OC Pep Hamilton
Even before Saturday's gut-wrenching finish in Notre Dame, Stanford's offense had repeated its initial display of road ineptitude in Seattle. For the second straight time away from home, the Cardinal failed to score an offensive touchdown. Halfway through the 2012 season, the team's offense faces a severe lack of productivity.
Albert Einstein described insanity as doing the same thing over and
over again while expecting different results.
Stanford was awfully repetitive in its offensive efforts
during its 20-13 overtime loss at Notre Dame, demonstrating
the same unwillingness to change that has suffocated the unit's
production throughout the first half of the 2012 season.
Through six games, the Cardinal have registered a total of two solid
offensive performances. Those came against Duke and Arizona, a pair
of physically overmatched teams that the Farm Boys could have gashed
in their sleep. In the remaining four offensive failures, Stanford's
defense - coupled with the occasional Stepfan Taylor superhuman
effort - has come to the rescue.
Offensive Futility at Notre Dame
South Bend was just like Seattle, though: there was no offensive
touchdown, and there was no defensive bailout. There was only
familiar road futility and hardly a sign of improvement, all the way
from stale playcalling to the substandard performance of quarterback
Josh Nunes (12-25, 125 yards, two interceptions, five yards per attempt).
Even if the officials did butcher the game-ending fourth down call
(and they did), Taylor would have scored only because of a Houdini act, escaping not only several would-be tacklers, but also his own team's mind-numbing lack of creativity inside
the four. On four straight plays, Stanford tried to pound
inside the tackles, as blandly as they had for eight straight
road quarters, all without a touchdown to show for it. Needless to say, their
ninth quarter of sticking with the same formula of predictable
runing and poor passing didn't work, either.
"Bottom line is we need to execute," David Shaw said afterward.
But in the case of the game-ending Irish goal line stand, it wasn't
about Stanford's lack of on-field execution. An elite run defense
like Notre Dame's, which has not given up a rushing touchdown all
season, has ways to blow up Power in the backfield if they're 100
percent certain it's coming. The Irish outside defenders sold out
against the play by crashing hard to corral Taylor before he even
reached the line of scrimmage, and it wasn't surprising to see that
strategy work. All the while, the Golden Domers were vulnerable to a
change of pace on at least one of the Cardinal's final four
equalizing tries. Third down would have been an ideal time for such
a strike, one that was an omnipresent threat during the Andrew Luck
But Stanford had hardly dared to show this kind of basic creativity
during the course of regulation, where speedster Kelsey Young - a
symbol of potential Cardinal offensive ingenuity - touched the ball
only twice, both times on inside carries that didn't give him a
single chance to spread the Irish defense laterally. So, it came as
no surprise that the Cardinal crawled further into their shell with
the game on the line in overtime and disregarded the possibility of
even a short toss to Ryan Hewitt, who has caught only two throws all
The Nunes Question
Four consecutive avoidances of playaction in that overtime situation
imply either a playcalling failure or a significant lack of trust in
Nunes, especially considering the fact that monsters Zach Ertz and
Levine Toilolo are particularly attractive when an elite ground
defense is opening the floodgates against the run.
If trust is indeed the issue, Nunes shouldn't be under center with
the game on the line in Notre Dame Stadium.
In fact, maybe Nunes shouldn't be at the helm of an efficiency-first
offense at any point of any game, considering the fact that his
completion percentage (53.3) and passer rating (119.1) rank at or
near the bottom of the regular Pac-12 quarterback pool. These numbers come though
the Stanford offensive line has supplied him with what has possibly
been the conference's best pass protection. Nunes has been sacked
only five times all year, and he again could have taken a nap in the
pocket without being downed Saturday thanks to his hogs' handling of
Notre Dame's vaunted defensive front seven.
That didn't stop Nunes from underthrowing a would-be touchdown and telegraphing another atrocious ball into double coverage early on Saturday, swinging six points, two interceptions and
ultimately the contest in Notre Dame’s direction. Meanwhile, at Washington State,
two early interceptions this weekend were enough for Mike Leach to
bench Connor Halliday in favor of Jeff Tuel, who threw for 320 yards
off the bench.
David Shaw's refusal to at least kick Brett Nottingham's tires has built a brick wall between him and the
possibility of a productive Stanford quarterback switch. As is, the Cardinal's current offense cannot find the end zone to save its
life on the road, despite considerable talent at other positions.
Fittingly, Stanford's opponent was forced to change quarterbacks on
Saturday, and the move ended up winning Notre Dame the game. After
Everett Golson was shaken up late by Usua Amanam (who incorrectly received a personal foul whistle), back-up Tommy Rees delivered a 4-for-4, 58-yard performance to secure Notre Dame victory.
To be fair, the media is not privy to the quarterback battle in
Stanford's closed practices. But since Nottingham statistically
out-performed Nunes using the second-team offense in both the Spring
Game and Stanford's preseason scrimmage, it's only logical to try
him out in a legitimate game-time situation. The gauge of practice
performance must be re-evaluated when no offensive touchdowns are
mustered against two teams that Stanford lit up for 93 combined
points in 2011. The job simply isn't getting done, and no tangible
improvement against quality and road competition has been recorded.
The Erosion of Character and Cruelty
"Sitting here at 4-2 and where we are in our conference race is a
good place for us," Shaw said at his Monday press conference.
Unfortunately, 6-0 would be a much better place in a non-playoff
system, and there are strong indications that this Stanford team is
physically talented enough to have attained that with only average
quarterback play to this point. The Cardinal's devotion to
"character and cruelty" has taken them a long way. But when only the
second half of that mantra is adhered to, the Farm Boys are
vulnerable, regardless of their muscle.
Character in the form of offensive ingenuity and the boldness to
make a needed change is necessary for this team to reach its true
potential, which certainly was much higher than eight wins at 2012's
David Lombardi covers Stanford
sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He was the Cardinal
football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be
heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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