Are we seeing a new look Stanford offense? Believe it or not, we are currently living in a universe in which the Cardinal average less than 100 rushing yards per game. Maybe it’s one of those multiverse things and somehow a Stanford team from an alternate reality is here, but the ground-and-pound Stanford of the last 8 years is gone. They’re still trotting out with their huge OL and jumbo sets, but something is clearly not working for the 11th ranked rush offense in the conference.
Bryce Love spent 2017 sprinting past the Pac-12 but has been slowed by an ankle injury this year. There’ve been some offensive line injuries too—Foster Sarell has been banged up most of the year and Nate Herbig has missed the last two games. Even taking that into account, the yards just aren’t there. Maybe the loss of OC Mike Bloomgren, now the head coach at Rice, is being felt. I can’t say exactly why, but combine these issues with a bevy of power-forward-sized pass-catching TEs and WRs, and Stanford has enough reason to break tradition and go vertical.
At times desperate to get the run game going, that sense of panic has faded away as the season marched on. Consider Stanford’s 8 rushing TDs this season to 17 passing. They’ve also jumped from 7.2 yards per attempt last year to 8.4 this year. K.J. Costello has responded well to the change, with 2,165 yards and those 17 touchdowns to his name. His 6 INTs show there are still some growing pains, but also highlight the more aggressive nature of the downfield pass game.
On the Ground
Despite the aforementioned issues with the run game, Stanford still employs plenty of heavy sets, especially on the goal line and in other short yardage situations. I don’t believe we’ll ever see David Shaw completely abandon that identity. We will see plenty of I-formations, fullbacks, and 3-4 tight end sets. Even last week against WSU—the game that really seemed to cement Stanford as a pass-first team—they ran it 23 times and punched it in on the goal line with Cameron Scarlett. However, aside from Bryce Love’s 43 yard scamper, Stanford couldn’t get much going on the ground.
The single best advanced statistic about their ground attack is their 85th ranking in explosiveness. I guess Bryce Love is still doing something. But they rank in the 100s in all other categories: efficiency rate, opportunity rate, and stuff rate. A 25% stuff rate is truly remarkable given how they’ve recruited on the offensive line.
Through the Air
Last week against WSU, Stanford played their most consistent offensive football this year. If you haven’t figured it out yet, they did so by firmly sticking to a pass-first mentality. K.J. Costello was near-perfect, going 34/43 for 323 yards and 4 TDs. This next part shouldn’t be too surprising either: J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has been racking up yards and scores as the main target in this attack. He’s actually on the “shorter” side at only 6-3 but has supremely reliable hands and ability to box out smaller DBs, and out-leap them for the ball. He’s averaging over 15 yards a catch on his 47 grabs and has a whopping 11 TDs. He is not the fastest, but is technically a WR and not a TE, so he will split out wide plenty. 6-5 Kaden Smith is right behind him in yards with 494 but has only 1 TD. He’s really come on in his last two games (WSU and Utah, missed ASU), with 17 catches and over 200 yards. Then there’s the imposing 6-7 Colby Parkinson, who has 3 TDs on only 12 receptions.
Can’t forget Trent Irwin, who is a constant outlet for Costello. Not the big-play threat the others are, he averages 10.5 yards per catch but his 79% catch rate is best on the team for anyone with double-digit receptions. The trio of Arcega-Whiteside, Irwin, and Smith gives Stanford an efficient and accurate pass attack. They aren’t going to run behind many defenses, but they quite simply go up and get the ball when they have to. In those clear passing situations, the Cardinal offense vaults to be the 8th ranked S&P offense in the country. I should also mention Osiris St. Brown, who only has 6 catches this year but averages over 20 yards per, and if he catches a pass on Saturday that probably means he has run behind the Husky defense.
Of course Stanford would be rounding into form when they visit Husky Stadium against a Washington team searching for answers. UW by all accounts should have no problem stopping the run, though as Bryce Love inches towards 100% health (for what it’s worth, David Shaw said he was 90% last week) the prospect of him breaking a couple of critical runs is scary. Still, Stanford has had their best offensive showings of the season when they come out passing and I expect that to continue.
The Huskies had a number of problems in Palo Alto last year but the biggest, quite literally, was the size of the Stanford receivers. J.J. and his half-Spanish last name killed smaller Husky DBs who were playing down a few because of injury. With a full complement of players to choose from this time around, including the 6-1 Jordan Miller, and playing at home, should yield better results. Washington started to show signs of life in the pass rush last week, and hopefully players like Levi Onwuzurike can keep the interior pressure coming. In 2016, Washington had Joe Mathis terrorizing Stanford’s offensive line. If one more Washington defender can knock K.J. Costello off his spot, that should be enough to limit Stanford’s offense.
How many points will Stanford score on Saturday night?
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35 or more