This is not the strongest Stanford team in the David Shaw era, currently ranked 17th in overall S&P+ after finishing 15th in 2014 and fourth in 2013. However, much like the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes, the Cardinal might be in the right place at the right time for a big season. They even have a potential Heisman finalist in RB Christian McCaffrey, who was made the focal point of the offense after the season-opening loss against Northwestern. Stanford is unbeaten since.
Winning the Pac-12 requires the ability to defeat multiple up-tempo spread teams, including Pac-12 North rival Oregon, as well as explosive teams such as Washington State, Cal and UCLA. The Cardinal have been able to do this thanks to a down season in the league and Stanford's unique style of play, which counters the finesse spread squads.
After a narrow win over Mike Leach's Washington State, the Cardinal are now within striking distance of a league crown. Here's how they are toppling these spread rivals.
A formula for bend don't break defense
Heading into this season, the Cardinal needed to replace nearly all of their defensive starters, including all five positions in the secondary. Although Stanford has former DBU architect Duane Akina from Texas on staff, the secondary has two freshmen counter-balancing two seniors, and both safeties were converted from the other side of the ball.
The Cardinal also don't have a lockdown corner to simply erase part of the field. Coverage schemes have to be flexible to send help to different areas of the field and prevent opponents from isolating and hammering the young DBs.
Stanford can do this by utilizing its good players up front to bring a variety of different four-man blitzes, attacking different parts of an opponent's protection and allowing the secondary to drop seven and squeeze the offense.
The Cardinal are playing mostly nickel, but they'll vacillate between two personnel groupings up front to control the trenches and set up their DBs for success. The first is a classic, "30" odd front with the following players in the box.
|Defensive end||Aziz Shittu||6'3, 279|
|Nose tackle||Solomon Thomas||6'3, 271|
|Defensive end||Brennan Scarlett||6'4, 264|
|Outside linebacker||Peter Kalambayi||6'3, 242|
|Inside linebacker||Blake Martinez||6'2, 245|
|Inside linebacker||Kevin Palma||6'2, 252|
Despite not boasting any traditionally sized DL, this is actually the stouter, anti-run nickel group. Kalambayi (or alternate OLB Joey Alfieri) attacks different areas in the protection in conjunction with the three down linemen, and occasionally drops into coverage on the running back while one of the inside linebackers blitzes.
The Cardinal also have a 2-4-5 nickel group, which usually plays an Over front with an "end" positioned as a 3-technique opposite the running back. The only difference is they'll sub in a second outside linebacker (Joey Alfieri) for tackle Solomon Thomas.
The 2-4-5 group is the better pass-rushing unit, as all four linebackers can serve as the fourth rusher or drop back in max coverage. The linebackers who drop back always have simple responsibilities: either handle crossers over the middle, or man up the running back if he releases to their side of the formation.
The combination of Stanford's scheme and roster of 280-pound hybrid players up front that can all stunt, run and cover allow the Cardinal to bring a wide variety of targeted, four-man pressures that make it easier to bend without breaking on the back end.
At the back, Stanford plays mostly matchup cover three schemes with conservative techniques. The Cardinal align to keep their linebackers from having to run down the field with slot receivers, and to keep their safeties from having to play man coverage outside the hash marks where there isn't help.
Stanford has been able to produce a ranking of 26th in the nation at defending passing downs, the strength of the unit. You can see an example of the Cardinal's ability to target opponents and adjust on passing downs in how they defended Washington State, who hurt Stanford repeatedly with curl/flat combinations to the boundary from trips formations. Against the standard Stanford cover three used to defend a trips formation, the curl route was virtually always open:
But in a crucial late drive, Leach went back to this formation and concept and Stanford was ready with a tweak. The Cardinal positioned an underneath defender (the free safety) to drop into the curl window, so the cornerback wouldn't be left on an island:
Wazzu still completed the curl past the free safety thanks to a circus catch, but you can see from this adjustment how the Cardinal scheme is flexible. Even if they aren't an elite unit, it takes an exceptionally efficient and balanced spread to be able to over-stress and destroy the Cardinal defense.
More college football for you
Cardinal offense: Now efficient AND explosive
Stanford's offense can still be summarized as "one million ways to run power-O," but there is a key difference this year thanks to the emergence of Christian McCaffrey.
While the Cardinal's mastery of their base play and its numerous constraints have always allowed them to be efficient running the football, McCaffrey takes it all to another level thanks to his incredible quickness and vision.
Another nice element of the 2015 Cardinal run game is the running ability of Kevin Hogan (who probably should have pulled the ball from McCaffrey on the above counter run), which allows the Cardinal to run power schemes from spread formations.
Included in that package is this clever wrinkle, which can completely thwart defenses that try to scheme to take away the power-read play based on the alignment of the running back:
Usually, the running back or a receiver sweeps across the QB's face while the signal caller reads an unblocked DE to decide whether to hand off or keep the ball and run. Instead, the QB reads the same linebacker and decides whether to pitch the ball wide to McCaffrey or keep it behind the guard based on if the linebacker over-pursues McCaffrey on the pitch option.
At 6'4 and 218 pounds, Hogan is a solid and dangerous inside runner that can really punish defenses for keying on McCaffrey.
And of course, the Cardinal also have their mega, seven-OL formations and now a Wildcat package that can feature McCaffrey:
This Iso run really reveals how McCaffrey's vision and quickness allow him to threaten multiple running lanes simultaneously, manipulate the linebackers into blockers and then dart through the resulting creases. His ability to do tremendous damage with the ball in his hands is the basis for a sizable percentage of the Stanford offense.
Stanford can still run the ball and methodically drain clock, but now with McCaffrey, the Cardinal also have the necessary explosiveness to score points and win games when their defense can't shut down the opponent. With a defense that can make life difficult for many different types of teams, that makes for a very feasible formula for beating this year's Pac-12 field.