That was bad.
Michael, Vihan and I spoke at length on air before the game about how it’s not right to judge Colorado, Oregon State and Washington after just one tough game because of the small sample sizes and the fact that teams usually have many kinks to work out in the first few weeks of the season.
And yet, as soon as the debacle on the field ended on Saturday, we were the first to discuss, at length, how Stanford might not reach bowl eligibility this year. How Stanford might not be able to find the momentum of late last season. How Stanford might be falling ever deeper into mediocrity.
A year ago, I would have shrugged those thoughts off as an overreaction as soon as the emotions of the game got flushed out of my system. Like I said myself in that pregame show, the only sample size we have right now is a week.
It could very well be that Northwestern is just really, really good (especially in the secondary, which we knew would be good) and that the Wildcats are a potential College Football Playoff team and that I’m hugely overreacting.
The difference is, though, that the sample size isn’t just a week. It’s actually a year and a week. And the implications are getting impossible to ignore.
After the game, David Shaw and his players chalked the loss up to mistakes and poor execution. Shaw insisted that Kevin Hogan “played really well” and that things should start getting better after the Cardinal fix those mistakes.
But while there were definitely a few mistakes (Michael Rector’s big drop the foremost among them), I saw nothing fluky about the loss. Plain and simple, the Wildcats were the better team on the field — and it didn’t feel particularly close.
Stanford lost in the trenches on both sides of the ball against Northwestern, which is something that nobody on the planet saw coming. The offensive line struggled to open holes for Christian McCaffrey and allowed two sacks of Kevin Hogan to one of the worst pass rushes in the Big Ten from last season.
Maybe this offensive line just isn’t that good. Maybe the total will never be equal to the sum of its parts.
That would certainly explain how average the defensive line looked as well — we thought it would be good because the linemen had been “borderline unblockable” in fall camp, but maybe that’s because they were playing against a middling offensive line.
That begs the question: Why has the offensive line been so average over the last season-plus? How is it that a line consisting entirely of four-star and five-star recruits can underperform so badly?
I think it goes back to the offensive coaching: development and preparation.
I don’t think there’s any other reason why such great talent can consistently underperform so badly on the line despite having practiced and played together for three full seasons now.
To me, it doesn’t stop there. It befuddles me that Kevin Hogan can look so bad and be prone to sophomoric performances in any given week despite having run the same offense under the same coaches for four seasons now. It befuddles me that Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns, two of the most highly-touted quarterbacks in their classes, looked so awful during Spring Game and haven’t at least given a mediocre Hogan a good challenge for the starting spot yet.
And player development aside, I’m going to take this moment to finally address the elephant in the room: Stanford’s offensive play-calling and in-game coaching.
I’ve chosen to give Shaw and Mike Bloomgren the benefit of the doubt until now, but the shortcomings were magnified so badly on Saturday that I simply can’t choose to not address it anymore.
Pat Fitzgerald made beautiful adjustments on Saturday. His first offensive drive, with more conventional personnel, was shut down and Harrison Phillips utterly dominated up front.
What did he do to respond?
He chose to make Phillips a non-factor by forcing Stanford into a nickel defense, for which Phillips gets subbed out in favor of an extra defensive back — in this case, true freshman Quenton Meeks. He noticed that Stanford’s defensive ends were unable to get off blocks towards the sideline, so he attacked the perimeter with the option. He forced Stanford’s defense to sell out against the outside run on some plays and ditch its usual, disciplined contain. He took advantage of Stanford’s attempts to move its personnel outside to contain the perimeter by countering with runs into the vacated middle of the field when Stanford left just three or four men inside the box.
Meanwhile, Northwestern’s defense never looked at all uncomfortable or off-balance because Stanford failed to diversify its offense whatsoever after the first drive.
Without Michael Rector or Isaiah Brandt-Sims on the field, Stanford’s offense got extremely predictable because all four or five receivers on the field would run 5-yard or 10-yard intermediate routes that Northwestern’s secondary was keyed in on all morning long. In the second half, I’d see Hogan routinely have to go to his third or fourth read because Northwestern’s secondary seemed to know exactly what was coming and played sound coverage to match those expectations.
And again, and again, and again. Because through all of the different personnel groupings and route packages, the general philosophy stayed the same. It’s no coincidence that when Stanford brought Rector and Brandt-Sims into the fray to stretch the field, Northwestern got caught off-guard and relinquished a deep pass, which should have been a touchdown had Rector not dropped it, and a long completion to Devon Cajuste crossing behind Brandt-Sims running a go.
But through it all, it looked like Shaw and Bloomgren were sticking to their guns despite the fact that what they were doing clearly wasn’t working. By the end of the game, it’s not like they had much of a choice anyway with Stanford in desperation mode.
That lack of adjustment isn’t really new, by the way — I point to the numerous times Stanford would get out to a fast start on offense, fade away down the stretch as opposing defenses adjusted and Stanford’s offense didn’t, and then need hero ball from one or two of its players to put points on towards the end of the game.
Lots of people call Shaw’s offense “conservative,” but in my mind, “stubborn” would be the better word. I think Shaw and Bloomgren firmly know what they want the offense to be, but are unable to (or maybe don’t want to) successfully adjust to a different style outside of that vision when the talent level on that offense isn’t high enough for their game-plan. I think that was the cause of Stanford’s offensive failures last season.
I agree with Shaw: If the talent and consistency come together, Stanford’s offense can work — and work well. But, as I pointed out above, that seems to be an enormous if. And if they don’t come together, then it’s a recipe for disaster, as we saw Saturday (and countless times last season).
If Stanford’s performance against Northwestern truly was a matter of just execution and the Cardinal can pick things up against UCF and USC, I’m more than prepared to eat my words and eat some delicious crow cooked by Shaw.
But if the last year and a week is any indication, I’m more than a little concerned that Stanford’s offense may continue to struggle against big opponents due to a perfect storm of poor player development, game-planning and adjustments.
How big does our sample size need to get before somebody acknowledges that there might be a problem?
While Saturday’s loss was quite traumatic for Do-Hyoung Park, what has recently been just as distressing for him was having the quarterback of his hometown Minnesota Vikings, Teddy Bridgewater, get picked by none other than Joseph Beyda in the Daily’s Fantasy Football League. To console him or further inquire about his Teddy Bridgewater obsession, contact dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.