Unprepared on Defense
- Though Utah's offense borrowed much from UCLA's success in last year's Pac-12 title game, it was clear that Stanford's defense was not ready for what the Utes' attack brought to the table. Trent Murphy admitted afterward that his unit was not really expecting perimeter action from the Utes, and that certainly seemed true as the Travis Wilson-led unit spread the Cardinal thin with countless swing passes to the outside before gashing them with explosive middle runs. Utah's first play from scrimmage, in fact, foreshadowed the coming gore: A 35-yard Bubba Poole perimeter reception burned Shayne Skov's completely misguided middle blitz. Utah's wide receivers swallowed Stanford's cornerbacks with excellent first half blocks while safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, perhaps thrown out of position by the Utes' frequent pre-snap backfield motion, were unable to overcome poor tackling angles in their bid to provide support. Utah stayed away from Murphy's side when possible, and James Vaughters was often slow coming from his edge linebacker spot. The Utes' first half rushing performance was prolific as a result: They racked up 130 yards on 22 carries and gassed the Cardinal at altitude in the process.
- Stanford finally made adjustments in the second half, and it
began with better physical anticipation from the defensive
backfield. Whereas the cornerbacks had seemed to be passively
waiting to be blocked in the first half, they attacked the edges
with a renewed sense of vigor coming out of the locker room.
Utah's receivers began struggling to put a body on defensive
backs who were hunting at the point of attack. Just a few plays
into the third quarter, Alex Carter broke up an outside screen
to set the table for Joe Hemschoot's first career interception.
In a significant reversal from the first frame, Stanford held
Utah to just 84 yards passing and 31 yards rushing in the second
half. The defense forced the Utes into three consecutive
- Relocating the line of scrimmage is always a good way to assuage other defensive struggles, and the Cardinal badly needed this muscle boost from its boys up front. But with Henry Anderson and Ikenna Nwafor both sidelined and David Parry not playing at 100 percent, a lack of trusted defensive line depth compounded Stanford's problems, particularly when Utah was gassing the defense in the first half. Mason turned to Aziz Shittu in an effort to help stop the bleeding, but he was swallowed by a block on a big Utah play during his only snap of the game. The aggressive swing passing attack rendered Stanford's front ineffective until the second half, when the secondary tightened the edges and Stanford's trio up front caught a second wind that allowed them to counteract the Utes' previously successful middle run plays. To combat the depth trouble on the defensive line, the Cardinal is moving 6-foot-7, 265-pound sophomore Luke Kaumatule from tight end back to defensive end before this next contest versus UCLA. It's hard to forget the Hawaiian's impressive punt bull rush against Arizona State, which resulted in a safety and two points for Stanford.
- The beginning of the Cardinal's demise came in the second
quarter, when Jordan Williamson missed a 38-yard field goal that
would have given Stanford a 10-point lead and possibly changed
the entire complexion of the game. From that point on, the
Cardinal offense was ineffective, while the wheels fell off for
the defense shortly after they lost their chance to net a safety
following an excellent Ben Rhyne punt. When Utah lined up for a
third down and eight from their own two-yard line, Barry Browning made a mistake emblematic of the Cardinal's overly
passive defensive back play in the first half: He gave Utah
receiver Sean Fitzgerald a 10-yard cushion on the play and
surrendered the first down without a fight. The Utes went on to
drive 99 yards for the go-ahead, game-changing score.
Offense: Not Enough Run
- If a team is going to remove its best player from the game in
crunch time, there had better be an excellent reason to do so.
Throwing a low-percentage pass to a recently converted defensive
lineman with one career catch does not qualify as such a reason.
During Stanford's most important third down conversion of the
season, Ty Montgomery -- the man of nearly 300 all-purpose yards
-- watched from the sideline as Charlie Hopkins made a fruitless
attempt to haul in Kevin Hogan's throw into the end zone.
- Trailing 27-21, the Cardinal resorted to their massive
"Elephant Package" on third down and two from the Utah six
yard-line with about a minute remaining (this is what sent Montgomery to
the sideline). The personnel change would have made some sense
had David Shaw elected to actually run the ball, but he chose
to pass instead. That particular formation bunches roughly 3,000
pounds (about the weight of a small car) near the line of
scrimmage. And if it's not apparent after watching Saturday's
debacle, the Elephant Package is not effective when it comes
generating receiving production. Tyler Gaffney (16 carries, 108
yards, 6.8 yards per carry) had already churned out gains of
two, seven, six, and four yards on the drive. Pushing forward
two more yards for a first down and setting up first-and-goal
was in the Cardinal's best interest as far as success probability and time management
was concerned, as they didn't want to give stellar Utah kicker
Andy Phillips an opportunity for a rebuttal with all three
timeouts remaining. But that didn't happen. Two incomplete
passes neutralized Stanford's physical advantage as the game
slipped into the loss column.
- In his article for The Stanford Daily, Bootleg Radio contributor Sam Fisher analyzes each of Stanford's conversion attempts on third down with less than three yards to go this season. The statistics he uncovers further unmask Saturday's poorly planned finish. Fisher finds that whenever the Cardinal has thrown the ball on third-and-short, they've moved the chains two of 10 times (20 percent). Whenever they've run the ball, they've converted 18 of 20 tries (90 percent). The two rushing failures came on Kevin Hogan's late bootleg against Washington and on a standard run against Washington State, when Stanford ultimately went for it on fourth down and converted anyway.
- After the game, David Shaw defended the Cardinal's decision to
pass in lieu of reverting to the tried-and-true running game,
telling me that he had confidence in the calls because of their
success in practice. Shaw also mentioned that Stanford passed
because he wanted to save his last timeout as long as possible.
The Cardinal, however, ended up immediately burning this timeout after the third down incompletion.
- Jim Harbaugh may have poured salt into the wounds of Stanford
fans during the 49ers' game less than 24 hours later. San
Francisco iced a win with an 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive
that began with passes and finished with seven consecutive power
runs down the throat of Arizona's defense and into the end zone.
A day prior, the Cardinal had the opportunity to do the same thing by going 88 yards for
the win, and they also opened with passes to move the ball
downfield, but they only made it 82 yards of the way. Unlike their NFL neighbors, the Farm
Boys didn't finish the bullying job with runs behind an
overpowering offensive line, though they did have capable
personnel who had opened holes all game long.
Offensive Identity? Hogan Shows Improvement
- An insufficient amount of running plays was a game-long problem for Stanford. The Cardinal pounded the rock only 29 times on the game despite success moving through holes, some of which were downright massive. Andrus Peat and David Yankey teamed up to create a particularly gaping one on the left side for Gaffney's 43-yard run. That success ended up being irrelevant, as Stanford's offensive identity suffered as a formless blob for the majority of the game. Hogan succeeded early on (3-for-4, 99 yards), but that was while Utah was still blitzing aggressively and leaving Cardinal receivers roaming in man coverage downfield. Once the Utes began dropping up to eight men into coverage, Hogan endured an ugly 5-for-13, 44-yard stretch that included a pair of fumbles. It didn't feel that Stanford's interspersed running plays were part of a larger offensive plan. The Farm Boys did not attack the Utes with any sense of direction during most of the contest, and the home team capitalized by ripping off a 20-0 run that put the Cardinal into desperation mode.
- Once No. 8 absolutely had to produce down 27-14 in the fourth quarter, Stanford's offense finally regained the sense of purpose that had eluded it. Hogan assembled a spectacular 7-for-8, 103-yard stretch before the aforementioned game-ending play calls put him in a tough finishing spot. By throwing darts through zone coverage and finding Kodi Whitfield on a beautiful sideline pass that beat two defensive backs for a 23-yard gain, he solved the formula both Washington and Utah had successfully used to curtail his production. If Hogan can carry this late improvement over into the second half of the regular season, Stanford's offensive efficiency will reach new heights in the post-Andrew Luck era.
- There was a bigger emphasis to involve Ryan Hewitt in the
passing game, while true freshman Francis Owusu saw his earliest
career action on the play during which Michael Rector hauled in
a 39-yard bomb. Owusu sprinted downfield on a vertical route of
his own. His involvement will likely grow with each passing
week, and that can provide another beneficial complement to
Montgomery's record-pace production at the wide receiver
position. Meanwhile, Barry Sanders, whose fake fly sweep helped
divert attention on No. 7's big fourth quarter screen pass, may also
see a more significant role in the coming weeks.
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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