- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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It'd be easy to take a passing glance at the box score from Stanford's 34-17 victory last Friday and discount the offensive improvement on it with a simple dismissal: "They were playing Washington State's defense."
Yes, that would be the same lower-tier Cougars' unit that was less than a week removed from bleeding 60 points at home against Cal.
But chalking up Stanford's season-high 477-yard (7-per-play) performance to weak defensive competition involves ignoring promising changes in an offensive approach that the Cardinal employed.
Stanford's attack was a jumbled mess throughout the first half of the regular season. The Cardinal lost a game against USC because they managed only 10 points in nine trips to or past the Trojans' 35-yard line. They dropped another contest to Notre Dame because the offense mustered only 3.0 yards per play and 1.5 yards per rush, the worst marks of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era.
A once-vaunted power running game looked decidedly average, quarterback Kevin Hogan's play suffered as a result of a heavier throwing workload, and the Cardinal found themselves on the outside looking in to the College Football Playoff discussion despite featuring the nation's top defense (8.8 points per game, 3.6 yards per play).
The main problem seemed to be Stanford was slow to adapt to its new offensive reality: Though they no longer had a 220-pound power back and road-grading offensive line, the Cardinal kept trying to preserve their backbone around the interior run. Notre Dame's defense exposed Stanford in this way: That game's anemic 47-yard rushing production suggested the Stanford offense was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
When the run failed in blustery, wet South Bend, Hogan fell out of his comfort zone. A mobile quarterback who had fed off play-action and the ability to make plays with his legs looked like a fish out of water having to emulate the pocket-maestro role of a thrower much like Peyton Manning. Stanford receivers dropped passes, too. Hogan finished 18-for-36 for 158 yards, his worst career performance in terms of completion percentage and yards per attempt.
This much is clear: Hogan needs the basis of a consistently successful running game so that he can play his style of football from the quarterback position. His average passing attempts per game have increased from 15 to 21 to 28 in three seasons, all while Stanford's red zone efficiency numbers have taken an inversely related dive. The Cardinal scored on 100 percent of their red zone possessions after Hogan took over in 2012, but that number is down to 68 percent (119th in the nation) this season.
Those are symptoms of an offense cracking at its core. In Stanford's case, that core is the running game. And that's exactly what the Cardinal showed promising signs of fixing their last time out against Washington State. The final box score read 33 carries for 193 yards (5.8 per carry), but the film showed much more than that.
Stanford's first run between the tackles did not come until the final play of the first quarter -- a massive departure from the old phone booth strategy of the Harbaugh-Shaw era. The Cardinal ran a heavy dose off-tackle instead, avoiding the scrum inside and maximizing the new strengths of their running backs on the outside. Barry Sanders immediately racked up 50 yards on two runs that bounced to the perimeter, and the running game was back.
Combine Stanford's smaller, shiftier running backs with their massive wide receivers (Devon Cajuste weighs 228 pounds while Ty Montgomery checks in at about 225 -- both over 40 pounds heavier than the average Pac-12 cornerback they typically block), and it's clear the Cardinal is a team built to exploit matchups on the perimeter. The table above supports that: Though the offense has rushed outside the tackles 36 fewer times than it has inside the tackles, it's racked up more total yards, more touchdowns, more 10-plus yard rushes, and more 20-plus yard rushes on those outside runs.
The perimeter-oriented game should be the basis of Stanford's new offensive identity, and a shift to it was apparent against Washington State. While the backs worked the perimeter, the passing game did the same thing, setting up numerous quick screen passes to athletic receivers in space. In that way, Stanford further exploited its blocking advantage outside and utilized talents such as Christian McCaffrey, who's at his electric best when the scheme gives him space.
That's also the way that Hogan rediscovered his comfort zone. With a firm rushing threat to work with, the entire field opened up for a Stanford passing game featuring plenty of weapons. On Friday, Hogan completed 23-of-35 passes for 284 yards -- to 12 different receivers.
That's a true sign of a healing offense. And though Stanford still sits in the Pac-12 cellar averaging only 26.3 points per game, there's a strong chance it'll rise in those rankings in the season's second half. It should just take a firm commitment to Friday's adjustments down the stretch.