- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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Earlier this season, the methods of Stanford's ultra-successful defense generated some attention. New defensive coordinator Lance Anderson had simplified many of the unit's calls and methods of operation. The Cardinal's new-look unit -- one that was missing big names like Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds from a year prior -- embraced this streamlining process. New starters like Blake Martinez credited it for their ability to fly to the football with no inhibitions. The simplification worked: Statistically, Stanford's 2014 defense actually began outperforming the star-studded units of 2012 and 2013.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal's offense was lagging far behind. Paltry scoring efforts led to losses against USC, Notre Dame and Arizona State. "Ineptitude" became a commonly used word as the attack fixed one problem, only to see three new ones pop up.
Confused. Overwhelmed. Discombobulated. All apt words used to describe Stanford's offense at its low point.
David Shaw responded this past week by taking a page from his defense's playbook. He "streamlined" the offense, working with coordinator Mike Bloomgren to "make the game simple and fun" for Stanford players, particularly the team's stable of explosive, strong skill-position athletes.
Positive results were immediately evident in Stanford's 38-14 win over Oregon State. The Cardinal worked the perimeter with their sizable wide receivers, and they did so decisively. They put Kevin Hogan into his comfort zone via an early designed run (something they called only late in the game a week prior), and that resulted in a 37-yard touchdown complete with a sturdy stiff-arm from the quarterback. They hit Oregon State with a straightforward, aggressive attack, one that stretched the defense to the perimeter before gashing it tight end-style over the exposed middle of the field.
"We have to do what our guys our comfortable doing," Shaw explained of the adjustments after. "We have to throw everything else away."
Well, in playing to their offensive strengths, the Cardinal also threw the Beavers away. Oregon State entered the game ranked second in Pac-12 in total defense (behind only Stanford), but the Cardinal torched the Beavers all the way to Rout City, averaging a season-high 8.2 yards per play in the first half.
There were a pair of hiccups, as Hogan did throw two first-half interceptions in standard pocket passing situations. But Shaw and Bloomgren quickly rebounded from early disappointments. They tailored Hogan's throws to his strengths and the Beavers seemed helpless defensively after that. Stanford's muscle and speed across the entire formation became quickly evident.
"That's how our offense has to be," Shaw said. "Our playmakers have to be in a position to flourish."
True freshman Christian McCaffrey, Stanford's favorite new multi-dimensional offensive toy, confirmed that Stanford's decisive new focus on perimeter production made it easier for him to unleash his own athleticism. He opened the scoring like a lightning rod, turning Hogan's pass on a post into a 42-yard touchdown complete with a dizzying spin move.
And at that point, following several weeks of frustration, the Cardinal's offensive muscle flexing display was on.
"Point blank: What we had been doing wasn't good enough," Shaw said.
The changes came quickly on Saturday, and they might have come in the nick of time. Stanford visits Autzen Stadium this weekend, and it'll certainly need a balanced effort to hang in during the showdown with No. 5-ranked Oregon. The Cardinal's defense, no matter how good it is, can't carry the burden alone.
"When we can support our defense with our offense, we have a chance," Shaw said.
And because of that, "streamline" has become a critical and popular word when it comes to the development of Stanford's season.
Earlier this season, the methods of Stanford's ultra-successful defense generated some attention. New defensive coordinator Lance Anderson had simplified many of the unit's calls and methods of operation.