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 era.
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 season.
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 start.
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.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!