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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Leland Stanford Junior University Offense

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Their offense meets our defense in the battle of the negligible force versus the trivially movable object.

Another typical Kevin Hogan pass.
Another typical Kevin Hogan pass.
Steve Dykes

It was supposed to be so easy...

For years we have predicted the demise of Leland Stanford Junior University's football team.  After Gerhart's departure in 2009, they would certainly struggle according to our predictions.  Maybe after Harbaugh left in 2011 they would regress.  They HAD to get worse after Luck left in 2012.  What about when they replaced most starters on defense?  No matter how much turnover they had among players or staff, they always bounced back as strong as ever.  Well, my friends, I have good news: the Lobsterbacks have regressed this year, and it's been a tremendous regression at that.  There is a very good reason this team still has not achieved bowl eligibility.

You all remember this, right?

(Bonus points to whomever can tell me what in the world #94 is doing in the above gif)

On the first day of 2014, this final play of the game was an omen for the Lobsterback running game this year.  With the departures of 4 starters at O-line and their 2 leading running backs this past offseason, the running game had a big void to fill.  Ordinarily they would plug in several new players into the line and at running back and continue running over hapless Pac-12 teams.  NOT THIS TIME.

Leland Stanford Junior University's scoring is down nearly 10 points per game from last year, the rushing game generates 60 fewer yards per game, and David Shaw and his offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren finally decided to make some changes to the offense a few weeks ago.  They trimmed the playbook in order to emphasize execution and push the tempo.  It was a rousing success as Stanford scored 38 points against a hapless Oregon State defense that couldn't seem to tackle anyone.  In fact, Leland Stanford Junior University's production has since skyrocketed from 375 yards per game to 387 yards per game.  Incredible!

And they have really begun to push the tempo.  The Lobsterbacks ran at a blistering pace of 29.38 seconds per play against Oregon State, 29.69 against Oregon, and an incredible, I-had-to-calculate-it-twice-to-make-sure-it-was-correct 34.75 seconds per play against Utah.  That's long enough to run a commercial break between plays (don't get any ideas, ESPN).

With this revolutionary new Leland Stanford Junior University offense coming to Berkeley on Saturday, we might as well forfeit.

Running

It used to be that the Lobsterbacks ran all the time.  Last year they ran like a Cardinal rugby team from a match with Cal.  They ran on 65.3% of plays.  That makes sense, given that they had an all-conference running back and four all-conference linemen.  That has changed this year and the number has plummeted to 51.9% this year.  This seems to be due more to their difficulty running the ball rather than a desire to rely on their passing game to generate yardage.  Trust me, they do not want to rely too heavily on that passing game.

Scheme

The bread and butter of the Leland Stanford Junior University offense is running, particularly power running.  They pull guards, they use fullbacks liberally, and they put tight ends and H-backs all over the place.  They like to use the run to set up the pass, but the run game has not been nearly as productive this season as it has been in recent years.  Let's see how they run the ball.

Below the Lobsterbacks line up in a formation that has enough blockers that we're guaranteed to see holding on this play.  Let's call it their Egregious Holding Formation.  They have two tight ends, an H-back, and in the backfield they have a fullback and running back in the I-formation.

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I highlight the blocking assignments below and indicate the blocks at the point of attack with gold lines.  Stanford pulls the left guard and uses him and the FB to clear a path for Tyler Gaffney.

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And right on schedule, we have holding!

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The San Jose State safety is in a great position to stop this play for minimal gain, but Tyler Gaffney cuts right and escapes for an easy touchdown run.

The big, physical Lobsterback blockers win the battle of the trenches and their RB rewards them.  It's a simple recipe and it has worked well for them in recent years.

Next play.

Once again we see the Egregious Holding Formation.  This time we have 3 tight ends and the RB and fullback in the I-formation again.

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There are too many bodies in too close of a space for me to highlight all the blocks, so I'll show the blocking assignments for the field side TE, fullback, and pulling guard. Here they seal the edge to give Gaffney a running lane off tackle.

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Instead Gaffney goes straight ahead and squeezes through into the end zone.

Once again, the Lobsterbacks use overwhelming size and strength at the point of the attack to move the ball.  Occasionally they will mix things up and run the wildcat.  It's a standard wildcat: direct snap to the RB, who is lined up in shotgun. He either charges straight ahead or hands it off to a WR (usually Ty Montgomery on a sweep).

Personnel/Stats

One of the most dominant rushing attacks in the nation over the past five years, the Lobsterback running game has regressed substantially this season.

  • 145.20 yards per game (89th)
  • 4.27 yards per carry (68th)

Their efficiency numbers are okay, but the productivity is pretty bad.  By contrast our rushing offense averages 143.80 yards per game.  Fortunately we have a prolific passing game to balance it out.  The Lobsterbacks have a paltry 11 rushing touchdowns, good for 103rd in the nation.

The nicest thing you can say about these stats is that these players all have respectable yards-per-carry numbers.  Otherwise, the productivity numbers and especially the touchdown numbers are terrible.  No one has eclipsed the 100-yard mark this season.  In fact, during the past four weeks only twice has one of the RBs eclipsed the 50-yard mark.  It is clear that no one has stood out in the running-back-by-committee approach.

  • RB #22 Remound Wright: 44.00 yards per game, 4.45 yards per carry, 2 TDs
  • RB #26 Barry Sanders Jr: 29.80 yards per game, 6.08 ypc, 0 TDs
  • RB #29 Kelsey Young: 29.20 yards per game, 5.96 ypc, 0 TDs
  • QB #8 Kevin Hogan: 30.2 yards per game, 5.21 ypc, 4 TDs

The Leland Stanford Junior University offense is replacing over 2000 yards and 20 touchdowns of production from 2013.  2nd team All-Pac 12 back Tyler Gaffney piled up 1,717 yards on 5.19 yards per carry and 20 TDs last season.  His backup Anthony Wilkerson had a modest 353 yards and 2 TDs.  With four 4-star running backs, Stanford should have been able to plug in another 1000-yard rusher with no issues.  In his preseason preview of Stanford, SBN Overlord Bill Connely said "Stanford has enough options here that I can't even pretend to worry about the running back position."  Bill was wrong.  Stanford's leading rusher might not break 500 yards this season.

Part of the struggle has to do with turnover at offensive line.  The Lobsterbacks are replacing 1st team All-Pac-12 and consensus All-American left guard David Yankey, 2nd team All-Pac-12 center Khalil Wilkes, right guard Kevin Danser, and 2nd team All-Pac-12 right tackle Cameron Fleming.  Those four had 134 combined starts among them and leave behind right tackle Andrus Peat as the only returning starter on the line.  The 6' 7", 312lb Peat was a 2nd team All-Pac-12 player last season and should be a late 1st round or early 2nd round pick in this Spring's NFL Draft.  He has tremendous size but struggles with his balance on occasion.  This leads him to miss some blocks.

Passing

The Lobsterbacks are more reliant than ever on the passing game this season.  This is by necessity, however.  Kevin Hogan still has bouts of inaccuracy and no single receiver has had a standout season.  One could argue that the lack of a strong running game has failed to allow the Lobsterbacks to set up the passing game.  But that doesn't explain why Hogan likes to throw the ball on the ground five feet short of his receivers on short to midrange passes.

Scheme

Now let's take a look at the passing game.

Stanford lines up with 2 WRs, 1 TE, and 1 RB. The following play is an excellent example of how Stanford attacks the seam between the LBs and DBs.

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From bottom to top, the field side WR runs a shallow drag route, the TE runs a go route, and the boundary side WR runs a deep (~18 yard) dig route.

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As Ty Montgomery runs his drag route, the SJSU corner releases the TE and gets in position to defend a potential pass to Montgomery. This creates a big seam in the defense. Kevin Hogan sees this seam and attacks it.

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He delivers a pass to WR Devon Cajuste, whose dig route had him cut inside just below the safety.

A more accurate pass could have given Cajuste an opportunity to plow through the safety and turn this into a TD. Instead they must "settle" for a 15-yard gain.

Kevin Hogan is at his best when his offensive line gives him ample time to read the field and wait for one of his receivers to become open.  If he is hurried he will begin forcing passes and generally making poor decisions.

I have noticed that they like using a play similar to the above.  Imagine that they have a tight end instead of the boundary side wide receiver.  With this personnel package the play unfolds as it does above, but the tight end runs an out route and catches the ball while tip-toeing the sideline.  Now that tight ends are once again a larger part of their passing game, these TE out routes have become a staple.

As we saw in the last play, Stanford likes use decoy routes to get defenders out of position. Here they line up with 22 personnel and move WR Devon Cajuste from the boundary side (top) to the field side (bottom) prior to the snap.

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The tight ends run corner routes while Cajuste runs a go route. The intersection between Cajuste's route with the TE's route will create havoc for the SJSU defensive backs. To add further confusion, Stanford uses playaction to get the safeties to bite on the run.

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The circled middle linebacker at the 35-yard line picks up the TE while the circled safety moves towards the hashmark to help cover Cajuste.

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The intersection of the TE and WR Cajuste's routes is about to wreak havoc on this defense.  Watch the safety in the middle of the field in the gif below as he tries to go back inside to cover Cajuste. But it's too late. He's gone.

Like the last play, this play relies on excellent pass protection.  It takes a while for this play to develop, but these kinds of plays are when Kevin Hogan is at his best.  Despite inconsistency in the short and medium passing game, he has impressive downfield accuracy.

Finally we'll look at a play that incorporates both running and passing elements.  Stanford lines up with 3 WRs and a TE.

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There's too much going on here so I have color-coded the players' assignments. The gold assignments show the assignments for a run. Stanford pulls the right guard and uses him as a lead blocker for an off-tackle run.  Meanwhile the TE, LT, and LG seal the edge.  Playaction further suggests that this is a run play.  The rest of the line heads downfield to block for a jailbreak screen to Ty Montgomery.

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The blocking is pretty bad on the screen: Cajuste misses his block and it looks like #73 is dangerously close to holding.

Ironically, these shorter, simpler passes have been the most troublesome for Hogan.  Unless he's throwing 30 yards downfield, he's as likely to hit his receiver as he is to throw it 3 yards short.

Personnel/Stats

Once again the Lobsterbacks' per-play numbers are better than the cumulative yardage numbers.

  • 233.2 yards per game (62nd)
  • 7.4 yards per attempt (50th)
  • 137.69 QB efficiency rating (44th)

While the total yardage number is better than it was last year, the yards per attempt has plummeted from 8.9 and the efficiency rating has declined from 152.  This is what happens when the running game stops setting up the pass.

The individual stats are competent but not enough to strike fear into their enemies' hearts...unless their enemies have depleted secondaries and no semblance of a pass rush.

  • QB #8 Kevin Hogan: 215.5 yards per game, 63.8% completions, 7.4 yards per attempt, 15 TDs, 7 interceptions, 137.71 efficiency rating
  • WR #7 Ty Montgomery: 59.0 yards per game, 9.83 yards per catch, 3 TDs
  • WR #89 Devon Cajuste: 51.1 yards per game, 16.36 yards per catch, 3 TDs
  • TE #84 Austin Hooper: 33.0 yards per game, 11.38 yards per catch, 2 TDs
  • WR #3 Michael Rector: 27.8 yards per game, 13.90 yards per catch, 1 TD

The passing game is led by Kevin Hogan, who is having the worst season of his career.  Clearly the tutelage of QB Coach Tavita Pritchard is paying dividends.  As I mentioned before, Hogan is a great downfield passer if his offensive line gives him sufficient pass protection.  If his decision to attend Leland Stanford Junior University didn't already make it abundantly clear, Hogan makes bad decisions on occasion.  He sometimes forces throws into coverage.  Last year's Big Game was the best game of his career (329 yards, 12.9 yards per attempt, 5 TDs) and I'm sure he's looking forward to the opportunity to have an encore performance this year.

Also, he's not sure if he will return to The Farm next year or if he will declare early for the NFL Draft.  Yes, the NFL Draft.

The wide receiver corps returns mostly intact from last season.  This means we will face the three-headed monster of Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, and Michael Rector.  Fortunately for us, they will all likely fail to eclipse their production from last year.  Last year they combined for 2,031 yards and 18 TDs.  Through ten games this season, they have combined for 1,277 yards and 8 TDs.  Instead of relying on its top playmakers, the Lobsterback offense is spreading the ball around better this year.

6' 2", 215lb Ty Montgomery enjoyed the best game of his career against Cal last year as he accumulated 160 yards and 4 TDs.  He's a big, physical receiver who dares DBs to take him down with arm tackles.  Although he hasn't been particularly productive at Leland Stanford Junior University, he has enough size and talent that he will likely be a 1st or 2nd round draft pick next year.

At 6' 4" and 228 lbs, Devon Cajuste is even bigger than Montgomery.  He is the Lobsterbacks' best deep-ball threat.  He has a tendency to disappear, however.  He had three games with 100+ yards last season but five times he registered 1 or 0 receptions.  He has been more a more consistent target this year, although he has only found the end zone in one game.

Michael Rector has taken over Cajuste's role as the invisible WR.  On four occasions this season he had 0 or 1 receptions, although he has also had 50+ yards on three occasions.  Like Cajuste, he has had trouble finding the end zone.

Fun fact: the three aforementioned receivers have not scored a single touchdown since September.

After collecting only 11 of the team's 190 receptions last year, tight ends are more involved with the offense this year.  They account for 42 of the team's 199 receptions this year.  Sophomore TE Austin Hooper leads the way and is their most reliable and productive TE in the passing game.

The previously mentioned turnover at offensive line has not helped the Lobsterback passing game.  As I will discuss shortly, their sack numbers are the highest they have been since the Bush administration.

Miscellaneous

And now for some more feel-good stats.

Total Offense

In case it was not abundantly clear already, Stanford does not have a good offense.

  • 23.9 points per game (99th)
  • 378.4 yards per game (85th)
  • 5.78 yards per play (54th)

On a per-play basis, their offense looks considerably better.  However, their tempo makes a retirement home flag football team look like the Oregon Ducks on adderall.

Conversions

If that respectable yards-per-play stat has given you the slightest bit of concern, the next two stats will make you better.

  • 38.28% third down conversions (85th)
  • 46.15% red zone conversions (115th)

The Lobsterbacks are terrible on third downs.  Things get even worse with David Shaw's atrocious red zone offense.  They might as well kick as soon as they get inside the 20.  At least they would avoid another red zone fumble.

Negative Yardage

Normally the Lobsterbacks are among the best in the nation at avoiding turnovers and negative yardage plays.  That is no longer the case.

  • 19 turnovers (88th)
  • 2.20 sacks allowed per game (79th)
  • 4.90 tackles for loss allowed per game (32nd)
  • 53.7 penalty yards per game (68th)

Not only does Stanford have 19 turnovers, their defense has a forced a woeful 9 turnovers (122nd nationally).  This -10 turnover margin is the worst margin in the Pac-12.  In addition to turning the ball over much more this year, they also move backwards more often.  They have allowed 22 sacks this season.  By contrast, they allowed a total of 25 sacks in the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons combined.  These are the worst sack numbers since the 2007 season.  Although their tackles for loss numbers are respectable, the number of yards lost on those plays has risen from 3.1 last year to 4.6 this year.  When they get tackled for loss, it's a big loss.

Clock Management

Our defense will feel like it's playing in slow motion this week.

  • 31:05.30 average time of possession
  • 65.5 plays per game
  • 28.48 seconds per play (glaciers move at a faster pace)

The Lobsterbacks run a Pac-12-low 65.5 plays per game at an incredibly slow pace.  This helps explain why their total-yards-per-play stat (5.78) is respectable but their cumulative yardage numbers are awful.

Conclusions

Leland Stanford Junior University uses a subpar running game to set up a mediocre passing game.  Their running game relies on overpowering opponents at the point of attack.  The Lobsterbacks accomplish this by using a multitude of tight ends, H-backs, and fullbacks.  The departures of four of their offensive linemen and top two backs from last season have limited the effectiveness of their running game.  The passing game builds on the running game by using playaction to get the defense to bite on a run play.  The Lobsterback passing game is at its best when Kevin Hogan gets ample time to survey the field and find his open receiver.  He is less effective on short and intermediate routes, where his accuracy suffers.  He relies on more options in the passing game this season, but his top receivers have had disappointing production this year.  This is arguably the worst offense in the Pac-12, but it has excelled against the Pac-12's lower-tier defenses.  We need to find a way to get pressure on Hogan and keep his receivers from getting open downfield.  If we can take away the deep passing game, we can contain this offense.  If we cannot stop the passing game, we will have to rely on our offense to find a way to score repeatedly against the best defense in the Pac-12.