Stanford's Rose Bowl championship run was especially remarkable considering the severe dip in offensive production that beset the program during the season. The 2012 Cardinal offense was a mere shell of its 2009-2011 self. Point production (27.3) and yards per play (5.5) both dropped significantly from highs of 43.2 points per game and 6.8 yards per play under Andrew Luck's guidance in 2011. Though both of those figures improved slightly when Kevin Hogan took over for Josh Nunes at the quarterback position, Stanford's attack remained anything but a juggernaut while the defense carried the team to glory.
Perhaps the most striking 2012 Stanford offensive regression came through the unit's drop in efficiency. FootballOutsiders.com records a "value drive" statistic, which is known as the percentage of offensive drives beginning shy of midfield that reach at least the opponent's 30-yard line. Under Luck in 2011, 60.2 percent of the Cardinal's drives accomplished just that. That figure was the third best in the country. The 2012 season, though, saw Stanford's value drive percentage plummet to 36.6 percent -- all the way down to 77th in the nation. (Full table of offensive stats used here.)
Power Outage: A Drop in Explosiveness
The 2012 offense also suffered a marked drop in explosiveness. FootballOutsider's database highlights this area as another one in which the Cardinal has massive room for improvement in 2013. According to the database, only 11.3 percent of Stanford's drives in 2012 were "explosive" (a drive must average at least 10 yards per play to qualify), a figure good for only 79th in the nation. That marked a precipitous fall from 2011, when the Luck-led Farm Boys registered 15th nationally by delivering explosive drives 18.6 percent of time.
Moreover, the 2012 offense registered only 83 passing plays that gained over 15 yards, a figure down from 110 the previous year (roughly a 25 percent drop). Only 5.2 percent of Stanford's 399 pass attempts went for more than 25 yards. In comparison, Alabama's BCS title juggernaut whipped out 25-plus yard passing gains more than twice as often, or 11.3 percent of the time. (thanks to Harry Beckwith, known as 'Hulk01' around these parts, for his find on CFBStats.com)
"We are going to be who we are, we are going to incorporate the tight end, the fullback, and multiple running backs in game plans. But we have to be able to score from distance, too," quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford preached the need for added explosiveness earlier this offseason. "It's hard to play football methodically and have 14 play drives. We love them, they're demoralizing to a defense. But you do need to be able to score from your own 20 yard line from time to time, too. And I think we have the personnel to that."
By the way, Stanford's methodical drive percentage, a measure of the percentage of drives that last 10 plays or longer, didn't take as hard of a hit as explosiveness did: It fell from 17.1 percent under Luck in 2011 to 13.8 percent last season. Stepfan Taylor certainly played a large role in that preservation.
Explosiveness, though, relies much more heavily on the downfield passing game, and it's been heavily documented here that Stanford has lost 88 percent of its 2012 receiving production to graduation. Improved quick strike ability in 2013, then, may begin as an uphill battle. But a matured quarterback/offensive line combination will be teaming with a wide receiver corps that showed much more downfield sizzle potential in spring than its counterpart did a year prior. Ty Montgomery, Michael Rector, Devon Cajuste, Kodi Whitfield, and Kelsey Young may be relatively untested, but they're all athletic enough to at least partially reintroduce the needed explosive dimension to the Stanford attack.
Even More Important: Chain-Moving Consistency
The fresh set of receivers will be critical in more than one facet of production. While big play ability is certainly important, the 2013 Cardinal offense's most important task will be establishing the steadiness needed to consistently move the chains. Stanford recorded at least one first down on 79.8 percent of its drives in 2011, fifth best in the country. After Luck left, though, that figure took a punch to the gut: the 2012 Cardinal's first down rate dropped to 66.9 percent and 64th in the country.
Sanford has been optimistic about improvement in the receiving corps when it comes to chain-moving dependability.
"There are a few guys that are starting to step up," he said during the spring. "They've just got to do it on every down, not just the big plays."
This ability to move the chains with at least workable efficiency may be the pivotal factor in Stanford's quest to return to Pasadena in January. The Cardinal's aforementioned 12.9 percent drop in first down rate was fatal to the chances of an undefeated season last year, as Stanford's two losses came in games where its vaunted defense eventually cracked due to a lack of offensive support.
Shayne Skov himself once told me that just one first down from the Cardinal offense provides an almost indescribable boon to the other half of the club: The extra three minutes buy the defense enough rest to replenish oxygen on the sideline and avoid fatigue. If there's a kryptonite for the Stanford defense, it's a slew of three-and-outs from the Farm Boys' offense: The resulting exhaustion can trigger a breaking point, such as the one behind two demoralizing late Washington touchdowns in Seattle last year. (Here's an earlier piece that I wrote examining Stanford's third down efficiency, a very related statistic.)
First down rate, then, may be the one essential statistic that determines whether or not Stanford achieves its lofty 2013 goals. Not surprisingly, success in this category falls onto the shoulders of Hogan and his untested receiving corps, all of whom will be closely scrutinized when camp begins Monday.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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