I reviewed each of Stanford’s first three games, though for various reasons most of this film study will focus on the first two games against San Diego St and USC. I think the Cardinal is a tough opponent, though one with more than a few vulnerabilities; however they have one key matchup that I think will be killer for Oregon.
I was somewhat surprised to see how simplified the offense has become under new OC Pritchard, who’s never had a job outside of Stanford … perhaps he considers this a distillation of the offenses in his time there. There are basically only two formations and three plays: a jumbo set for the halfback dive or a toss play, and a 10- or 11-personnel set for running 4-verts (plus a smattering of swings and bubble screens, but they’re rare and never effective), there are no sweeps and basically no motion … the most shocking absence is any real commitment to selling a play-action pass, as the halfback immediately goes into pass blocking when the QB drops back. Regardless of its simplicity, #3 QB Costello runs this offense pretty smoothly.
The star attraction is last year’s Heisman runner-up, and when he breaks free #20 RB Love is an explosive rushing threat (reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos and play them at ¼ or ½ speed):
On the first play of the clip, the whole USC defense follows the fullback dive and foolishly loses the edge, which Love exploits on taking the pitch. On the second play (at :31), Love takes the inside power toss but the offensive line hasn’t cleared any lanes for him, so he bounces outside, breaks the DB’s ankles, and benefits from quite a block by his tight end. On the third play (at :48), Love takes an outside zone toss with some really great blocking on the outside for a big gain - this is, in my opinion, the best playcall I’ve seen Pritchard make, considering how the first half and the play immediately before this went. The last play (at 1:22) is included for completeness’ sake, since I don’t think it’s blocked properly -- the backside TE misses his block and the LG cleans it up for him, leaving the safety in a position to stop the run for a short gain -- but it is nonetheless impressive to see Love break his one-on-one tackle.
The problem, dear reader, is that the above four plays represent 100% of Stanford’s rushes of any significance against FBS opponents this year. That’s it, I don’t have any more good runs to show you even if I wanted to. They’re simply not able to run the ball effectively, these rare exceptions notwithstanding. And the pattern with them should be obvious: they all rely on luring almost the entire defense into the box with extra blockers, and then getting Love to the outside - they’re never up the middle.
One of the narratives that emerged after Love’s surprising 1.6 yards per carry average against San Diego St (only 28 yards on 18 carries) was that the Aztecs were stacking the box with defenders and that’s why Stanford couldn’t run. And that’s true, as far as it goes - let’s look at some examples:
On the first play, SDSU has all 11 men in the box, and all it takes to blow this play up is #63 RG Herbig being a little slow to get off his double-team to block the shooting linebacker; even if he hadn’t three more Aztecs had gotten past their blockers in time to cut off the playside and the backside, and of course the middle was totally clogged. On the second play (at :15), this zone block is requiring too much of the o-line given the number of defenders coming down (and SDSU wasn’t even really ready for the snap) - the RG panics at the WILL coming into the B-gap, even though that’s #6 FB Williams’ assignment, which forces #51 C Dalman to block the DT and leaves the A-gap open for the MIKE to shoot … the boundary CB is also free to contain the edge since the lone split-out receiver heads inside to block the safety. On the last play (at :37), we see the Cardinal still having trouble against the Trojans’ eight-man box - the DT shades over to #74 LG Hamilton’s inside shoulder, forcing him step inside and allowing USC to pin him and the blitzing safety to crash hard into the backfield (the only guy left to stop him is Costello, who at least taps him on the shoulder in lieu of blocking).
A few observations about this: first, all of these plays feature Stanford in very heavy sets -- three tight ends and sometimes a fullback, with one or even zero receivers split out -- so of course the defense loaded the box … where else would they put their guys? Second, maybe in previous years Stanford’s jumbo sets with eight or nine blockers could defeat the defense’s comparably stacked box, but this year they just don’t have that ability. Third, this configuration -- inside run out of a jumbo set against a stacked box -- failed constantly against FBS competition (I had thirteen more such failed plays to choose from when making this video, from just two games), and yet Pritchard called them time and again.
Fourth, while the narrative is therefore not wrong that they couldn’t run against a heavy box, it’s still misleading because Stanford can’t run against a light box either. Let me prove it:
I’ve got a lot more of these if anyone doubts it, including against UC Davis. I think my favorite is the last one (at :47) where Herbig gets flagged for holding the 3-tech but still can’t stop him from tackling Love.
Fortunately for the Cardinal, they have another option, and it’s quite terrifying for Pac-12 defenses - a host of extraordinarily tall receivers and tight ends who can simply box out their coverage:
On the first three of these plays, #82 TE Smith and #19 WR Arcega-Whiteside are covered pretty well, but the shorter DB who’s stayed downfield can’t break up the pass because they can’t get an arm around the big body in front of them. The last one is against UC Davis, which wasn’t too informative of a game, but I wanted to show the play that’s been haunting me this past week - watch Smith demolish the DB off his break and then require three guys to pull him down.
These receivers are also quick enough that they defy other means of defending the pass:
On the first play, the CB attempts to undercut the route and play the ball, but Arcega-Whiteside gets him turned around and catches an underthrown pass. On the second play (at :17), Smith releases downfield and the linebacker assigned to cover him is too slow to get in front of the ball. On the last play (at :32), Smith splits the zone and the CB flips the wrong way, giving Costello the kind of straightforward throw over the middle he can make.
This passing attack can be defeated by good coverage, however:
On the first play, an obvious passing down lets SDSU play quarters, and #84 TE Parkinson can’t hang on when he’s slammed by both the backer and the safety on top. On the second play (at :20), Costello just doesn’t have enough arm strength to throw this 41 yards (thanks Pythagoras) to hit the receiver high - the ball is low enough that the DB can make the pass breakup. On the third play (at :28), the CB is playing nice tight man coverage on #2 WR Irwin, and times his contact perfectly to clobber him from behind just as the ball arrives to break up the pass without a penalty. On the last play (at :34), the pass is broken up despite no safety help and the defense playing an eight-man box (another media narrative busted) because making an accurate throw this deep and into good man coverage without setting his feet properly is asking too much of Costello’s arm.
But by far the better option to defeat Stanford’s passing game is to take advantage of the Cardinal’s surprisingly porous line to put pressure on the quarterback:
I trust these don’t require much breaking down - a good pass rush throws off Costello’s motion sufficiently to result in pretty inaccurate throws, and he’s not a scrambler who’ll make something out of a broken pocket. These aren’t rare, either - I had ten more of these plays where the pass rush gets home and disrupts the throw to choose from when making this video, again on only two FBS games.
This is all rather shocking for preseason observers of Stanford, myself included, who had their offensive line pegged as the best in the conference. They’re just not run- or pass-blocking at the level we had expected to start the year.
As an addendum, Stanford’s game last week against FCS UC Davis turned into a 20-point win by the 4th quarter (a blowout by Cardinal standards and certainly far more impressive than Oregon’s 13-point win against a Mountain West team), but it started out pretty rocky for the same reasons that showed up against their FBS opponents - they can’t run up the middle and Costello is prone to bad mis-throws, especially under pressure:
Here, the backups #22 RB Scarlett and #23 RB Speights are playing in Love’s absence with an injury, but they’re not doing much better since the o-line is quite porous, and Costello’s sloppy footwork leads to a couple interceptions.
Stanford DC Anderson’s scheme is structurally fairly similar to Oregon DC Leavitt’s - a 3-4 with outside linebackers usually playing on the line and inside linebackers reading the play, although with much more blitzing. I think the strength of this front seven is more in their backers than linemen.
Let’s start with them by looking at their best run defenders:
On the first play, I believe the run is supposed to go to offense’s left, behind the pulling guard ... but the blitzing #20 ILB Okereke beats the center and absorbs the RG’s pull, so RB bounces right where unblocked #32 OLB Alfieri is waiting for him. On the second play (at :12), Okereke’s identified the gap and his blitz stops the fullback cold, shoving him back into the ballcarrier and leaving the rest of the defense to eventually clean up. On the third play (at :19), #57 DT M. Williams beats his block and disrupts the line enough that #27 ILB Barton has an unobstructed path through the backside, while Alfieri has beaten both the slot and fullback’ s blocks to meet the runner playside. On the last play (at :25), Alfieri and #51 DE Swann beat their blocks with impressive speed to catch the back before he can bounce outside.
However, even when they load the box, I believe Stanford’s defense is vulnerable to well-blocked power running right up the middle:
On the first play, quality power blocking with a pulling guard takes care of the first level of the defense, the fake sweep and possibility of a QB keep or play action distracts the second level, and the back is too powerful for these arm tackles. On the second play (at :25), the little motion by FB is all that’s needed to move Barton and Okereke away from this counter, #11 CB Adebo whiffs on the tackle, and #9 S Edwards hesitates instead of closing on the back (although credit his speed with eventually chasing him down). On the third play (at :56), #24 DT Wade-Perry gets doubled, but the LT clears out #97 DT Jackson literally single-handedly and the TE and pulling RG easily handle the backers. The last play (at 1:16) I’ve included because it demonstrates something puzzling we’ll come back to later - USC has a crummy offense this year because their blockers are often out of position, but they’re clearly very talented, e.g., on this play the pulling guard takes out two blitzers at once, #31 ILB Branch and #5 S Buncom. This sort of thing makes evaluating Stanford’s defense difficult because USC is so wildly inconsistent from play to play.
SDSU and USC also put on film some formations that should be familiar to fans of Oregon’s new pistol offense:
On the first play, Buncom, Edwards, and #4 CB Murphy are all in a position to stop this run for a modest gain, but whiff on their tackles. On the second play (at :23), USC has split out four wide receivers and Stanford has lightened the box … the possibility of a QB keep freezes Alfieri, simple power blocks clear the rest of the line, and even a half-hearted block by the RG at the second level delays the Okereke’s tackle until after the RB has made a nice gain. On the third and fourth plays (at :30 and :37), USC is showing us how Stanford defends a pistol dive and off-tackle run, respectively.
Stanford has a pretty impressive-looking pass defense, both a good pass rush and excellent coverage:
On the first play, Okereke’s blitz comes so hot that the LG panics and blocks him high, even though the FB is going to block him low - that’s a chop block (15-yd penalty) - but Okereke gets up despite this and still almost sacks the QB. On the second play (at :14), Okereke yet again destroys the FB to hurry the throw, and #11 CB Adebo nearly picks it off. On the third play (at :27), #90 OLB Reid and #52 OLB Toohill break through despite only a 4-man rush, the zone coverage has the four receivers locked up, and Adebo and Jackson hustle quickly to tackle the scrambling QB short of the sticks. On the last play (at :38), Adebo makes an excellent pass break-up in man free, though I think if the ball were deeper and the receiver didn’t have to stop and jump he could have beat the CB.
I have noticed a few exploitable patterns in coverage though:
On the first play, Adebo is playing this slant route kind of soft, and I think is caught napping a little because SDSU has been running the ball all game long. On the second play (at :20), Murphy drops his hip just because of a little stutter from the receiver, resulting in him getting turned around in coverage on this slant route. On the third play (at :41), Stanford has run out of DBs to cover 4-verts on an obvious passing down and puts Okereke in press-man coverage, which gets him spun around. On the last play (at :57), for once both the pass rush doesn’t get home and the QB throws deep enough, and the receiver is able to beat Murphy down the sideline.
I also think this secondary is a little gun-shy about contact:
On the first play, the fake fly sweep gets much of the defense moving sideways, and it’s quite a surprise for SDSU of all teams to throw deep on 3rd and short, but this is an awful lot of comically broken tackles. On the second play (at :25), Murphy hesitates and surrenders 5 yards and the 1st down - and this is on swing pass that’s thrown behind receiver and gives him plenty of time to close. On the last play (at :33), #13 CB Holder is playing his responsibility correctly but he can’t make the tackle, and this isn’t a great throw on wheel route - the back doesn’t catch it in stride but he makes a big gain anyway.
Finally, because I had extra time this week as the UC Davis film was so un-illuminating, I made some more clips of Stanford’s defense looking pretty damned good against USC when the Trojans screw up their blocks and play a true-freshman QB, to show why it’s so difficult to evaluate how good the Cardinal defense really is.
Run blocking errors:
QB progression errors:
Pass blocking errors:
Identifying the specific mistakes USC is making is left as an exercise for the reader.
(No seriously, let’s practice our film study technique together. Let us know in comments how you’re seeing the blocking and QB choices in these clips. If you need a little help, Coach Cristobal broke down the last play of the last video (at :55) for you in his Monday presser at 11:42.)