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Stanford's creative offense key to success

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
9:00
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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Hulking Stanford offensive guard James McGillicuddy isn’t exactly easy to disguise, but that hasn’t stopped the staff from trying to line him up incognito.

McGillicuddy’s position is as nondescript as his jersey number. He’s a “kracken,” a.k.a a fullback-tight end-halfback hybrid. He can be found wearing jersey No. 74, No. 80, No. 41 or “whatever number he is for the week.”

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck leads a Cardinal team that uses 350 plays and has averaged more than 40 points per game this season.
“He’s pretty conspicuous on the field,” Stanford center Chase Beeler said. “He’s 305 pounds, 6-4, trying to hide himself out there. I don’t think it’s really fooling anyone.”

Maybe not. But Stanford’s offense has duped plenty of defenses this year with its ever-evolving creativity. The Cardinal might line up with one, two or three tight ends, seven or eight offensive linemen. Two backs or no back. They’ll use the Wildcat formation. They’ll run the option, the single wing. They’re a spread offense. A pistol offense. And they’re constantly trying to come up with the next scheme.

“We try to hit every decade since about the 1940s,” said associate head coach Greg Roman.

It’s an encyclopedia of schemes, shifts and formations, and it’s all on quarterback Andrew Luck's wristband -- all 350 plays.

“He’s the maestro,” said Roman.

Boy, does that offense sing.

Stanford enters Monday’s Discover Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech having scored a school-record 484 points in 12 games, and has averaged 40.3 points per game, which ranks second in the Pac-10 and eighth nationally. The variety in the playbook requires a lot from the athletes, but there’s no concern about information overload.

“Well, we’re Stanford guys,” receiver Ryan Whalen said with a grin. “We’re supposed to be smart, right?”

This offense, which once this season featured as many as 27 players on the first team, doesn’t leave them much choice but to study.

“We do things that have never been done before in college football,” said senior receiver Doug Baldwin. “Maybe in Little League, somewhere down the road, but we get matchups, create matchups that enable us to have a positive outcome. We like to win the numbers games. It’s all about angles and math and outnumbering the defense.”

All but one time this year, Stanford has won the numbers game.

The Cardinal has won a school-record 11 games and eight conference games. Ten of those wins have come by an average of 26.4 points, and the Cardinal is averaging 24.75 first downs per game, which ranks ninth nationally.

So how does a defense clear across the country begin to prepare for such an unpredictable offense? By countering with an equally unpredictable defense, of course.

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said the Hokies will be “loose” in their game-calling.

“We've got the ability to do a lot of blitzes and do a lot of different things and show a lot of different looks,” he said, “and I think they've got to prepare for that, as well.”

Not even Stanford’s players know what to expect each week.

“It's always interesting coming into the Monday meeting and getting the install for this week or for the weeks during the season to see what the coaches have come up with for us for whatever game plan it is,” Luck said. “The coaches do a great job of mixing things up and putting us in a good position to succeed, and we buy into their philosophy and try to go and execute to our advantage.”

Regardless of what jersey number they’re wearing.

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