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
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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