Muchnick: Stanford's Poor Playcalling

Offensive challenges face Shaw this offseason

Justin Muchnick, The Bootleg's youngest contributor, was befuddled by Stanford's playcalling during its 24-20 Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State. He believes that the Cardinal's fatal issues were actually a recurring theme throughout the team's three losses this season. Here's his take on the problem and how the team should fix it.

In the car with my family on the way to the 100th Rose Bowl Game, I hoped for a day chock full of Cardinal happiness. Visions of Gaffney's hard-fought rushing touchdowns, Montgomery's big-play receptions, and Skov's perfectly-timed blitzes danced through my mind. However, when I trudged back to the car hours later, I realized that the most positive aspect of the day had been the pre-game Alumni Tailgate.

See, Stanford was determined to make this year's tailgate great. Cardinal fans (or at least fans of Cardinal tailgates) know that the 2013 Rose Bowl Tailgate was somewhat of a flop. There were numerous complaints about overcrowding, shortage of tailgate food, et cetera. In the wake of this criticism, the Alumni Association sent an apology email and a full refund to those who had bought tailgate tickets. More importantly, they recognized the problems with last year's tailgate and set out to rectify them this year. The wildly successful 2014 edition of the tailgate featured a more spacious layout, ample food, kid-friendly games, and just about anything anyone attending a tailgate could ask for – a true testament to problem identification and solving.

Now that the Cardinal has taken care of the tailgate issue, the next big problem that David Shaw needs to identify and solve is in the offensive playcalling department. The team's three losses this year were all marred by poor play-calling. I don't want to reopen old wounds by dwelling on the absurd third- and fourth-and-two pass plays against Utah or the excess of ill-advised fourth-quarter Hogan passes at the Coliseum, but the Rose Bowl play calls equally confounded me.

Though the field goal attempt with five minutes left was questionable and the stubborn insistence on trying to establish the run in the second half was foolish, the playcalling on Stanford's final drive was the most baffling of all. With three minutes to go, the Cardinal offense found itself in a do-or-die situation. A 70-yard touchdown drive was the last chance at victory. The plays the coaches chose for this desperate last gasp? Three short runs, plus a pass so short that it was counted as a run in the box score.  Stanford also dawdled in between plays, wasting over a minute to gain a total of nine yards. The team seemed to forget that it had a whole field  to cover and played like a first down was all that was needed (and even that didn't happen). Honestly, Stanford did not look like a team that was down by four and scrapping to keep its Rose Bowl championship hopes alive.

Why not send Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector downfield on that last drive and actually attempt to gain significant yards? (Ed: Justin has a good point; the downfield passing game had actually seen its share of success earlier in the game) Stanford wasn't ever going to march down three quarters of the field in three minutes with a flimsy rushing effort; that drive should have been all about long passes and an up-tempo approach.

Yes, I know the Cardinal's identity is to establish the run, but Shaw must understand two obvious reasons why he shouldn't have gone with power run on the last drive. Number one: football, perhaps more than any other sport, is about situations. In fact, a football game revolves so entirely around situations that it is broken up into many little situations called plays! Play calls are made based on the situation – sometimes runs make sense and passes are more appropriate at other times. The situation at the end of the Rose Bowl was one that necessitated passing; there clearly wasn't enough time for a systematic ground-and-pound drive. Trailing by a touchdown in the dying minutes of the game with a whole field to drive down, Shaw should have realized that the dire circumstances prevail over the fact that Stanford is a run-first team. 

Number two: you need to know who you're up against. Even if the Cardinal had enough time for a drawn out, methodical drive, it would've have been nearly impossible against a staunch Spartan defense that had stuffed the power run game for nearly the entire game. It might have made sense to try to keep forcing the run in the first half, but late in the game, Shaw needed to concede that Stanford wouldn't be able to establish the run because Michigan State, even without suspended linebacker Max Bullough, had an outstanding rush defense and was winning the battle in the trenches. Just don't play right into the opponent's strength on the last drive of the most important game of the season.

Really, David Shaw has been great for Cardinal program. He has brought in good recruits, he motivates the team, and he does a fantastic job of promoting the Stanford culture of integrity and academic as well as athletic excellence. But while Shaw has many strong attributes as a coach, he and his current staff do not seem to have a knack for play-calling.  This shortcoming should be identified and solved during the offseason, perhaps by hiring an experienced offensive coordinator whose primary job is to call plays.

In any event, David Shaw does not have to send Stanford fans an apology email or refund their Rose Bowl tickets, but he does still need to take a page from the Tailgate Committee's book and address his playcalling problems. Then someday, I might even be fortunate enough to see Stanford return to Pasadena and enjoy both a great tailgate and great play calls.

About the author: Justin Muchnick is a tenth grade student-athlete at Philips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. In addition to being an avid Stanford sports fan, he is extremely passionate about soccer, wrestling, reading, and history. He is also the 
co-author of "Straight-A Study Skills" and is currently writing "The Boarding School Survival Guide" which will be published in June, 2014. He still remains our youngest Bootleg journalist and is also a charter content-creator on

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