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Instant replay: In praise of versatility

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After an oh-so-close escape in the driving rain at Washington State, it’s good to see Stanford back on track. In case you live under a rock (sorry, yes, this column was delayed this week), Stanford beat the daylights out of Colorado on Sunday. The score was 42-10, and after a touchdown on the opening drive, the Buffaloes never seriously threatened the Card.

Praise for the retooled defense is long overdue. Stanford posted 10 tackles for loss, including 4 sacks, and picked off the Buffaloes twice. The only Colorado scores were on the first drives of each half. The defense recorded a massive goal-line stand after Kevin Hogan’s near-pick-six in the third quarter. Given that Colorado has a legitimately good offense, Stanford holding the Buffaloes to 10 points at home is worth a cheer.

Let’s take a look at the play that, in retrospect, brought the game to an end by halftime. With Stanford up 21-7 with 1:10 to go, Colorado was driving up the field until Dallas Lloyd intercepted Sefo Liufau, leading to the third Stanford touchdown of the half. Colorado never really recovered from Lloyd’s effort.
Stanford @ Colorado_play

It’s third-and-9 at the Colorado 32. Colorado still has three timeouts, but realistically, the Buffaloes are going to throw the ball. There’s still a lot of ways you can throw the ball, though, so it’s not like Stanford can predict what’s going to happen. Stanford has to call a coverage that prepares it for the most eventualities.

Stanford’s going to play Cover 4 Robber – four defensive backs setting up 10 yards back, with free safety Kodi Whitfield (F/S) roaming the shallow middle of the field. That coverage gives Stanford two zone defenders in the shallow flats (S and M) and four pass rushers. It’s certainly not that sound against shallow passes, but it defends deep throws well, and because the defensive backs have better lines of sight and tackling angles, it’s very good against sweep runs. It doesn’t outright swallow up very many plays, but it’s extremely versatile.

Calling Stanford versatile is absolutely not damning with faint praise. Versatility is actually a very demanding thing. On just one play, you’re looking for linebackers that can credibly stop the run and rush the passer and still retain the lateral agility to cover in space. You need a free safety that can do it all – Whitfield knows that he might have to stop Liufau from scrambling, cover short crossing routes or finish off plays in the run game. Individual versatility allows Stanford to present all sorts of coverages, defensive front alignments and blitz packages with the same personnel, accounting for multiple-formation offenses and high tempo. Versatility is what allows Stanford’s defense to play as a cohesive unit.

Colorado actually dials up a play that works pretty well against Cover 4. They’re trying to force Dallas Lloyd ($) into a bind – a post route behind him with X and a drag route in front of him with A. In football parlance, it’s called the NCAA play, because as the saying goes, “every NCAA team runs it.” The correct decision for Lloyd in most circumstances would be to cover the deeper route, the 12-yard post, leaving the drag open for 10 yards and the first down. Liufau reads the drag first before letting loose for his star X receiver Nelson Spruce (Ventura County, REPRESENT).

Meanwhile, Stanford is running a very simple pass rush. Right before the snap, Jordan Perez (W) moves to the line and prepares to rush the passer. Stanford’s not trying to generate an unblocked defender with just four pass rushers, but it’s definitely trying to get Perez one-on-one with a running back (R) – the T and E on the weak side occupy the other two pass blockers on the right side. It’s too late for Liufau to adjust the pass protection on the fly, and quarterbacks hate burning timeouts to audible out of plays.

Nevertheless, the unfavorable matchup doesn’t excuse how badly the RB failed in pass protection. Perez doesn’t come at him like a steam train, and the back isn’t sure what to do in response. He throws one of the worst cut blocks I’ve seen in a while. The point of a cut block is to break a player’s momentum by taking his legs out from under him, but if you try to cut a guy that’s not really moving, you’re just a speed bump with a GPA. Perez was patient – although I doubt he expected that he’d be able to step right over his man. And now Liufau has half a second left to make the throw.

Whitfield diagnoses the play and brackets the drag, causing Liufau to look to the post. Spruce is actually open, but Liufau misses badly – with a linebacker in his face, I can see why, although it’s still a horrendous throw. Dallas Lloyd – ironically, the target of the play in the first place – sees the chance to make a sweet heads-up play, and comes up with the interception. Game over. Stanford can now focus on things like Christian McCaffrey’s Heisman campaign.

 

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

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Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.