Even as the SEC joins the offensive revolution in college football, there are still teams putting a spin on "old-man football," dragging it into the 21st century. And, no, it's not just Alabama. The first month of the season has shown that there's a more palatable option for the traditionalist's rooting interest: Stanford, which modernizes old-school football attitudes better than anyone.
Stanford lost another offensive coordinator this offseason, when Pep Hamilton joined Andrew Luck at Indianapolis, but offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren stepped up and kept the machine rolling, alongside offensive-minded head coach David Shaw. Bloomgren was assistant offensive coordinator for the New York Jets from 2009-11, including their two AFC title game seasons, and he appears to be making the "ground and pound" offensive mantra that failed with the Jets into a success at Stanford.
Stanford is what Rex Ryan wished his first Jets teams could be, minus the circus atmosphere. Those two successful Jets teams were built with defense, and Stanford certainly has that. The Cardinal returned All-Pac-12 and All-America-caliber talent everywhere in their 3-4 scheme, from Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson at defensive end, to Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov at linebacker, to Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richardson at safety. The defense may not be as fast as the best Alabama and LSU teams of the last decade, but the players' ability to play smart and process information quickly allows them to play fast anyway.
Just as important, the offense appears to have turned a corner after a year of post-Luck uncertainty (which still featured a 12-2 record and a Rose Bowl win, despite ranking 71st in yards per play). It has an emerging star at quarterback in Kevin Hogan, and its offensive line continues to steamroll the opposition. Through four games, Stanford is averaging 6.81 yards per play, an improvement of 1.28 over last season, setting it an intriguing matchup this Saturday with an improved Washington team that pulled off a 17-13 upset last season.
Over the summer, Shaw talked about Stanford's "NFL mentality," which involves smart scheming and a thick playbook that aims to stay a step ahead of opponents. Two weeks ago, Stanford hosted Arizona State in what appeared to be an important matchup of top-25 teams, putting all of that on display in a dominant first half. Here's one short sequence from the Cardinal's first possession:
Second-and-two at the Arizona State 42-yard line: Stanford spreads the field with four receivers split out, the type of formation we expect to see in the Pac-12 and, well, everywhere. Hogan goes through his progressions and ends up settling on a dump off to running back Tyler Gaffney, who picks up the first down despite nearly fumbling the ball away. It's not an uncommon look for Stanford, as the quarterbacks are accustomed to making multiple reads, and Taylor was second on the team in catches last year with 41 as a receiver out of the backfield. Really, it's the formation that stands in stark contrast to what we'll see just two plays later.
First-and-10: Hogan throws deep. It's incomplete, and it's also still somewhat of a rarity for the program on first down. Last season, Stanford ranked 95th in first-down pass attempts with 130 in 14 games, and this season the Cardinal has just 33 in four games, although it's important to note that the stat can be skewed by the number of games in which Stanford takes a commanding lead and then milks the clock by running the ball in the second half. Still, Stanford picks its spots and knows how to keep a defense off balance, even when it's known for running well over 50 percent of the time (something that happened under Luck, too).
Second-and-10: Stanford lines up in a jumbo, jumbo package -- eight players on the line and two backs lined up in the I-formation behind Hogan -- and runs up the middle with freshman Remound Wright. It's hardly unexpected for Stanford, although it's a bit off-the-wall for second-and-10 at the 38. Bloomgren has spoken of packages involving as many as nine linemen on the field at once, but Arizona State coach Todd Graham still said he was surprised after the game, after Stanford went through its first two games without showing much.
"I think they were very, very vanilla," Graham said of Stanford's wins of San Jose State and Army. "Yeah, they had some things that we hadn't seen, and they do a great job coaching. That's one of the tough things about playing a conference game that early. But it's the same for them as it for us."
Third-and-6: On a typical passing down, Stanford lines up in the traditional I-formation and runs up the middle, making Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler proud, and coming up short in the process.
OK, so maybe this isn't the best example, as Stanford ended up stalling because of an overconfident and conservative third-down run and missing a 51-yard field goal. But it's the type of sequence, on its first drive, that shows the flexibility of Stanford's apparent old-school approach -- throwing deep on first down, running on third; spreading the field on one second down, but then overloading the line of scrimmage with linemen on the next. The offense may have failed this time, but moments later, the defense forced an awful Taylor Kelly interception to set up a Stanford touchdown, setting the stage for the Cardinal to take a commanding 29-0 lead over the Sun Devils into halftime, with those first-drive failures turned into successes.
Stanford patiently wears teams down, finds weaknesses and exploits them, and it can out-scheme opponents confidently for a few reasons. First, Shaw is one of the brightest minds in coaching and, like Jim Harbaugh, will be coveted for NFL jobs. Second, the Cardinal has found another smart quarterback in Hogan, who now has almost a full season of starts under his belt and can be trusted to do whatever Shaw throws at him. Third, the offensive line is smarter and stronger than every defensive front it will face -- including Arizona State, which is loaded with proven playmakers on its D-line. In four games, Stanford has allowed only 3.25 tackles per loss per game (ranking No. 2 nationally), a category in which it led the nation in 2011 and 2009, and its quarterbacks have been sacked only three times total.
Like LSU with Zach Mettenberger and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Stanford's offense has evolved into the potent combination of power running and downfield passing. When Hogan replaced Josh Nunes as starting quarterback midway through last season, Stanford didn't lose a game, but conservative passing kept Hogan reined in. He completed 23 passes of 15-plus yards, and only six of 25-plus yards, with an average of 7.2 yards per attempt in seven games. This season, however, in just four games, Hogan has already completed 21 passes of 15-plus yards, and 12 of 25-plus yards, with an average of 9.6 yards per attempt.
Part of it is personnel. With three tight ends drafted by the NFL in two years, Stanford is young and thin at the position, while 6-foot-2, 215-pound speedster Ty Montgomery is now healthy and the obvious choice as a No. 1 receiver. With no proven playmakers at tight end, Stanford wisely has adapted to take advantage of the personnel it has, including the solid arm strength of Hogan, who has come into his own as a confident, comfortable, sophomore quarterback with an obvious NFL future.
Unlike LSU this season, Stanford still has the defense to dictate the pace of almost any game, like last year when it beat Oregon 17-14 in overtime. For one, Stanford's tough, instinctive defense is also big, with only one starter under 200 pounds and four linebackers averaging 250 pounds. They wear opponents down physically, and they don't make mistakes, giving very few openings for Pac-12 teams not necessarily accustomed to their physicality.
"They're a very mature team, and they play like one," Washington State coach Mike Leach said after Saturday night's 55-17 loss to Stanford. "They have the discipline to stay in and do their thing. They outlast you. They come at you physically. At times our technique would break down, and they'd capitalize on it. You have to play extremely sharp for an extended period with them."
Aside from USC, West Coast teams have been known for airing it out and spreading the field, so Stanford fights back by doing the opposite. In an age where defenses spend time preparing for a faster, more wide-open passing game, Stanford's physical approach to offense suddenly has become the oddity. From Luck to Hogan, and from Jim Harbaugh to Shaw, the Cardinal has found the perfect individuals to capitalize on that advantage. By meshing an old-school aesthetic with 21st-century innovation, Stanford has figured out how to manage a somewhat limited talent pool effectively, which should seem somewhat familiar to fans in the Bay Area.
The up-tempo, spread-offense revolution is fun for the game and undoubtedly entertaining -- it's possible that nothing will top last week's Georgia-LSU game for pure watchability. But even in 2013, it's sometimes fun to watch a team unabashedly use nine-lineman formations and beat the tar out of opponents physically. It's good to have that balance in the college football universe, and Stanford has found a way to do it without making it look ugly.
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