Widgets Magazine

Fisher: Questionable offensive play calling down the stretch dooms Stanford

Stanford football has an identity crisis.

For most of the first three quarters and the final two plays on Saturday, Stanford looked a team that was simply lost. A Pac-12 champion cannot go 45 minutes without scoring a point and expect to win.

Speaking of Stanford being a Pac-12 champion, I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed that Utah’s offensive game plan Saturday was almost identical to UCLA’s in the Pac-12 championship game last season. Yet due to injuries, poor tackling and a suspect defensive game plan, it took the Cardinal three quarters to figure out how to slow the Utes down.

But the most frustrating aspect of the loss wasn’t that Stanford struggled mightily for three quarters, it was that, even after those early-game struggles, the Cardinal should have won the game. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Stanford decided not to punch it in on third-and-2 from the 6 but instead throw two pass plays.

I’m sure that head coach David Shaw had his reasons for calling a pass — maybe there was some matchup advantage he liked on tape — but that is over-thinking a very simple situation. The Stanford Cardinal runs the football. Since Jim Harbaugh arrived on the Farm to take over the head coaching job in late 2006, bringing Shaw with him, the Cardinal has been a team that will out-physical opponents for those yards on the ground.

On Oct. 12, 2013, that identity disappeared. Through the first five games of the 2013 season, Stanford had faced third- or fourth-and-2 three times. In all three situations, the Cardinal ran the ball, and all three times the Cardinal picked up the first down. Against Utah, Stanford faced that same situation three more times, and all three times Stanford threw the ball, only converting one of the three.

I know that’s a small sample size, but if you expand it outwards by accepting a bit more generality (third or fourth downs with three yards or fewer remaining), it’s staggering what the numbers say.

With Hogan in the game at quarterback (equivalently, in non-garbage time), Stanford has faced 30 such situations this season (including against Utah). Stanford has thrown the ball 10 times, with two completions for first downs and eight incompletions. You don’t need to be a statistician to figure out that those numbers are not very good.

On the other hand, when Stanford ran the ball (the other 20 times), the Cardinal picked up a first down or a touchdown 18 times, a whopping 90 percent conversion rate. And the two times Stanford didn’t pick up the first down? The bootleg by Hogan at the end of the Washington game — why didn’t Stanford run power? — and a third-and-1 against Washington State when Stanford converted on fourth-and-1 a play later by, you guessed it, running the football again.

Shaw tried to justify his decision Saturday, at least partially, in his postgame press conference by saying that he didn’t want to use his final timeout after the play if the run failed. Are you kidding me? On the 6-yard-line with over a minute to go, Shaw was concerned about running the ball because he thought the Cardinal would run out of time? I find it hard to believe that was actually the reasoning, but if it was, that would be truly remarkable.

Now I’m not a football coach, and I’ve never had to make a crunch-time decision like Shaw had to against the Utes, but taking all of this into consideration, I just can’t understand why Stanford would throw the ball. Shaw may claim that he had confidence in those passing plays, but the decision smells more like Shaw saying that he doesn’t have confidence in his running game; if I were a Stanford offensive lineman, those play-calls would feel like a slap in the face.

And while Stanford never should have let the game be so close, that decision is a big reason why the Cardinal could not escape with a victory. After talking about a BCS Championship Game appearance for the past few months, Stanford is facing a brutal stretch of must-win games to keep the hope of any BCS berth alive. That is a real shame.

Sam Fisher was clearly ambivalent to Stanford’s loss to the Utes. Remind him how important football really is at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu, and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.

About Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.
  • Z

    You don’t get Shaw. This is more than just winning a football game. Sometimes you have to fail to become great. Look beyond one play. You are very narrow minded.

  • tk94111

    Speaking only for myself as a totally lay person who is supremely unqualified to make any informed comments about play calling, I think the first chapter of the 2013 season’s narrative was written last Saturday. All the stuff before was exposition and prologue. How this team responds from hereon out will determine the story of this team. As an extraneous part of that story, all I can do is cheer till I am hoarse every saturday (and one thursday). (but yeah, we shoulda run it :))

  • Alex

    3rd down was a run/pass option and Hogan chose to throw. 4th down Utah brought the house and a run up the middle would have probably been stuffed by the unblocked safety. Who knows what would have happened if we’d run, but it looks to me like neither playcall was obviously wrong given what Utah was doing on defense. What I do know is that if we’d run and gotten stuffed, the title of this article would probably be the same.

  • steelkickn

    Z –
    What are you talking about? ‘have to fail to become great’? Stanford football FAILED MISERABLY for years and years before Harbaugh and Shaw arrived. You’re ridiculous if you think a team as talented, experienced, and deep as this Stanford team should LOSE to an UNRANKED Utah team, and completely destroy their national championship aspirations for THIS year. Why on earth would we be satisfied with losing? How does that help us this year at all? If we win this game by 1 point, then we take the exact same lesson to UCLA this weekend, except we’re still in the drivers seat for the BCS title game. Now, we not only have to correct our issues, but we ALSO need several teams to lose in front of us.

  • steelkickn

    Your logic is seriously flawed. We had averaged 5 yds a carry on that drive and the TD drive before that one. WIth the Ogre package in, there is next to zero chance that Utah’s D stops us from getting 2 yards on 2 consecutive attempts. Utah’s D was reeling, tired, and had no ability to stop a massive OL like Stanford’s, which had already taken control of the line of scrimmage. Shaw’s decision to not run was BIGGER than his failure to allow Luck to win the Fiesta Bowl. Because this year, it cost Stanford its best ever chance at a national championship. Yes, we have issues to correct. Fine. But getting wins even when you struggle is a defining feature of so many championship teams.

    Saban would NEVER have lost this game. He would have gone with what was working so well. Heck, even OREGON ran the ball 3 straight times to put the dagger in UW this weekend. Why? Because it is their strength. Why we didn’t stick with ours is beyond me. Horrible play calling. Shaw MUST give up play calling responsibilities to his OC. He is overwhelmed and unable to do it himself. Either that, or Shaw must go.

  • John

    I was dumbfounded by the last 2 play calls. Tyler Gaffney averaged over 5yds per carry during the game, and should have been the likely choice for these 2 plays, in my opinion. Hindsight is 100%, and Shaw has proven to be fallible.

  • goodgrief

    dude, sarcasm.

  • JJ

    There’s no tight ends or outlet receivers involved in the passing game. Defenses loading the box on the run or brining the blitz on a passing down never get burned by a pass to the tight end. There have been a few plays where Hewlitt releases and is open, but Hogan is so concentrated on the wide receivers, he doesn’t see Hewlitt. This isn’t Hogan’s fault because the tight end or fullback is so under-utilized that it’s almost too much to ask of him to remember that he can throw it to that position.

  • rawbbbbbb

    You didn’t mention that even if the 3rd and 2 pass was completed, Utah would have the ball back with 50 seconds and a good chance to win with a field goal. That was what really made the pass call so egregious.

  • Alex

    Running the ball when there is a credible pass threat isn’t the same thing as running the ball against 11 in the box with a defense that is selling out against the run. Utah rushed 6 and 7 on 3rd and 4th down respectively. At some point, it doesn’t matter how big your O-line is if the defense is literally putting all of your receivers in 1-on-1 coverage. Could we have gotten it anyway? Maybe… but we also should have gotten it on the pass on 3rd as Cajuste was WIDE open. Utah was lucky in that their coverage was pretty good and they got a good pass rush when it counted.

  • jafco

    Then put /sarc on the end of it. And are you Z, or a mind-reader? Steelkickn has the right of this discussion. Lombardi over at Scout said Shaw went with the first pass play “because it had worked so well in practice.” So, now with the game and NCG aspirations on the line, we run a play never before tested ON THE FIELD. That play could have been tested at several third and short junctures. Meanwhile, on the field, we are running the ball really well. We need two yards to get four new downs. We should have won this game by one, with essentially no time left on the clock for Utah to do anything but run it back for a TD. Both the play calling and the clock management were stupid.

  • steelkickn

    I think it does not matter how many guys they load the box with when Stanford is in Ogre. It’s 9 Offensive linemen, nearly 3000 pounds and it’s intended to do exactly what I said, get 2 yards regardless of what the defense does to stop it. It has worked virtually every time this season that it has been used.

    Actually, Cajuste was NOT the target on 3rd down, it was the fullback Hewitt on Spider Y banana. A Utah DL flashed in front of Hogan and scared Hogan away, but in fact, Hewitt was open briefly. Not sure if he would have made the first down as there was a Utah defender closing very fast on Hewitt..

    Cajuste was the ‘target’ on 4th down, but he was most definitely NOT open. Replays show he might have been held, but the CB was literally on his hip and Cajuste had zero separation. The high throw was unfortunate, as Cajuste has shown he can catch in traffic, but it would have been a very tough catch either way.