Over the past couple of days, AHMB and Bellerophon previewed the vaunted Stanford defense, the coaching staff led by David Shaw and the special teams led by a player I'll be discussing today in Ty Montgomery. I'll be taking a look at the offense for the Stanford Cardinal.
Stanford is a damn good college football team. Unquestionable fact. They're not the most talented collection of players, but back-to-back Rose Bowl bids are tough to criticize. The offense has never been a high flying unit like most teams in the Pac-12 and the stats reflect that.
Stanford ranks 6th in the conference in scoring at 36.2 points per game (31st overall) and 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense at 404 yards per game (70th in the NCAA).
Their passing offense is also 11th in the conference at just over 205 yards per game (89th in the NCAA). The rushing offense fairs a little better at 6th in the conference and 42nd in the NCAA at 199 yards per game. There is a lot of balance in the Cardinal's offense, but not a lot of total production.
You might ask how Stanford has managed to be such a successful team this year without producing a ton on offense. The easy answer is that their defense is solid, but that unit has also not been as stingy as years past due to injuries on the defensive line. The real reason is their efficiency on 3rd downs. The Cardinal have converted over 50% of their 3rd down chances (15th in the country, 3rd in the Pac-12). With a power-oriented offense, staying on the field is essential because it wears down the defense over time and gives their defense time to adjust and rest.
Now, a closer look at the individual units for Stanford. Here is a link to Stanford's depth chart for Saturday.
The offensive line for Stanford gets praise on top of praise heaped upon it by the Pac-12 media and it is mostly deserved. This unit keeps Kevin Hogan clean (just 7 sacks through 6 games) and rarely allow tackles for loss (2nd in the NCAA with just 18 on the season). Those are two areas that are strengths of the UCLA defense (averaging nearly 7 TFLs and 2.6 sacks per game). Whichever side underperforms in those two areas will more than likely be the loser of the battle at the line of scrimmage.
Stanford's starters on the offensive line have some heft and every backup at every spot is almost exactly the same size as the starter, so there isn't a huge dropoff looks-wise anywhere. The interior line is comprised of Khalil Wilkes (6'3", 286, 12 starts at LG last year) at center, Kevin Dasper (6'6", 296, 2nd team All-Pac-12 in 2012) at right guard and David Yankey (6'5", 313, 1st-Team-All-Everything in 2012, surefire early round pick in the NFL Draft, one of the best lineman in the NCAA) at left guard. Yankey and Dasper make up the best guard combo in the country (in my opinion) and will really test the Bruins defensive line that has not played as a 3-man front very much this season.
The tackles are still great players, but not nearly as intimidating as the interior guy. Right tackle Cameron Fleming (6'6", 318, Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 in 2011 and 2012) has over 30 starts and somehow might be the weakest link on this unit. The starting unit of the Cardinal features 4 very experienced seniors and one true sophomore.
Why start a sophomore at left tackle instead of moving Fleming over? Because that sophomore might end up being the best lineman of the group. Andrus Peat was arguably the best recruit in the country in 2011 and carved out snaps in 13 games last season despite not starting. He's a mammoth player at 6'7" and 312 pounds, but will be tested all night by Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh on the edge. This is the spot of the line I would recommend watching if you like seeing the fight in the trenches.
Since replacing Josh Nunes midway through the 2012 season, Kevin Hogan has been a steady presence for the Cardinal. His numbers aren't the flashiest on the ground or in the air, as is the case with all elements of Stanford's offense. He's completed 61% of his passes (82-134) through 6 games, throwing for 1178 yards with 12 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He's also rushed 35 times for 141 yards with 1 TD. With the low sack total, that is a genuine YPC of just over 4.
Where Hogan really excels is efficiency, coming in 18th in the country and 4th in the Pac-12 (behind Marcus Mariota, Sean Mannion and Brett Hundley). He makes good decisions almost all the time. Pocket presence and field awareness are so important in a power offense like Stanford's and Hogan is a great fit for it. He's come back to Earth after his crazy debut last season (very few players can complete 72% of their passes), but still is highly productive and arguably the best QB UCLA has faced so far (certainly the most well-rounded).
Stanford lost Stepfan Taylor to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL Draft, but returned two very capable backs to offset Taylor's production. The Cardinal got Tyler Gaffney back from minor league baseball. Gaffney is a big running back, especially at the college level at 6'1" and 226 pounds and he's been productive this season, rushing for 570 yards on 108 carries and scoring 7 rushing touchdowns.
His backup, Anthony Wilkerson (6'1", 215), is no slouch himself. He's been the primary backup RB for 4 years at Stanford and has had a nice season thus far. He's rushed for 216 yards and scored a touchdown against ASU.
Another player to keep an eye on is Barry Sanders Jr., son of (you guessed it) the legendary Barry Sanders. He doesn't play a ton on offense, but has gotten touches here and there.
The Cardinal also boost one of very few traditional fullbacks still left in college football. Ryan Hewitt (6'4", 246) is one of the best blocking back in the Pac-12 and probably the country. He'll be charged with getting in between the best linebacking core in the conference (Note: Barr, Jack, Zumwalt and Kendricks need a nickname) and the Cardinal ball carriers. That a matchup I will be watching closely in Palo Alto.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
A trademark of UCLA's offense at the moment is how spread out the distrubtion of receptions are. 9 guys have 7 or more receptions through 5 games.
Stanford does not have a similar strategy.
Three wideouts (54 combined receptions) and whoever is in at running back (13 combined receptions) make up 82% of Stanford's total receptions this season. So the Bruins should not be overly surprised by what players get the ball.
Let's talk about those guys. The tight end spot at Stanford was arguably the heart and soul of Stanford's offense in the past few years. Having two NFL starters and one heir apparent to the greatest TE in NFL history will do that. But losing those three players in Ertz, Fleener and Toilolo over the last two years has hurt their offense.
Luke Kaumatule who had been the starter most of the season was moved to the defensive line this week and replaced permanently by Charlie Hopkins. Hopkins (6'6", 262) has just 1 reception on the season and is a junior who did not play in his first two seasons due to injuries. I would imagine he'd get some looks on Saturday, but it is a matchup in the passing game that clearly favors UCLA, where the TE vs. LB matchup was a tough call last season.
The running back spot has supplied a combined 13 catches for 101 yards and 1 TD between Gaffney and Wilkerson. Again, I'm not overly concerned about this matchup. UCLA has done a beyond solid job of containing running backs in the passing game this season. Another benefit of the elite group of linebackers roaming the field for UCLA.
The wideouts are an intriguing group. The Cardinal's third leading receiver in yardage is Michael Rector who has 158 yards on just 4 catches with 2 touchdowns (93 yards on two catches against Arizona State). He's not been targeted a ton and isn't a huge size mismatch, but if there is a play that beats UCLA's secondary deep, odds are it will be Rector.
The two wideouts who are a more consistent part of the offense are Kodi Whitfield (6'2", 196 pound sophomore) and David Cajuste (6'4", 228 pound junior). Both of these guys are big, strong athletes. Whitfield has 9 catches for 96 yards, but did not record a catch in either the Washington State or Arizona State games. Cajuste is a nightmare matchup who is a real downfield threat. So far he has 14 catches for 268 yards and 4 touchdowns. How he'll be covered and who will cover him is an issue that should be second on UCLA's priority list defensively. The first thing is this next guy.
Ty Montgomery (6'2", 215) is the best player of the Stanford skill positions. He's been productive (31 receptions for 514 yards and 5 touchdowns to go along with 6 carries for 69 yards). When he isn't running back kickoffs to the house, Montgomery is the overwhelming favorite target of Kevin Hogan. I have to admit that I was 100% unaware of Montgomery going into this year (he hasn't recorded a reception against UCLA in his 3 career games and returned 1 kickoff in 2011 for 38 yards), but after seeing what he did to Utah last week, he certainly has attention now.
If the Bruins can bottle up Montgomery like Washington did (outside of one 39-yard TD reception at the end of the first half), then UCLA has a huge advantage over the Cardinal. It will be interesting to see how UCLA's defense attacks the Stanford passing game.
I could see UCLA's gameplan going a couple of ways. The most likely scenario is a lot of base 3-4 sets with man coverage and some situational zone looks thrown in to keep Hogan honest. The D-line depth will be tested, but with Ellis McCarthy back, that will be offset. I'm not sure what they'll do with Ishmael Adams in this one. Stanford's WRs are big and Adams is not. He has been the most targeted corner this year based on what I'm seeing and I wouldn't expect that to change on Saturday with the size mismatches on the edges.
If UCLA can neutralize the run, they'll be in good shape. Make Kevin Hogan beat UCLA with his arm. Stanford is going to get some yards on the ground, but taking away the big play and creating tough 3rd downs are key.