Thanks as well to tristanh314 for the preliminary charting setup on Stanford’s first four games this season.
Nota bene: Because of how early in the season it is, it’s my customary practice to chart September opponents’ games against FCS teams in order to pick up tendencies and personnel usage, as well as diversify the video base from which to select examples. So clips from and discussion about Stanford’s week 3 loss to FCS Sacramento State are included in this article. However, as is also customary, statistics from that game are excluded from the numbers herein except as specifically noted. That’s because even in a loss, Stanford’s efficiency and other per-play performance metrics were substantially better against their FCS opponent than they have been against their FBS opponents — as is virtually always the case in games between any Power-5 and FCS teams — and including them would skew the results’ predictive power for the rest of Stanford’s schedule against FBS teams.
Stanford’s offense is currently ranked 96th in F+ advanced statistics, the lowest in the Pac-12 and fourth lowest in the Power-5. Head Coach Taylor has faced many challenges in his first season taking over after David Shaw’s retirement, among them being difficulty selecting a replacement quarterback for an NFL draft pick, offensive line problems that have lasted the better part of a decade, and the unique intersection of NCAA and university transfer policies that make it easy for the Cardinal to lose playable talent but hard to bring it in.
The most significant issue that Stanford’s offense presents is that their passing game is badly underwater in efficiency at a 41% per-play success rate (39 successes vs 56 failures outside of garbage time, given the down & distance), with significantly below average yardage and explosiveness figures at just 6.8 adjusted YPA and only about 12.5% of designed passing plays gaining 15+ yards.
Some of the issue in the passing game has to do with the loss of their three most productive receivers from last year, plus an injury to the fourth who returned this season, #5 WR Humphreys, that’s kept him out of the last two games (Jibriel said it’s questionable if he’ll make it back to the field tomorrow). But Jibriel and I both agree that the pass catchers aren’t really the bottleneck here, and that Taylor has more or less the skill talent he needs to run his offense if he had the other pieces in place. So far they’ve gotten good production out of returning starter #84 TE Yurosek, a trio of fellow returners but new starters in #13 WR Ayomanor, #3 WR Farrell, and #0 WR Reuben, the true freshman #24 WR Bachmeier, and Humphreys when he’s played.
The major issues are the constantly rotating personnel at both quarterback and offensive line. Stanford has been using a two-quarterback system, with a different approach each game to who gets playing time, making it impossible for Jibriel or I to predict what exactly is going to happen tomorrow. On the podcast we extensively recapped the offseason moves with Taylor’s various choices and why the two he’s gone with – and how he’s using them – have been so shocking and completely backwards to our expectations.
My summary is that I think #14 QB Daniels is more of the primary option who operates the main, efficiency-based offense, and that #8 QB Lamson is brought in as a specialist on designed QB runs and surprise passes, but also relief if Daniels is hurt or performing unsatisfactorily … and Taylor pulls that trigger pretty quickly.
It’s difficult to capture their differences statistically, because the dataset on either of them isn’t very big – excluding garbage time, I have only 154 snaps for Daniels (50 of which were in an FCS game) and 62 snaps for Lamson (42 FCS). What those limited numbers suggest, but can’t prove conclusively, is that in both rushing and passing, the Daniels-led offense is more efficient, Lamson more explosive. In fact, the difference in efficiency is so large that Lamson playing the entire second half of their FCS game means if I’d included that data in the sample it would have caused the Cardinal’s overall passing efficiency rate to fall even further by 1.7 percentage points.
However, neither QB actually improves the offense, just makes it comparatively less bad at one thing or the other: when the offense is led by either QB against FBS competition they’re still below average in every metric I track – efficiency, explosiveness, and yards per play, for both rushing and passing.
The second issue is that the offensive line grades out very poorly, and they’ve tried out nine different offensive linemen so far this year. From left to right, we’ve seen:
- #74 LT Pogorelc, #67 LT Anderson, #76 OT Leyrer
- #61 LG Mayberry (FCS transfer), #77 OG Berzins (walk-on)
- #57 C Rogers
- #55 RG Pale (true freshman), #72 RG Uke, #77 OG Berzins
- #71 RT McLauglin, #76 OT Leyrer
As far as I can tell, none of these substitutions have been due to injuries. They’re simply game-to-game, or even drive-to-drive, experimentation to try and find better blocking options, and unfortunately for the Cardinal none have been forthcoming. In the passing game, the worst grades have gone to the tackles, each of whom is over a 22% error rate on my tally sheet in pass protection, and to the center, who’s the only o-lineman to play every down. That’s resulted in a sack, scramble, or throwaway on 27.5% of dropbacks, which is a very high havoc number. Some examples:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – Here it’s not the pocket collapse but what I see pretty often in QBs who get accustomed to them – counterproductively quick throws to the security blanket, which on this team is Yurosek. The pocket is holding up well enough for Daniels to find something better on 3rd & 6, but he locks on immediately even though two defenders are positioned to make the tackle short of the sticks.
- :07 – Another element that Taylor has introduced to this playbook that I didn’t notice while watching his championship FCS team is a whole lot of these wimpy multi-hitch patterns, I think to try and give his QBs some quick outlets with the poor protection. It hasn’t really worked.
- :26 – Stanford has also tried switching to more 12-personnel sets with both TEs attached to the formation and staying in for pass protection. It hasn’t mattered much – they can’t make the center or tackles better at their jobs, and really problematically, their dedicated blocking TE has the worst grades on the team.
- :42 – By week 4, they’d started adding the back into the protection as well, even when the defense wasn’t blitzing. On almost all dropback passing plays against Arizona, Stanford had at least two more blockers than pass rushers – four more, on this play – and yet they were still giving up pressure, while having substantially fewer potential receivers in the pattern than the defense had in coverage. That’s a nightmare for any QB.
Although Stanford is not effective at frequently producing explosive plays, statistical regression identified one peculiar fact about their offense: the few explosive plays they do produce get unusually long yardage. Indeed, more than half of all yards they’ve generated outside garbage time have come on just 9% of snaps. The pattern when watching them is that their offense will get nothing done for long stretches, and then like a lightning bolt out of the blue they’ll hit an enormous play. They’re so rare, in a dataset so small, that the regression engine can’t identify any statistically significant correlation to predict why these happen at this point, so defenses just need to be on their toes (subjectively, I suspect that playing Hawai’i, USC, an FCS team, and Arizona is the controlling factor, and the effect will dissipate as they go up against better explosive-play defenses, assuming those exist in the Pac-12).
Mixed in with these random very big plays are two other things in the passing offense: short, methodical passes and other checkdowns under pressure which make up the vast majority of the pass play counts, and a pretty effective drag route that multiple opponents haven’t figured out how to defend yet oddly Stanford doesn’t run very often. Here’s a sample of all the above:
- :00 – The RT instantly gives up pressure and Daniels is hit as he throws it. Bachmeier makes one of the most athletic receptions I’ve seen all year to bring it in, just to get four yards on 1st down.
- :12 – This is a typically screwy blitz pickup, with the LG and LT effectively blocking no one and both backs taking the same rusher. Lamson YOLOs it to Humphreys, who’s cooked the corner down the sideline. This play alone constituted nearly 40% of Stanford’s yardage prior to garbage time in the game.
- :24 – This double 10-yard hitch shows up over and over. Daniels is pretty good at identifying which throwing lane is clear and getting it there with good zip, which is key to making it work given how absolutely simple the pattern is.
- :35 – Stanford really lit up Hawai’i with this play as well, it gets the defense to commit eight to the box, and with the corners in man and the single high safety running deep with one of them, the TE drags between the pulled up backers and the cleared out secondary.
The rushing offense is also underwater in efficiency, though not quite as badly as the passing offense, at a little under a 47% success rate (29 successes vs 33 failures). In my opinion, the main reason for the better performance here isn’t improved run blocking or play design (frankly I think those are worse in the run game than the pass game) but rather a group of pretty good backs in #15 RB Butler, #2 RB Filkins, #26 RB Irvin, and #22 RB Smith, all of whom are good improvisers and can break tackles, plus Daniels’ and Lamson’s capable legs and willingness to go into contact. Here’s a representative sample of successful designed rushes:
- :00 – Here’s QB power, the OL blocking isn’t great but once the TE and WR seal the backer and edge it’s pretty much impossible to stop because you get the back as a lead blocker.
- :17 – The big puzzle of the run game Jibriel and I can’t figure out is why they’re so reluctant to give Smith the ball, he has the talent rating and highest success rate on the team. This is his first carry on the far more productive outside run (since USC’s defense still doesn’t know how to execute a scrape exchange), on the sixth possession of the game.
- :31 – I really began appreciating Filkins’ quick feet last year when he took over after Smith’s injury, and he’s kept at it. Here he pretty deftly makes the cut to get through the hole as it’s collapsing. This motion into backside slice from Yurosek was common throughout the game.
- :37 – Irvin is selling the press well here and gets the backer to bite inside, making it easy for the WR to crack him before bouncing out to open grass.
But the run blocking is just so poor, especially the five interior guard players each of whom are over 20% per-play error rates on my tally sheet, that the backs seldom have any holes to run through and are often fighting just to get back to the line of scrimmage. Most problematic is that I’m often seeing not just linemen getting physically beat, but playing what I’m fairly certain are incorrect assignments given their fairly straightforward blocking scheme. This has resulted in poor yardage and explosiveness numbers: 4.3 adjusted YPC with only 8% of designed runs gaining 10+ yards.
- :00 – Hawai’i stopped three redzone pushes in the second half that would have ended the game, each time through shutting down Stanford’s run game play after play after play. Here the edges call the bluff and ignore the possibility of play-action, knowing Stanford is just going to try and bully them with the run but can’t pull it off.
- :07 – The pulls required for outside QB power just aren’t something I’ve seen executed well. Here the RG isn’t pulling fast enough to get to the backer so the LG stops and blocks for him, leaving the safety free to crunch the QB unblocked.
- :19 – I don’t think this is a live RPO tag. It’s probably an option run but the DB’s leverage says the QB should keep, not hand off. None of the zone assignments make sense here, if it’s split flow then the TE should lead through the B-gap not run around the C-gap flapping his arms like a chicken, and even then there are two backers to block so the LG-C-RG combos are going the wrong way to free up a guard to climb to the other one.
- :25 – Jibriel and I discussed the prevalence of sweeps by Farrell to get around the inside run issues that Stanford has been having. The problem is they’re just as underwater, because the tackles and perimeter can’t block either.
Stanford’s defense is currently ranked 91st in F+, second lowest in the Pac-12 and fourth lowest in the Power-5. That still constitutes an improvement on last year’s defense, which finished ranked 106th, and they’ve also improved in most defensive metrics I track … it’s just a long way to climb, given how thoroughly neglected this side of the ball was by the previous staff and the damage done by a player exodus in the back end.
The most progress has been made on the interior of the defensive line, where in the past the Cardinal had been down to only one or two playable guys and opponents could walk all over them. In 2023, they finally have appropriate depth, size, and experience for their two-down front, and are rotating through four fairly effective interior d-linemen: #98 DT Buckey, #94 DT Franklin, #51 DT Moi, and #40 DT Phillips, with Phillips in particular getting pretty high marks on my tally sheet.
That’s shored up one of their biggest problems from last year which was giving up more than 6.7 adjusted YPC in rush defense, mostly right up the middle. That’s down a full two yards to a more reasonable, though still a little below average, 4.7 YPC in 2023 so far – a vast improvement that I suspect won’t last as they hit better rushing offenses but will still probably wind up being notably better than last year.
They’ve also come way down in explosive rushing allowed – it was 23% last year, and so far this year it’s only 8% (I think that number is an illusion though due to how rarely two of their opponents ran it and how quickly garbage time set in for the third game, such that if only one yard apiece were added to three runs it would climb to 14.5%. That’s probably a better number to have in mind for Stanford’s rush defense, about the FBS average; still, average would be a huge improvement on last year).
Here are some examples of successful rush defenses:
- :00 – Penetration by Franklin earns a holding flag here, on one of the Bows’ few runs of the day.
- :06 – Good squeezes by Buckey and Moi on the guards are affecting the back’s path and keeping the LT from getting to the backers.
- :12 – Against 12-personnel in shorter yardage situations like this one, Stanford switches to their three-down front by putting in a third DT. Great penetration across the line here, especially Phillips.
- :19 – Here’s the three-down front again, with Phillips penetrating against the center Moi crushing the RT. The back runs into him and bounces to the outside, where the edge almost lets him escape through the backdoor by losing discipline on keeping the edge set, in a recurring problem.
Continuing the reversal from last year though, the edges have gone from a strength to a weakness. There are some very peculiar personnel decisions here and a lot of shockingly lackadaisical play that Jibriel and I discussed on the podcast, so much so that I could hardly believe what I was seeing and expressed relief when Jibriel told me the staff of the Daily observed the same thing. At the same time, inside linebacker play hasn’t improved as much as hoped, in my opinion, and there are still footspeed and play diagnosis issues here.
Problems in these units are the major contributors to the fact that Stanford’s per-play success rate against designed runs hasn’t improved at all since last year – it’s at under 31% (15 vs 34), so while they’re not giving up as many yards when they lose against the run, they’re still losing as often. Some examples:
- :00 – This was pretty surprising to see in the opener given how effective #23 OLB Bailey was as a true freshman last year – rather than flow to the play with square shoulders he comes in tilted and off balance, getting run over for four extra yards.
- :07 – Here Bailey has backed out into coverage, which they have him do on about 20% of snaps. It’s strange because it’s more reminiscent of last year’s Stanford defense than anything I saw studying Wisconsin (where the defensive staff came from) over the years Oregon has played the Badgers. The structure of this gap scheme makes it very easy to run against, since the offense really only needs to win two blocks.
- :14 – The QB burned the defense on a bunch of runs in this game and I think Stanford is running themselves out of this play as a response to that by overpursuing him. It doesn’t help that the only returning senior safety gets trucked by an FCS running back.
- :33 – Franklin is closing the A-gap here, so #0 ILB Bernadel needs to take the LT on square and drive to his inside shoulder, and let #33 DB Gilman take the outside leverage. Instead they both get blocked outside and leave the inside lane open.
Issues at the outside and inside linebacker units were most evident on various option plays, which I very rarely have seen this team defend properly. While Hawai’i and Sac St basically didn’t have these in their playbooks, USC used them almost exclusively (the Trojans basically only ran two RPO plays for the entirety of their first five possessions until garbage time, since the Cardinal never stopped either one a single time) and when Arizona finally figured this out it was the key to their second-half comeback win. Some examples:
- :00 – The defense isn’t ready for the snap here, with both inside backers scuffling about which side to take, and the DBs misaligned for the overload formation – they don’t have enough defenders for three receivers and the back to the boundary. Both ILBs and the OLB bite on the RPO mesh so the outnumbered DBs get no help. If USC knew how to block with leverage this would be a touchdown.
- :08 – The man assignment rules for the backers don’t make any sense with this two-back look – there are two OLBs and two ILBs, so somebody should be assigned to the boundary back and QB. But all four of them run with the field back, and did every time USC ran this play. It’s an RPO but the QB doesn’t even have someone to read, he just throws it.
- :27 – The RPO sucks eight (!) defenders into the box, between the detached OLB, both ILBs, the nickel, and boundary safety, meaning the corner has no underneath help at all despite three teammates who could have been at the snap.
- :34 – Oregon fans ought to be able to diagram this zone read option in their sleep, but Yogi Roth breaks out the telestrator for less astute fanbases.
Another very interesting and unexpected reversal from last year’s defense is the Cardinal’s cornerback play. Despite losing almost the entirety of their secondary including all backups and everyone who had any experience playing corner in 2022, I think they’ve landed on a couple of starters who might be pretty good in #4 CB Manley and #6 CB Wright (the former had played in 2021 but left the team in 2022, only to return this year; the latter is a redshirt freshman).
I think those two have contributed to a decent pass defense success rate at 49.5% (47 vs 48) and 7.9 adjusted YPA allowed, which are below FBS average and a bit worse than last year, but not the massive decline I was expecting given the mass wave of departures from the secondary.
I have a difficult time evaluating corners from broadcast angles and it’s possible that opposing QBs are simply preferring to target the slightly softer coverage in the middle of the field by the linebackers and safeties. It’s also notable that I seem to be much higher on Stanford’s corners than Jibriel was on the podcast, and it’s usually been the reverse over the years. But my tally sheet shows very few throws against either of them, and pretty good coverage when they are challenged (including by USC on the handful of plays when they got bored running RPOs and tried pocket passing, and the Cardinal corners had no problems at all smothering the Trojans in man, which was … intriguing). Some examples:
- :00 – I think this Hawai’i receiver is pretty good from the multiple games of theirs I’ve watched and he’s one of their two main receiving threats; Wright is running with him stride for stride and gets a nice PBU on the post route.
- :20 – USC’s line is breaking down – no great surprise there – but Manley and Wright on one side and #20 DB Slocum on the other aren’t having any trouble with the Trojans receivers and get the throwaway.
- :26 – Great read by Wright on the screen here, the play never had a chance.
- :33 – Here’s another interesting holdover from last year’s Stanford defense that wasn’t part of Wisconsin’s: ditching all or nearly all DTs and playing just backers in the front, in this case four OLBs and two ILBs. Good coverage on the post route by Manley, though this QB isn’t really capable of this throw even in a clean pocket.
However, linebacker play has just been so poor in midfield coverage, and safety play has had so many problems in tackling, that opposing QBs have been able to get explosive plays down the middle pretty easily. Stanford is surrendering 15+ yard gains on designed passing plays more than 18% of the time to FBS opponents, and since this was the main way that Sac St attacked them in their week 3 loss, if I’d included that data it would have bumped almost half a point (pass defense efficiency would have collapsed over two percentage points as well). Some examples:
- :00 – Hawai’i is in empty here and they have Bernadel assigned as a spy against QB runs, so this scramble is exactly what he’s supposed to stop, but footspeed and triggering quickly enough have been consistent issues on my tally sheet for both him and fellow starter #8 ILB Sinclair.
- :13 – The other big surprise about the way they’ve been using Bailey is sacrificing his pass rush ability, which was great last year, for zone coverage, which has graded out very poorly so far. On this play, like most, he’s simply not in the throwing lane as he needs to be.
- :19 – I’m not sure if this is a zone/man confusion or the backers are just failing to hand off zone assignments with Sinclair getting greedy for the QB and abandoning the drag; either way I doubt anyone on this defense could actually keep up with a receiver running the width of the field.
- :34 – Evidently Stanford’s substitution rules include going to their bear front on 21-pers, which is an odd choice for exactly this reason – they don’t have the right bodies on the field. They bail both OLBs but only one takes a back; the other back is handled by Gilman buzzing down. That leaves the OLB standing around pointlessly, Sinclair biting on the TE chip and getting his ankles broken, and no more help when #21 DB Edwards whiffs because they pulled the nickel.