- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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For a while, it was Stanford that had the Oregon problem. Then, for a couple of seasons, it was Oregon that had the Stanford problem. Back and forth went the Pac-12 title.
But for the first time last season, we saw something we hadn’t seen since David Shaw took the helm from Jim Harbaugh. Stanford was having a Stanford problem.
Because of this existential conundrum, Stanford was unable to run the football with the grit and effectiveness that had made the Cardinal two-time conference champions heading into last season. And as a result, Stanford was very un-Cardinal-like for the bulk of the 2014 campaign. In fact, last year’s average of 158.7 rushing yards per game, 4.3 yards per carry and 22 rushing touchdowns were the lowest season totals of the Shaw era.
There are several factors worth considering. For starters, the Cardinal didn’t have the type of bell-cow running back they’d enjoyed dating to the Toby Gerhart days. He was followed by Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney.
Last year was the first season since 2007 that Stanford failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher. That's not what you want to see when you’re a team makes its living on the ground.
Actually, they weren’t even close. Remound Wright was the team leader with 601, and you would need to combine the efforts of Wright, the now-departed Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders before crossing the 1K threshold.
Also, Stanford’s highly-touted offensive line – while loaded with talent – didn’t mesh as quickly as the coaching staff would have liked. Having to replace some big-time starters proved to be more challenging than initially thought.
So why will 2015 be different? For starters, there are starters. While the defense is experiencing a huge talent drain -- and that’s another article for another day -- the offense boasts eight of 11 returning starters, including four of five offensive linemen who did a lot of growing up on the job last season.
Also, the coaching staff believes it has something extremely special in sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey. In just 85 touches last year, he tallied 796 all-purpose yards for a whopping 9.4 yards per touch. That’s exactly the kind of spark the Cardinal offense needs.
He’s a different runner than the bulldozing Gerhart or Gaffney, or the low-pad running of Taylor. McCaffrey is more slippery and shifty than his predecessors, and as one Stanford coach said to me this offseason, “if he’s not getting at least 15-20 touches per game, we’re not doing our jobs.”
So look for the coaching staff to find creative ways to get him the ball on a regular basis. Should we brace ourselves for the Wild-Caf?
As far as we see it, the road to the Pac-12 North still goes through either Stanford or Oregon, and the Ducks again appear to be Stanford’s biggest obstacle in the division. Oregon has lost five games over the last three seasons – two to Arizona, two to Stanford and one to Ohio State. The common theme in four of those five losses is rushing attempts by the winning team. In 2014, Arizona rushed 55 times and Ohio State 61 times. In 2013 Arizona rushed 65 times and Stanford 66 times.
In Stanford’s victory in 2012, the Cardinal rushed 46 times – but the defense deserves an “attaboy” for that win.
But it should be pretty clear that Stanford is at its best when it can successfully run the football. And if they want to get back to the top of the division, that's exactly what they are going to have to do. During the last two seasons, the Cardinal are 18-3 when they outrush their opponent. Last year, they were outrushed in four of their five losses. In the business, we call that a trend.
McCaffrey won’t be the end-all-be-all of Stanford’s attack. With a veteran quarterback like Kevin Hogan – who finished last season on a very high note – and a crop of tight ends coming of age, the Cardinal offense is hoping to look more like the 2011-12 edition than the 2013 edition (give to Gaffney, rinse, repeat) or the 2014 edition that ranked eighth in the conference rushing and 11th in scoring offense (27.2 points per game). Worth noting, too, that Hogan is 24-8 as a starter and 11-6 vs. AP Top 25 teams.
Stanford’s primary objective isn’t to score a lot of points. Never has been. It’s been to score more points than the other guy -- a simple principle that is sometimes forgotten in this high-scoring league.
“We still believe if you can play great defense and hold the other team below their scoring average, you’ve got a chance to win,” Shaw told me recently. “Our style of play, when we play it well, we’ve done well against the spread teams and against our conference and against the nation and against ranked teams. I think our philosophy gives us a chance to win every week.”