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Stanford embraces status as an outlier

8/23/2014

After a recent practice, Stanford coach David Shaw was asked if the team will continue to trot out the packages featuring extra offensive linemen, which has become a Stanford staple the past few years.

He let out a quick laugh before answering, “There would be a lot of people around here really upset with me if we didn’t.”

For the Cardinal, there is no turning back now. As a team that huddles, with a quarterback primarily working under center, winding down the play clock and running through — not around — its opposition, Stanford has an identity it stands by with pride. While other teams spread things out and speed up, the Cardinal are perfectly content countering that by going the opposite direction.

On their way to a second straight Pac-12 title last season, the Cardinal averaged the fewest plays per game in the Pac-12 (63.9) and lined up with at least one extra offensive lineman — and many times two — more than 40 percent of the time. It’s a philosophy the coaching staff believes pays dividends on Saturdays, and when recruiting elite high school linemen.

“I’d say, yes, it helped, and we're going to try to keep selling the fact that we are a pretty good offensive line and we can put people in the NFL,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, who also coaches the O-line. “The other thing that we sell, is that we play six, seven, eight, nine [offensive linemen] at the same time. Not in one game, on the same play, and nobody else in the nation can say that.”

There’s no arguing that spread and up-tempo offenses have proven successful at all levels of football. For most teams, in fact, it’s probably the prudent way to go. In the Pac-12, a longtime breeding ground for offensive innovation, a minimum of 10 teams will rely heavily on spread or tempo concepts this season.

“It does put a lot of pressure on defensive teams, defensive coordinators because you're going to have to prepare for a variety of different things as the season goes on,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “So that is kind of the world that we're living in right now. The spread offense you'll see from Coach [Mike] Leach at Washington State is different from the spread they're running down at Arizona State and, of course, what they're doing at Oregon. Everybody's got their own little deal that is different.”

That begs the question: As more teams go the spread/tempo route, will it become easier to stop?

History says yes -- football is cyclical in nature -- but to what degree? Only time will tell.

As defensive schemes have started to adapt to what's going on offensively, so have recruiting priorities. The defensive personnel needed against Oregon, Arizona and now USC under Steve Sarkisian, for example, is different than when playing against Stanford. Because of that, and the sheer amount of teams in college football operating with the newer offensive principles, fewer teams, in theory, will be as equipped to play teams such as Stanford or Alabama.

That's not why the Cardinal have chosen this course, but it's certainly a byproduct the team is happy to accept.

“I could relate it to back in the day when I coached defense in the Canadian Football League, and there were only nine teams in the league,” Riley said. “But we were the only team in the league that ran the 3-4 defense. So we were the odd preparation for everybody else in the league when we played them, and I love that about that.”

It's not all positive, though. For Stanford's offensive coaches, film study has become somewhat an exercise in futility. There's only so much they can learn about an opposing defense while watching it against offenses that in no way resemble their own -- and with Lane Kiffin's departure, it will become even tougher. The past few years, USC has been the team that most closely resembled Stanford. They weren't clones by any means, but there were enough shared formations and philosophies that Stanford coaches felt that by watching defenses playing against USC, they could gain some insight into what they might do against the Cardinal.

With a deep group of receivers and a third-year starting quarterback in Kevin Hogan, Stanford will likely rely more on the pass this season than the last two seasons -- those types of changes are only natural -- but Stanford has its blueprint, for the past and future.