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Opponent Offense Preview: Stanford Cardinal

The run-pass option, but make it slow.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

As Stanford’s offensive production, especially in the run game, has plummeted in recent years, David Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard brought in the “slow mesh” concept made popular at Wake Forest. It feels like every off season Shaw says he is going to examine the program from the ground up and evaluate how they can improve after a season of bad production with talented players.

Considering they were one of five FBS schools that did not make a single coaching change this off season, his new approach better be good. Early returns are positive, with 221 rushing yards against USC - the most since 2018 against Oregon State!

Let’s take a closer look at the players and scheme that make it work.

The Players

Stanford got some bad news this week when they learned stud RB E.J. Smith would be out this weekend against Washington. Alongside QB Tanner McKee, Smith is a critical piece of this offense and is a huge loss for them. Taking his place will be RB Casey Filkins, a quick and shifty player with good speed. The way he keeps his shoulders square and makes quick cuts means he always gets the yards that are available.

Tanner McKee is a typical Stanford quarterback you would recognize from recent seasons. He’s 6-6 and 230 pounds, stands tall in the pocket, and delivers strikes to all levels. He’s got the arm strength you’d expect for a body that size, too. He can place throws over the middle into tight windows between zone defenders, before the receiver is open. He could improve his touch some, but he’s a classic “pro style” quarterback built for a west coast, quick passing type of offense.

WR Michael Wilson is one of McKee’s favorite targets and is a steady veteran outside. He’s in his fifth season recording catches for Stanford, and is a very smooth athlete with serious hops in the mold of a Jalen McMillan. Joining Wilson, in classic Stanford fashion, is an army of giants. Wilson is the relative dwarf of the group at 6-2, while the second leading receiver John Humphreys is a 6-5 junior who excels at catching the 50-50 ball. Next is Brycen Tremayne, a 6-4 senior with enough speed to be a downfield threat. Elijah Higgins is getting off to a slower start this season with just 66 yards on 5 catches, but historically has been a guy McKee looks to consistently. In 2021 as a full time starter, he had nearly double the targets of the next WR. At 6-3 235 he’s built solidly and can play both outside and in the slot. If these wide receivers sound familiar, it’s because they are all fourth or fifth year players who have played a ton of football and terrorized some pretty good UW defensive backs these past few years.

NCAA Football: Colgate at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Lastly, there is TE Ben Yurosek, the 6-4 target who owns Stanford’s third longest play of the season - a 50 yard rush on an end around against USC. Not only he is yet another big body who can secure contested catches, he’s got enough speed and elusiveness to turn the corner and scamper downfield if the defense isn’t ready. He’s shiftier than most 6-4 tight ends and can make defenders miss.

The Scheme

While the slow mesh is the big news out of Palo Alto, this is still Stanford. Meaning, as most of college football makes offenses more simple for quarterbacks to execute, Stanford still puts a lot on the plate of Tanner McKee. There are calls and decisions the QB has to make each time they step up to the line of scrimmage that most offenses just don’t ask their QB to make (Kent State, for example).

When they aren’t doing the overly complicated Stanford thing, they’ll run slow mesh, the definition of which is in the name. If you imagine the moment where the QB puts the ball in the running back’s chest - the mesh point - he’s reading the defense, deciding whether to hand if off, run himself, or pull the ball and pass. Whereas with most RPOs this happens instantly, the slow mesh has the QB and RB wait an uncomfortable amount of time to see how the defense reacts. When they’re at the mesh point, the QB and RB will slowly take steps towards the line of scrimmage while the QB reads the defense - an “anxiety-inducing backfield exchange between the quarterback and running back”, wrote SI during Wake Forest’s 2019 dream season.

Here’s a collection of slow mesh plays from Wake Forest:

Another typical component of past Stanford offenses was their maddeningly effective goal line fade. At least against USC, they tried to run the one-on-one jump ball play in the end zone a few times and you can expect to see it more this weekend.

The End

Stanford turned the ball over four times against USC last week, including twice inside the 5-yard line. It’s foolish to suggest without those turnovers Stanford would have won the game, but they were able to drive down the field on multiple occasions only to cough up the football before they could punch it in the end zone. A 441 yard day with 33 first downs is good output, and while USC is hardly a defensive juggernaut, Stanford more or less moved the ball at will against them.

In terms of stopping the slow mesh, defenses take the same approach offenses do. Just as Stanford will use the slow mesh to confuse the defense between run and pass coverage, the defense has to use disguised schemes to trick the offensive line into thinking they aren’t going to blitz. If Washington wants to stop the slow mesh, they need to find creative ways to get into the backfield. Five sacks and 12 tackles for loss by USC should provide hope that UW’s edge players - who have shown an affinity for getting into the backfield - can get the job done.

We’ll see how much Stanford sticks to the slow mesh - it can certainly cause unprepared defenses a lot of trouble - as we saw Wake Forest take advantage of numerous teams this way. But, I imagine David Shaw is looking at Washington’s banged up secondary and is licking his lips imagining Tanner McKee and his forest of trees bullying the UW secondary all game.

A lot of fans are expecting a UW blowout, but I see this one being a much tighter contest with Stanford’s pass game keeping them in it. Go Huskies.


How many points will Stanford score?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    (4 votes)
  • 5%
    (26 votes)
  • 38%
    (171 votes)
  • 43%
    (196 votes)
  • 9%
    (43 votes)
  • 2%
    36 or more
    (9 votes)
449 votes total Vote Now