliberately. This season, they’re running an average of just 60 plays per game, 7 fewer than 2015’s average. Compare that to their Bay Area rivals California, who run more than 50% more plays per game (91.8).

They’re scoring through 3 games this year isn’t incredible, (26, 27, and 22 points), and they rank 53rd nationally in points per play.

As you’d expect, Stanford ranks very favorably in penalties, only yielding 4.3 a game, though the offensive line had it’s penalty struggles against UCLA, which I’ll get more into below. Overall, this is a good Stanford offense, that will never beat itself, and always find ways to win even when playing poorly.

Quarterback

Ryan Burns: 395 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 61% completion, 6.93 yds/attempt

It honestly feels like Kevin Hogan was Stanford’s QB for the past decade, but as college players do, they graduate and move on. Taking over for Hogan this year has been Ryan Burns, who beat out Keller Chryst for the starting job. Just looking at his numbers, it’s hard to impressed, though the QB position at Stanford isn’t one where, generally, you’re going to get a lot of “stats”. Despite this, the senior Burns hasn’t exactly been lighting it up and only ranks 80th nationally in passing efficiency (right behind #78 Josh Rosen and #79 Deshaun Watson. Who would have predicted that at the start of the season?)

However, I will give credit where credit is due: he put together a nearly perfect 2-minute drill to bring Stanford down the field and threw a beautiful fade to his TE for the game winner. His performance overall was just OK, but the experienced senior made the plays when they needed them. Against UCLA’s strong secondary, he hit some big completions on 3rd downs too, including one on 3rd and 15, but Francis Owusu fumbled giving UCLA the ball.

Running Backs

Christian McCaffrey: 79 rushes for 436 yards and 3 TDs. 12 receptions for 119 yards and 1 TD.

Bryce Love: 16 rushes for 102 yards, 0 TDs.

So in case you haven’t watched college football in 2 years, there’s this guy on Stanford named Christian McCaffrey and he’s pretty freakin’ good. Last year he burst onto the scene having one of the best seasons in college football history, and is expected to take it up a notch in his junior year. The huge numbers aren’t there yet through only 3 games, but he’s still producing at a great rate having 79 rushes and 12 receptions. It’s clear the offensive coaches put a lot of responsibility on his shoulders in various sets and formations.

Let’s be clear here: Stanford is far from a one-man show with it’s general strength on the OL, but Christian McCaffrey is this offense. Through their first two games, Stanford generated 60% of all it’s passing and rushing through #5. They achieved more balance against UCLA, with McCaffrey accounting for 43% of the total offense. When not rushing the ball or lining up as a receiver, he’ll often slip out on 3rd downs to receive passes over the middle, especially when a defense brings pressure. This has been a key weapon in Stanford’s arsenal on 3rd downs. The bottom line, McCaffrey is about as good as it gets and will have to be accounted for on every single play. He’s got power, vision, balance, explosiveness, speed, and great hands. Never an easy task stopping him.

Bryce Love is the 2nd option behind McCaffrey, and will use his blazing speed to hurt defenses. Stanford fans main critique of Love was his power and physicality, as he sometimes seemed to shy away from lowering his shoulder for tough yardage. Well, a couple years on The Farm toughened him up and Stanford fans were pleased with his new found physicality he showed against UCLA. He’s still a speed first option though, evidenced by his 30 yard gain on a reverse.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Michael Rector: 6 catches, 79 yards, 1 TD.

JJ Arcega-Whiteside: 3 catches, 29 yards, 1 TD.

Trent Irwin: 9 catches, 105 yards.

Francis Owusu: 2 catches, 15 yards.

Dalton Schultz: 3 receptions for 28 yards.

Stanford hasn’t been airing it out this season, though to be fair that’s not their objective. They average 130 yards per game in the air, ranking poorly at #115 nationally in that category. Their passing efficiency is less than average as well, and when they do complete a pass it’s only for an average of 11 yards. This is still a dangerous group, with the sure handed Dalton Schultz and speedy Michael Rector. Remember how 60% of Stanford’s offense in their first two games was all run through McCaffrey? Well if you include Rector in that calculation it jumps to an astonishing 80% between the two of them. Basically, Michael Rector gets targeted, a lot. He was quiet against UCLA with just 1 catch for 3 yards, but you have to imagine UCLA’s talented secondary keying on him all game and not letting him use his speed to burn them.

With the team’s best deep threat limited, Trent Irwin stepped up to produce a 7 catch, 81 yard performance. I mentioned how Dalton Schultz is a sure handed TE, and he usually is, but he had two big drops against UCLA. In steps big WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who had his first 3 catches of the season on Saturday night, including his beautiful grab on an end zone fade. That seems to be in line with Stanford with almost everything they do - next man up. Such is a team that is more than a team, but rather a “system”, as Chris Petersen noted in his press conference today. They have an identity, a mentality, and a process, and it comes through in their play.

Francis Owusu is a talented and experienced receiver who took a big hit to the head (a very notable missed call) against UCLA and his status for Saturday is uncertain.

Offensive Line

If Stanford on offense is to be defined by one position over the years, it’s the OL. They’ve generated a seemingly endless pipeline of maulers who excel at driving defensive lineman backwards and opening up holes for the running backs. They’re currently average over 200 yards per game on the ground, and an astonishing 5.34 yards per carry - much higher than a lot of teams ranked near them in rushing. They don’t allow a ton of sacks either, with opponents bringing QB Ryan Burns to the ground only 4 times this season. They also don’t give up many tackles for loss: only 15 through 3 games. This unit is a strong one, but maybe not quite at the elite levels of yesteryear. They had a tough go at times against UCLA’s talented defensive line, and junior RT A.T. Hall gave up 2 sacks in the second quarter. The line rebounded however, and did their part in driving down the field for the game winning TD last week. LT Casey Tucker and OG Johnny Caspers were both pre-season All-Pac 12 selections.

Final Thoughts

It’s tempting to overlook this Stanford offense as not very explosive and pretty one dimensional with Christian McCaffrey. The efficiency stats aren’t eye popping for their point totals and Ryan Burns does not appear to be even as good as Kevin Hogan. Granted, they haven’t played a cupcake schedule, with Kansas State, USC (despite what’s going on in Troy they aren’t an easy out), and UCLA, but they won all 3 doing what Stanford does: tough defense, and playing a physical brand of running the ball down teams throats.

It’s not just physically taxing, but mentally as well. Often the whole stadium will know what’s coming, and Stanford dares you to stop it. They may rely on Rector and McCaffrey too much, but when they need to drive down the field and score, they drive down the field and score. Like I mentioned above, Coach Petersen has it right on with Stanford. They’re a system more than a team. They control the clock and make the plays when they need to be made. Plus, they still have Christian McCaffrey who can turn a game on its head with any touch of the ball.