At the deepest roots of David Shaw’s coaching philosophy is an unwavering belief in run-first football. That's never going to change. Still, that doesn’t mean the Stanford head coach can’t be just a little bit giddy over what his offense -- specifically the passing attack -- has done so far this season.
Fashioned as Tight End U the past couple of years because of the presence of now-NFLers Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, the Cardinal wide receivers have made their presence felt in 2013 after previously yielding the spotlight to the Tree Amigos in 2011 and Twin Towers in 2012.
Through the first four games of 2012, Stanford receivers had just 26 catches for 256 yards and three touchdowns. As a unit, they had just six receiving touchdowns all year. It’s a different story this season. Through the first four games, Stanford receivers have accounted for 42 catches for 770 yards and nine touchdowns.
“It’s what we started to see in spring last year,” Shaw said. “... We feel like we have these guys ready to impact games. It’s fun to see their hard work pay off and them being viable options for us.”
As a result of the wide receivers taking first chair in the passing game, the tight ends have just three catches for 14 yards and zero touchdowns.
The Cardinal will need all the firepower they can get when they host No. 15 Washington on Saturday. So far it has been Ty Montgomery as the featured receiver. After a strong freshman campaign, Montgomery was hampered by injuries last season. But he has emerged so far with 20 catches for 327 yards and four touchdowns. Devon Cajuste had a breakout performance last week and has 10 catches for 244 yards and three touchdowns on the season. Michael Rector rounds out the crop of receivers who have reached the end zone, catching three balls for 119 yards and two scores.
But it’s not just the increased targeting of receivers -- it’s also the maturation of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is delivering the downfield strike with precision and efficiency. In last week’s blowout win over Washington State, he threw three touchdowns of 30-plus yards (33, 45 and 57 yards). That doubled Stanford’s number of 30-plus-yard touchdown passes this season and matched the total of big strikes it had all last year.
“He grows a little bit each week,” Shaw said. “We took more downfield passes this week, and he did a good job of finding guys and hitting them in stride. He understands things better. He sees things better. He’s getting more in the flow of the season, and we go into every game knowing that every defense we play is going to give us something we haven’t seen before, and he’s done a good job recognizing it, coming to the sidelines, talking about it and ready to make adjustments.”
Washington’s secondary should provide an ample test. The Huskies have yet to allow a 200-yard passer and have given up only one touchdown through the air all season. Heading into Saturday’s matchup, the Huskies have the top passing defense and pass efficiency defense in the Pac-12.
“They have a great deal of speed on the perimeter with Montgomery and Rector,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. “Those guys can stretch the field more so than they have in the past. They put a lot of stress on you, because you want to commit yourself to defending the run, which you have to do when playing Stanford, but then the challenge is how do you not give up the big plays? They pose a lot of challenges that way. Hogan is throwing the deep ball really well right now. When guys are open he’s hitting them. That’s the other piece to the puzzle.”
After seeing a mostly tight-end-heavy Stanford team during his career, Washington safety Sean Parker said he’s excited for the opportunity square off against the Cardinal receivers.
“Every year we play receivers that stretch the field,” Parker said. “We’re used to defending down the field and having to man up their key guys. Knowing them, it is a turnaround because we’re used to seeing them running the ball and they get to different formations when they run the ball and then pass off of that. We have to be better with our eye discipline and what we see.”
Perhaps the most important statistic yet to be mentioned is that Hogan is still perfect as a starter (9-0). The Cardinal have won 12 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in the country behind Ohio State, and Hogan is 5-0 against opponents ranked in the top 25. Against ranked opponents, he’s completing 70 percent of his throws with eight touchdown passes and four interceptions, averaging 186 yards per game. He also has added two touchdowns on the ground with an average of 38 rushing yards per game.