Special thanks to Jibriel Taha of The Stanford Daily for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast covering the Stanford roster. Listen HERE.
It’s 2018 all over again for Stanford - the offensive line can’t block, they can’t run the ball despite some pretty good backs, the quarterback is under pressure almost every dropback, and the offensive playcalling stubbornly refuses to recognize any of these things and adapt. But they have a quarterback with nerves of steel and a couple of basketball players with incredible hands playing wide receiver, and so several times a game they hit a huge pass out of nowhere, which has been enough to win two games and stay competitive in a third.
In the opener, they switched off between #10 QB West and #18 QB McKee, but after two interceptions West was pulled for good and McKee has taken every other passing snap (the third quarterback, #0 QB Sanders, runs an occasional wildcat play). The passing offense isn’t very efficient - 50 successful designed passing plays vs 59 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance, or 45.9%. Excluding West’s snaps, it’s 43 vs 51 or 45.7%, virtually identical - that tells me the offense’s problems are structural and not with the signal-caller.
What’s interesting about McKee is that he throws very accurate passes even under pressure, and has a big arm to hit deep passes against single coverage. Outside of garbage time Stanford is overall averaging 8.84 yards per attempt, which is a higher number than their per-play efficiency would predict, but it jumps even more to 9.24 YPA on just McKee’s snaps. Some of these throws are absolutely terrifying to Oregon fans who remember Stanford’s comeback win in Autzen in 2018:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Just a perfect throw, dropped in the bucket where only the receiver can get it. #5 WR Humphreys creates separation with Stanford receivers’ customary aggression and tracks the ball well with great hands.
- :25 - The center is getting deposited in the QB’s lap, something I saw pretty frequently, but it doesn’t affect McKee at all as he delivers a perfect sideline route up high to #81 WR Tremayne.
- :46 - Stanford deploys lots of tight ends but only one gets targeted for passes with any regularity, #84 TE Yurosek. He missed the game last week along with six other players for undisclosed reasons, but Jibriel tells us he’s been upgraded to “probable” for tomorrow. This play is typical of his goofy-looking but effective route running, and a tall QB lobbing passes to a tall TE in the middle of the field is often a winner for any team.
- 1:10 - This play feels like every pass Stanford hits: the line is getting crushed by a blitz and coverage is pretty tight, but it doesn’t matter because the pass is perfect and Tremayne is so strong he can keep his grip on the ball despite the CB having his arm inside.
McKee generally doesn’t come off his first read, because he generally doesn’t have time to with such a frequently collapsing pocket and because most opponents try to cover their huge receivers in man. I’ve seen some teams break up the pass with additional coverage he doesn’t see because he’s locked on, but by far the most effective way to stop Stanford’s passing attack is get to the quarterback and actually put hands on him as he’s throwing, not just threatening him. Some examples:
- :00 - Kansas St was consistently getting pressure rushing only three, as in this play, and their strategy was to back out far enough with eight in coverage that McKee couldn’t immediately find a target for a deep shot, giving the pass rush time to get home.
- :14 - USC tried the opposite strategy and was sometimes even successful with it - blitzing and man coverage, and whacking the QB as he releases so the throw is inaccurate.
- :31 - Vanderbilt doesn’t have much of a pass rush but they were effective, before the game got away from them, at dropping their backers and breaking passes up underneath - McKee seems to have trouble tracking layered coverage.
- :45 - UCLA relied on the speed of their defensive front to get through in about 2 seconds after the snap. Pass blocking this poor against even a very simple pass rush — just bringing 5, no stunts or twists here — was common, but the difference for UCLA was that they were actually making contact with McKee as or before he released.
Stanford’s rushing offense is their least efficient quadrant of play: 25 successful designed rushes vs 43 failed ones, or 36.8%, which is an astonishingly poor number. Furthermore their runs are incredibly predictable, almost constantly outside power out of the I-formation, with the fullback giving it away even more clearly by offsetting playside before the snap. The Cardinal rushes 85% of the time when they go under center, compared to just 19% of the time when they’re in the shotgun.
Successful rushes are pretty infrequent, and the biggest single reason any given run gets much yardage is an obvious defensive error. Two things are worth noting, however: first, three times in their first three games they managed to hit every single block on an outside power run and, because by definition that means there’s no one to stop the play, they ran the entire field for a touchdown. Second, the few times they tried them Stanford did fairly well on zone-blocked runs, and McKee has even kept it a couple of times for good yardage despite obviously not being a fast runner - I think surprise is the biggest factor.
Here’s a representative sample of Stanford’s successful rushes:
- :00 - I recommend watching this one on ¼ speed to really pick up how each man has a specific defender to hit, because it shows how the play is set up for success — they get the four frontside blocks from the two linemen, TE, and FB — but it ends because the center gets hung up on the nose and can’t get a clean block on the backer. There’s nobody to block the DB, but #20 RB Jones (who’s “questionable” for this game) runs through them for a few more.
- :09 - One of the three big runs, here every block aligns right and the safety takes a bad angle so #8 RB Peat, who’s played every game, gets to run the field.
- :35 - Defensive misalignment here - both the safety and corner go outside and the fullback seals them both off, with nobody in the E-gap.
- :49 - Stanford should really be running this play more often, they get the most out of their huge WRs as blockers and, despite the other problems, the OL is surprisingly quick on their feet for downfield blocking.
But most of Stanford’s rushing plays instead look like these:
- :00 - I’m not sure I see a single cleanly won block on this play.
- :08 - Weakside runs are even worse, nobody on this play picks up the safety or the backer - it’s so slowly developing that the whole defense has time to flow to the play and they’re short-handed.
- :23 - I don’t know how this play could have succeeded as designed, there are three defenders over two TEs and the RT is down-blocking. Even as two defenders take off with the TEs in coverage there’s an unblocked man who predictably makes the tackle, and there’s a free backer to help out too.
- :35 - Bouncing this further outside is probably the right move by Peat since the TE has whiffed, but UCLA’s defense is just faster than he is, and he’s getting little help from Tremayne’s desultory block or the backside guards failing to get to the second level so the backers are free to chase him down.
The decline in performance on this side of the ball for the last five years looks to continue this season. I’m not wild about DC Anderson’s playcalling and over the years I’ve spotted opposing OCs repeatedly call the same successful plays without any recognition or adjustments from him, but to me the larger problem looks to be trouble in recruiting and retaining enough big bodies in the front. They’re down to a single nose tackle, have switched a (pretty good blocking) TE to a DT, and mostly operate out of a 2-4-5 structure simply because they don’t have enough linemen to run the 3-4 that they had during the program’s zenith.
That’s also presenting fatigue issues since they can’t rotate linemen as much as I think they’d like to. It hasn’t been a problem with the inside linebackers up until now, since they have four who I think all look about equally good to me, but Jibriel tells us that starter #45 ILB Miezan — who’s one of the biggest, the only senior, and often plays up on the line — has been downgraded to “questionable” for this game.
Injuries have disproportionately affected Stanford’s secondary compared to the rest of the squad. Two players who I believe would be starters at corner and free safety appear to be out for all or most of the year, and a couple other DBs have been out or will be on Saturday as well. That’s forced the defense to play several freshmen in the secondary. Jibriel tells us they should be getting back one of their more experienced safeties, #9 DB N. Williams, however.
So while the pass rush and much of the pass coverage have been missing in action the first four weeks, they’re doing okay in per-play efficiency against the pass: 71 successfully defended designed passing plays vs 62 failures, or 53.4%. I think that’s largely attributable to #17 CB K. Kelly, who hasn’t been too remarkable in previous years but has really stepped up his game in 2021, and I think is far and away Stanford’s best defensive player.
Some examples of Stanford’s successfully defended pass plays:
- :00 - This play speaks for itself; what an incredible display of athleticism from Kelly.
- :50 - Excellent coverage of arguably the conference’s best receiver. After a pick-six from Kelly in this game, opposing offenses have largely stopped testing his side of the field.
- 1:15 - The vast majority of effective pass rushes I’ve seen from Stanford involve six- or seven-man blitzes, as here, simply overwhelming the protection with numbers.
- 1:29 - This play isn’t exactly representative, but I included it to illustrate an absence - when rushing four, I almost never see penetration from the OLBs or “true” defensive linemen. What I do see are ILBs or the converted TE getting through, as in this play with Miezan and #88 DE Fisk.
Aside from a those couple of bright spots (and I think opposing offenses weren’t expecting Kelly in particular to be so good, so foolish-in-hindsight throws against him may be propping up Stanford’s numbers here), mostly what I see is the lack of a pass rush giving QBs plenty of time to pick apart inexperienced coverage. Some examples:
- :00 - The TE is running a crosser into the boundary and the offset back bluffs then heads to the field as a checkdown option. That flip means the midfield defense has to swap coverage, but they’re pretty confused how to do so. Both ILBs start on the back, then the safety who’s following the TE second-guesses himself.
- :10 - The QB has five seconds in the pocket and time to get all the way to his fourth read in the progression, and his target has run all the way across the field and built a pretty big lead on the DB, time to secure the ball and prepare himself for the hit.
- :29 - This appears to be man coverage but the safety doesn’t seem to know it since he doesn’t follow the man in motion (the freshman corner over the slot tries to alert him to it). The defense winds up misaligned even with the OLB dropping, since that safety has nothing to do and the freshman gets pulled inside on the crosser, leaving a big swath of grass open.
- :41 - The nice high angle on the replay lets us see the route and coverage structures. Two very experienced players - #10 OLB J. Fox, a 6th year, and #3 ILB Damuni, their most experienced inside backer, just let the slot receiver run right between them. The young high safety, #33 DB Gilman has his eyes on the back and drifts to the field, and can’t catch up to the receiver at full speed.
Stanford’s rushing defense is one of the worst in the country this season. I tallied them at 43 successfully defended designed rushes vs 66 failures, or 39.4%, which is abysmal. In raw stats, Stanford ranks #116 in rushing yards allowed per game at 209.0, and #117 in rushing yards allowed per carry at 5.23 (raw stats include garbage time and arguably miscategorized plays like QB scrambles, however).
I had a hard time scouring my tally sheet for positive trends or bright spots here. These are what I could find in terms of rush defense successes:
- :00 - Here Stanford has brought an extra man into the box, and the quarterback is making the wrong read. Those are very helpful factors to stopping the run.
- :15 - It’s also helpful to use a backside run blitz against maybe the worst run-blocking o-line in the league.
- :23 - Kelly’s also pretty good against outside runs.
- :30 - And Kelly can blitz from the corner.
Mostly what I saw looked like these, some of which are hard to believe:
- :00 - This is the first snap of the year for the defense, against a play they must have faced a hundred times in practice from their offense.
- :17 - Here they’re facing the #108 rushing offense in the country, and they’re backed up against the goalline in (this offense’s version of) a heavy set meaning they know a run is coming. Stanford has their 3-4 look out, so at least it’s a fair fight. But nobody can get off a block and the backer just runs into the gap and waits to be hit.
- :24 - Two things I saw over and over again when defending zone runs: both defensive linemen are getting washed inside very easily, and the inside backers instantly jump into the wash. #90 OLB Reid, whom I’ve liked for years and think is their second best defender, is appropriately staying wide to contain the QB from keeping, but there’s nobody left to defend the big gap for the back.
- :33 - I really don’t understand why Reid is going this single-mindedly for the back with no one behind him to stop the QB. This tackle-over formation gives the playside away and the DB and other OLB, both undersized, have big offensive tackles immediately eliminating any hope of containment.