Here’s Quack 12’s Stanford preview with Jack Blanchat of Rule of Tree (@jackblanchat). He really knows his stuff and gave us a great interview. Warning: the sound quality isn’t at its best, but there was a tree getting cut down in the background and we thought it was too funny to edit out.
Stanford’s offense faces all of the same challenges as last year, and without many of the saving graces that made them so dangerous. As discussed in my summer preview, this roster entered the year in a tight spot between the loss of several transformational skill players and problems in recruitment; at this point a frightening amount of injuries has left its current state a shadow of the brutally effective offense of the past decade.
The core of Coach Shaw’s offensive identity is running the ball with power, with a 50/50 split between shotgun and under-center snaps, usually with multiple in-line tight ends. But their efficiency numbers prior to garbage time are underwater: 29 successful rushing plays to 33 failed ones, and there is no meaningful difference in that ratio when breaking it down by formation, personnel groups, or blocking scheme.
There are two positive elements to Stanford’s rush offense compared to last year: first, they’ve diversified the playbook a bit, with different formations, some zone blocking, and more outside runs. Second, I think their running backs have improved, with #22 RB Scarlett running more forcefully and #20 RB A. Jones coming on at the end of week 3 as an intriguing prospect:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Here’s how Stanford wants their rushing to look: good man blocking up front and all three tight ends make their blocks, giving Scarlett a one-on-one with the safety which he wins.
- :17 - A different look, this is a shotgun snap and zone blocking. The tight ends don’t make great hits, but Scarlett shows good vision in his cut and picks up some yards after contact.
- :24 - Both the blocks and the tackles on this play are appalling, but Jones shows some pretty nifty moves and great balance, plus check out #3 QB Costello improvising a block downfield.
However, more often than not, the run game is shut down before it can start behind an injury-riddled offensive line and ineffective tight ends:
- :00 - A miscommunication between #74 LG Hamilton and #51 C Dalman allows the safety in as a free rusher, #79 RT Sarell fails to seal off the backside, and #88 TE Fisk gets knocked down violently, resulting in a hit on the back three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
- :07 - Both the C- and D-gaps are shut down by Sarell, Fisk, and #80 TE Harrington getting worked inside hard.
- :14 - Freshman backup #75 LT Rouse quickly loses control of the end and I don’t understand why Sarell doesn’t block the first man through the gap, allowing them to blow this up for a big tackle for loss.
Like last year, this offense is throwing the ball more than running it; prior to garbage time it’s a 3:2 pass-to-run ratio, and fewer than 50% runs on 1st & 10. Due to a head injury just before halftime in week 1, Costello sat out the second half of that game and all of week 2, before returning for all but the last few garbage-time snaps of week 3. His replacement was #15 QB Mills, a highly recruited player who looked pretty serviceable to me outside of a couple of unfortunate fumbles during zone-read exchanges, and in fact their stat lines are practically identical. From watching his film in week 3, I’m not sure that Costello is fully recovered from his injury and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mills plays tomorrow.
The difference in the passing game compared to last year doesn’t come from the QB changes, but rather a very different receiver corps. They’ve lost several of the towering, undefendable receivers who’d box out on intermediate routes, and replaced them with some smaller WRs who are more able in space, #4 WR Wilson, #5 WR Wedington, and #9 WR St. Brown, as well as a powerfully built but so far ineffective flanker in #13 WR Fehoko. They return #84 TE Parkinson of that enormous and seemingly undefendable mold, and while he’s gotten three times as many targets as any other receiver (from both QBs), defenses to date have effectively neutralized him.
For a variety of reasons, this offense has taken very few deep shots so far, instead preferring almost entirely short passes to the flat or quick stop routes. The receiving options are all clearly talented and on quite a few plays they’ve flashed their potential:
- :00 - Here Parkinson draws three defenders in coverage but he’s blown past all of them on a simple wheel, Mills delivers the ball in stride, and he powers through the safety for an additional six yards after contact. The camera angle isn’t super helpful in showing it, but note how all four other receiving options are more open than Parkinson due to the defense overloading on him, but Mills is locked on the whole way.
- :15 - This is one of the few plays I saw in which Parkinson effectively used his size to overwhelm the defense, and watch his precise footwork to come down in bounds.
- :35 - Freshman backup #66 RT Bragg lets through pressure so Costello gets rid of the ball fast to Wedington. This is one of seven similar plays I saw where he should have been tackled for a loss but instead broke free for a sizable gain.
But ultimately the downfield passing offense is even less effective on a per-play basis than the rushing offense, succeeding on 34 dropbacks vs 56 failures prior to garbage time. I’m seeing rapidly collapsing pockets, receiver lock-on, and a number of poor decisions:
- :00 - This play is fairly typical of the pass-pro: pretty decent by the upperclassmen guards in the interior, but weak on the edges with the tackles and tight ends.
- :12 - Here the protection holds up fairly well, but Costello isn’t taking advantage of it and instead lets go after two seconds to a double-covered Parkinson, who can’t get through the DB to this poorly thrown ball.
- :26 - The defense is clearly showing blitz but #28 RB Maddox can’t handle it, Hamilton on the left side does a poor job taking the block exchange from Dalman, and Costello forces this ball under pressure to a well covered Wedington. An easy pass break-up turns into a game-breaking interception on the bounce.
Overall Stanford’s defense was successful on 74 plays and unsuccessful on 84 prior to garbage time, and that ~45% per-play success rate shows up over and over when I break down their defense against all different sorts of plays, formations, personnel groups, defensive alignments, and so forth. So it might have been well enough to leave it at that: underwater in all categories, but not laughably so.
But I had enough data from three games to run a basic regression analysis, and from it emerged something very telling: in almost every down & distance situation, they play at a normal distribution around that 45% figure - somewhat better on 2nd or 3rd & long, somewhat worse on 2nd or 3rd & short, but that’s typical of all defenses. However, on 1st & 10, when playing in their base defense (three down linemen plus one backer on or near the line), they’re getting murdered - losing those downs at a 2:1 ratio, one of the worst I’ve ever observed.
Of course, 1st & 10 vs base is the most common play there is, so that’s bad enough already. But it’s clear it also has ripple effects throughout the defense: it means that they’re facing more short-yardage and fewer long-yardage situations, tilting the field against them on 2nd and 3rd downs even though they defend them at a not-terrible rate.
Additionally, the way Stanford has been dealing with this problem as time has gone on is by playing a heavier line on 1st & 10: four down linemen and one or two backers crowding the line. When they do so their per-play efficiency goes up; however, the price they pay is vulnerability to explosive plays - they have to walk down the safeties to help with outside runs, short stuff from the slot, etc., and that leaves the corners in man-on-man coverage for long stretches of time. And no matter how good your corners are, if you leave them on an island long enough, they’re going to get burned.
That effect leaves pass defense at 40 successes to 47 failures. Here’s some examples of when it works:
- :00 - This play is quickly blown up with penetration by #51 DE Swann, who’s playing much better than I was expecting from last year, although he missed virtually all of week 3 with a targeting foul (not the first head hit he’s been penalized for).
- :16 - The excellent #11 CB Adebo jumps the route and gets the only interception this year by a Stanford DB.
- :35 - Here Adebo plays the receiver the whole way and jumps in for a nice PBU.
But the failures are pretty spectacular:
- :00 - Bad communication leads to an ugly collision by the inside backers, leaving the crossing route wide open with a ton of green grass ahead. But that’s not necessary, as both #21 S Williamson and #22 CB Eboh get left in the dust by their men, and the QB has plenty of time to make his choice because of an ineffective pass rush.
- :09 - Stanford has been giving freshman #17 CB K. Kelly a lot of playing time, but he gets too high on this attempt at press-man and can’t recover to pursue the quick slant.
- :16 - Adebo has no help because of the aforementioned 1st & 10 heavy-line defensive adaptation, and he sure could have used it after getting torched on this double-move.
The rush defense is operating even deeper underwater, 28 successes vs 37 failures. This puzzled me at first, because I think the defensive line plus the outside backers who play at or near the line all seem to be somewhat improved as individual players compared to my observations of them last year. I don’t think there’s any all-Pac-12 first team players here, but some solid second team guys. Some highlights:
- :00 - #57 DT M. Williams, another big improvement from last year, blows up both the center and the pulling guard, then makes the TFL himself.
- :06 - Swann shoots behind the pulling guard’s heels before the tackle can block him, dodges the center, and disrupts the tight end, freeing the rest of the defense to clean this up easily.
- :13 - #50 DT Wade-Perry slips through the gap in this stretch run and is quick enough to catch the back from behind.
What I eventually realized was the big problem in rush defense is that the inside backers have possibly a worse injury situation than the offensive line, and I was seeing new players every game. They lost this entire unit from last year, including Bobby Okereke who I thought was their best defender, and the new guys have been getting hurt alarmingly often: #14 ILB Mangum-Farrar was lost after the first week, #45 ILB Miezan in the second, and #25 ILB Pryts suffered a stomach-turning injury in the third (I haven’t seen confirmation one way or the other on any of these three for tomorrow, but I would be surprised if any play). The only remaining starter is #2 ILB Robinson, a converted safety who I don’t think has the mass to be truly effective.
Here are the more typical results:
- :00 - Robinson’s flow to this outside run is poor and the DBs are … not much help.
- :16 - Same story.
- :33 - The defense is not ready for UCF’s quick snap, something I observed six times in that game. Pryts is well out of position, and the DTs don’t notice the back has blown past them until he’s seven yards downfield.