After posting only 10 points against a subpar Arizona State defense, Stanford went and put up 38 points against Oregon State, which had one of the stouter defenses in the conference. We asked football writers Joseph Beyda, Do-Hyoung Park and Vihan Lakshman: Did the Cardinal offense finally arrive against Oregon State? And if so, what does Stanford need to do to continue its offensive prowess against the Ducks?
Do: Will the real Stanford offense please stand up? We said the Cardinal offense had arrived after the Washington State game, but the Arizona State game clearly proved that had not been the case. I honestly still have no idea which Stanford offense we should expect against the Ducks, and which Stanford offense is actually the aberration from the norm. Sure, the offense showed up against Oregon State, but is it here to stay or has it already booked its one-way ticket out of Eugene? We honestly have no way of saying for sure given the way this season has gone, and because of that uncertainty, I’m going to say that no, the offense did not arrive, and it is going to take more than just a solid showing against Oregon State on Saturday to convince me that it has finally arrived.
That being said, that sentiment does not prevent me from answering the second question. In case it has not been abundantly clear already, the Stanford offense will have a very, very different path to winning than in years past. Gone is the workhorse back that will pick up moderate chunks of yardage and burn massive swaths of time off the clock. We have seen time and time again that Stanford just does not have the personnel for that this year. Playing keep-away is not what this team does best.
What can this team do best, though? Explosive plays. Tempo (as we saw against Oregon State). It is certainly not the cannot-even-catch-your-breath, breakneck-paced tempo that the Ducks run, but we saw that Stanford is comfortable operating at a brisk pace. So what this team needs to do is beat Oregon at its own game. Ramp up the speed to what it was last week. Simplify the playbook. Force the opposing defense into hurried, unfavorable looks. Get the ball to the playmakers on simplified routes and let them use their talents to beat the defense. If Stanford does that and puts up points, even a shakier defensive performance will still be enough.
Vihan: I think Stanford should feel really encouraged by the Oregon State win because that was the most complete Cardinal offensive performance in a long time. With 277 passing yards from Kevin Hogan and 151 total rushing yards, Stanford relied upon a very balanced attack that propelled the team to 28 points in the first half despite two interceptions in Stanford’s first three drives and a missed field goal from Jordan Williamson. With all of the offensive ineptitude we have seen this season from the Cardinal, I do not think you can overstate the significance of blowing out a conference rival in the middle of the season.
To paraphrase Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets: “Good teams don’t win close games – they avoid them.” Stanford’s winning formula last season, which consisted of relying on Tyler Gaffney and the defense to close out games, produced results, but almost every contest was played extremely close. With one or two additional bad bounces, Stanford’s 20-12 victory over the Beavers or their 26-20 win over Oregon last season could have gone the other way. However, last week we saw Stanford up the tempo (just slightly, as Do pointed out; it was not Art Briles-esque by any means) and establish more of a run-pass balance than we have typically seen. I do not want to read too much into one game, especially after the way Stanford followed up the Wazzu performance with a bad showing against ASU, but I think it is safe to say that the offense might have hit on a winning game plan.
Against Oregon on Saturday, we are not going to see the same offensive strategy as last season. In 2013, Tyler Gaffney carried the ball a whopping 45 times against the Ducks, while only one Stanford rusher has exceeded that total so far (Remound Wright with 69) for this entire season. Though the famous crowd noise at Autzen will make it difficult to execute, I think Stanford needs to run the hurry-up early and often and establish the chain-moving intermediate passing game.
It is also important to remember that this Kevin Hogan guy is kind of good at running the football. That stiff arm he threw en route to his 37-yard zone read touchdown was downright nasty. Using Hogan’s legs adds a whole new dimension to the Stanford attack (and might even chew up some clock to keep Mariota and company off the field). Stanford definitely has the talent to put up points; the really challenging question is how to put that talent in the best position to be successful.
Joseph: I am with Vihan in that Stanford should be encouraged by its offensive performance against Oregon State. That flavor of the Cardinal offense was certainly the most explosive we have seen all year, with a bunch of Stanford’s well-known playmakers — and even the lesser-known Jordan Pratt — coming up with big gains against a Pac-12 defense and the Cardinal showing a lot out of the hurry-up.
But that is not how Stanford is going to beat Oregon. There are two keys to playing the Ducks: defense has got to be your top priority, and your best defense is an offense that stays on the field. In the first three quarters against Oregon last season — the best three quarters that anyone has put together against the Ducks in recent memory — Stanford was in possession of the ball for 31 of 45 minutes, in large part thanks to Gaffney’s 45 carries. In the first three quarters of last weekend’s game against the Beavers, Stanford had the ball for just 22 minutes.
I will sound crazy, but if the Cardinal offense scores on big plays the way it did last week, I think it will have a worse chance of beating the Ducks. No, the Cardinal offense does not have Gaffney this year. But that does not mean the Oregon formula has to go out the window. Why not work on the intermediate passing game with the tight ends, who were less involved (four catches) against Oregon State? Why not get Hogan going with some read-option runs? By traversing the field (and increasing the aggregate yardage, as they used to say) methodically and slowly, you are essentially reducing the sample size of how many chances each team has to score, and in the long run, the Ducks will almost certainly outscore the Cardinal. The effect is only amplified when you consider Stanford’s battered defensive line, which will be running on fumes late in the game.
I get it: Stanford’s offense was a fighter jet last week, and that is exciting. But even fighter jets have to taxi down the runway, and if the Cardinal cannot pace themselves on Saturday, they are playing into Oregon’s hands.
Do-Hyoung Park, Vihan Lakshman and Joseph Beyda love making Eminem references so much that they try to embody Slim Shady’s approach in “Without Me”: “Now this looks like a job for me so everybody just follow me / ‘Cause we need a little controversy, ‘Cause it feels so empty without me.” To come up with your own Eminem references for Do, Vihan and Joey, please e-mail them at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu, vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu and jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.