Cardinal Numbers: Small Steps for the Card

For those of us obsessed with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data, The Bootleg's Contributing Columnist and Senior Statistician Terry Johnson reviews some of the key indicators of the 2007 Cardinal's offensive, defensive & ST performances, noting areas of improvement, but illustrating how much additional improvement will be needed to send Stanford bowling in '08.

A look at Stanford's 2007 season by the numbers...

Offense

Stanford's offense improved significantly this year compared to last year's truly terrible Stanford offense:

 2007
(Harbaugh)
2006
(Harris)
Points/game19.610.6
First downs/game19.213.6
Total yards/game323232
Rushing yards/game11165
Rushing yards/game (excluding sacks)14195
Rushing yards/attempt3.02.1
Rushing yards/attempt (excl. sacks)4.23.6
Passing yards/game211167
Passing yards/attempt6.06.3
Sacks allowed/game4.04.2
Pass attempts per sack allowed8.86.3
Third down conversion rate29%30%

Of course, last season was Stanford's worst offensive season ever, or at least as far back as statistics are available. So, last season's offensive statistics don't provide a very meaningful benchmark in the big picture. Still, the team needed to recover from last year's abysmal offensive performance and needed to return to respectability. It did that.

However, the offense still has a long way to go. This is not a good offensive team. Most of Stanford's offensive statistics this season rank at or near the bottom of the conference. This season was a step in the right direction, but the offense needs to continue making progress.

Breaking down the offensive statistics, the best news is in the running game. Stanford averaged over 100 rushing yards per game for the first time in the last five seasons. Likewise, Stanford's yards per carry this year were the best in the last five seasons.

YearRushing
Yards per
Game
Rushing
Yards per
Game
(excluding
sacks)
Rushing
Yards per
Attempt
Rushing
Yards per
Attempt
(excluding
sacks)
20071111413.04.2
200665952.13.6
2005921192.63.8
2004811092.53.8
2003961182.53.4
20021331543.44.3

We can see some real progress in the running game. These still aren't strong rushing statistics, and Stanford needs to continue to improve. But for the first time in five years, Stanford's running game is headed in the right direction.

Stanford's passing offense didn't show as much statistical improvement. Stanford's passing yardage per game improved from 167 yards per game last year to 211 yards per game this year. However, the average yards per pass attempt, which I consider a more important metric, declined from 6.3 yards per attempt last year to 6.0 yards per attempt this year. An average of 6.0 yards per pass attempt just isn't good, no matter how you look at it. This year's passing offense isn't as bad as a couple of the truly awful passing offenses under Teevens. But it's not a good passing offense:

YearPassing
Yards per
Game
Passing
Yards per
Attempt
20072116.0
20061676.3
20052247.3
20042466.7
20031875.2
20021785.3

As I've written several times this season, Stanford needs to improve its average yards per pass attempt. It's possible to improve the average yards per attempt by improving the completion percentage, or by improving the yards per completion, or both. Given the fact that Stanford really doesn't rely on a deep passing game, it seems to me that Stanford ought to have a higher completion percentage.

Stanford's pass protection improved somewhat this season. Although total sacks allowed were almost the same as last year – 50 last year, 48 this year – Stanford had 108 additional pass attempts this season, so the sack frequency was lower this season. Last year, Stanford allowed one sack for every 6.3 pass attempts; that figure improved this season to one sack for every 8.8 pass attempts. But that's still not anywhere near good enough.

The offense started stronger than it finished this year:

 First 6
Games
Last 6
Games
Points/Game24.714.5
Total Yards/Game357288
Rushing Yards/Game120102
Rushing Yards/Attempt3.32.7
Passing Yards/Game236186
Passing Yards/Attempt6.25.7

The decline of Stanford's offensive statistics during the season could be attributable to several factors, possibly including the loss of key players to injury (Smith, Kimble, Dray, etc.), the fact that other teams were able to scout the Harbaugh offense, and the learning curve involved in changing quarterbacks. Stanford's challenge next season will be to continue its offensive improvement, and to maintain that improvement over the course of the season.

Defense

Stanford's defense improved over last year in some areas, while not doing as well in other areas:

 2007
(Harbaugh)
2006
(Harris)
Points allowed/game28.231.4
First downs allowed/game21.222.4
Total yards allowed/game436388
Rushing yards allowed/game169211
Rushing yards allowed/game (excl. sacks)193220
Rushing yards allowed/attempt4.24.9
Rushing yards allowed/attempt (excl. sacks)5.25.2
Passing yards allowed/game266177
Passing yards allowed/attempt7.66.5
Sacks/game3.11.2
Pass attempts per sack11.323.2
Tackles for loss/game8.43.8
Third down conversion rate allowed36%48%

The statistics show that this year's Stanford defense gave up 48 yards per game more than last year's defense. The 436 yards per game allowed by this year's defense were worse than all but one of the five Teevens/Harris defenses. This defense ranks near the bottom of the conference in the statistical categories involving yards allowed and points allowed. Overall, from a statistical point of view, this was not a very good defense.

On the other hand, this year's defense did some things very well. This defense ranks ranks 10th in the nation in sacks. Stanford is 6th in the nation in tackles for loss – tied with Ohio State, which has the nation's top defense. Despite allowing more yards than last year, this year's defense allowed three fewer points per game than last year's defense.

Stanford's rushing defense improved compared to last year. The improvement was due in large part to all the sacks Stanford got, which count as negative rushing yardage. If sacks are removed from the analysis, this year's rushing defense allowed the same number of yards per carry as last year's rushing defense (5.2 yards/attempt).

Stanford's pass defense this year gave up more yards per game than last year, and also allowed more yards per pass attempt. However, most opponents last year were beating Stanford so easily that they didn't find it necessary to pass the ball aggressively, which probably ought to be taken into account.

Putting aside the statistics and just watching what was happening on the field, it seemed to me that this year's defense was better than last year's defense. This year's defense certainly made more big plays than last year's. However, the statistics for this year turned out worse in some respects. Why?

This year's defense lives by a philosophy of high risk, high reward. They gamble, blitz, and bring constant pressure, but they're vulnerable to big plays. Especially (but not exclusively) in the earlier part of the year, the defense was victimized by numerous big plays. This defense tended to play well for a while, then give up a big gainer. Those big plays can be game-changers, and they certainly affect the statistics, even though the defense may have played reasonably well much of the time. Of course, there were times when this year's defense just didn't play very well. The spread option offense in particular seemed to give Stanford's defense a lot of trouble.

The Cardinal defense showed statistical improvement over the course of the season, largely because of an improvement in pass defense:

 First 6
Games
Last 6
Games
Points Allowed/Game33.722.8
Total Yards Allowed/Game462410
Rushing Yards Allowed/Game167171
Rushing Yards Allowed/Attempt4.04.4
Passing Yards Allowed/Game294238
Passing Yards Allowed/Attempt8.96.5

The improvement in the yards allowed per pass attempt is especially noteworthy. Stanford allowed an exceptionally poor 8.9 yards per attempt in the first half of the season, while allowing just 6.5 yards per attempt in the second half. This resulted largely from the fact that Stanford was holding its opponents to shorter gains on completed passes in the second half of the season. Opponents averaged a very high 14.1 yards per completion against the Cardinal defense in the first half of the year, but averaged only 10.9 yards per completion in the second half. That's a nice improvement.

In my first column of the season back on September 5, I suggested that Scott Shafer's "attack 4-3 defense" should create big plays that would show up on the stat sheet in three categories: sacks, tackles for loss, and turnovers. Three months later, we can say that Shafer's defense did an excellent job of creating sacks and tackles for loss. Stanford had its highest totals in sacks and tackles for loss in years:

 SacksTackles
for Loss
200737101
20061446
20053270
20043074
20032271
20022462
20012179
20003086
19994491

Shafer's defense created significantly more turnovers than last year's defense. By historical standards, the number of turnovers created was solid but not outstanding:

 Turnovers
Gained
200726
200615
200521
200427
200327
200225
200130
200023
199930

Stanford got better at creating turnovers as the season went on, creating 3.0 turnovers per game in the last four games compared to 1.25 turnovers per game in the first four games. As a result, Stanford had a more consistent positive turnover margin as the season went on:

 Turnovers
Gained
Turnovers
Committed
Turnover
Margin
First Four Games57-2
Middle Four Games98+1
Last Four Games128+4
Total2623+3

Overall, despite its below average performance in terms of yards allowed and points allowed, this defense did some things very well. In my view, this looks like the type of defense that could be much better next year.

Special Teams

Stanford's performance on special teams was mixed, but generally good.

The punting game did quite well. Jay Ottovegio, with a 41.2 yard average, was the second team All Pac 10 punter for good reason. He dropped 21 punts inside the 20 yard line with only 3 touchbacks. Brent Newhouse was outstanding as the long snapper. Punt coverage was pretty good, allowing two or three long returns but very effective otherwise. Stanford finished 32nd in the nation in net punting (out of 119 teams) with an average net gain of 35.8 yards.

The kickoff team performed well also. Stanford was second in the Pac 10 in net kickoff distance (after returns). Stanford averaged a net of 44.1 yards per kickoff, which means that opponents started their possessions, on average, at their own 25.9 yard line.

The story of Stanford's field goal kicking already is well known. Derek Belch started the season very well, making 11 of his first 14 attempts. But he made only 4 of his last 13 attempts, for a season total of 15 field goals in 27 attempts (55.6%). Stanford finished last in the conference in field goal percentage. Belch made all of his extra points.

Stanford finished seventh in the conference in kickoff returns (21.5 yards/return) and eighth in punt returns (6.3 yards/return). Doug Baldwin showed promise as a kickoff returner, averaging 24.1 yards/return.

Overall, Stanford's special units were pretty good, but certainly not outstanding. The special teams took a step in the right direction this season, improving in almost every category. Next year, the goal will be to take the next step, the giant leap from good to exceptional.

Random Numbers

Stanford's Big Game victory ended a string of six straight seasons in which Stanford lost its final game of the season. In fact, Stanford finished each of the last five seasons with a losing streak of two games or more. Before this season, the last time Stanford won its final game was the 2000 season, when Stanford finished with a 36-30 overtime victory in the Big Game...

Mark Bradford finished his career ranked fourth in Stanford history in career receiving yards, with 2,431 yards (behind Troy Walters, DeRonnie Pitts, and Justin Armour). Bradford ended up one yard ahead of Ken Margerum...

Bradford ranks fifth in Stanford history in career receptions, with 169 catches (behind Troy Walters, DeRonnie Pitts, Darrin Nelson, and Brad Muster)....

T.C. Ostrander finished his career with 3,783 passing yards, which is 12th on Stanford's career passing yards list...

Pat Maynor led the team with 16.5 tackles for loss, the most for a Stanford player since Riall Johnson had 20 tackles for loss in 2000. Maynor is second in the conference in TFLs per game...

Anthony Kimble played only seven games, but still managed to gain 509 rushing yards, the most rushing yards by a Stanford player in the last four seasons. Kimble is the first player to lead the team in rushing yards in two consecutive seasons since Anthony Bookman in 1994-95...

Bo McNally's 114 tackles were the most by a Stanford player since Jono Tunney had 155 tackles in 1988. McNally is second in the Pac 10 in tackles per game...

Richard Sherman led the team in receiving yards with 651 yards, nine yards more than Mark Bradford. Sherman is the first player to lead the team in receiving yards in two consecutive seasons since Justin Armour in 1993-94...

With the Big Game victory, Stanford's all-time Big Game record is now 55-44-11. Cal has not led the Big Game series since 1963, when Cal held a lead of 28-27-10 going into the Big Game. Stanford tied the series in 1963, took the lead in 1964, and has led the series ever since...

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