The year 2017 was often regarded as validation for Stanford’s standard strategy of zigging while everyone else zagged. RB Bryce Love was the Heisman runner-up after rushing for 2118 yards and 19 TDs on 263 carries for a 9-5 team that played in the Pac-12 title game. In 2018 they were returning their promising young QB K.J. Costello and his three top targets in the passing game to capitalize on returning several OL and Love in the run game.
Instead, Love dealt with injuries over the course of the season while the returning OL ahead of him did as well. The Cardinal star RB saw his numbers dip to 739 yards and six TDs on 166 carries. Without his frequent breakaway runs and steady work, Stanford’s S&P+ performance went from 33.4 and 29th in the country to...34.1 and 25th in the nation. That’s right, their main RB had over 1200 fewer yards and they improved. It wasn’t the back-up RBs that made up the difference either, Cameron Scarlett was the no. 2 rusher with 330 yards and eight TDs on 79 carries.
What actually happened is that Stanford began to play the game differently, leaning more on spreading opponents out in the passing game and forcing them to deal with the matchup problems the Cardinal could present with their TEs and pseudo-TE J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (6-3, 225 pounds).
Necessity against San Diego State
The Aztecs upset Stanford in 2017, controlling the ball for the vast majority of the game and beating the Cardinal at their own game with their own 2k yard rusher. In 2018 Stanford knew they had to contend both with SD State’s power run game and also the Aztec D, which could sneak free hitters into the box to slow down the run game.
After slogging back and forth with the Aztecs for a low scoring half, the Cardinal unleashed Costello in the passing attack and watched him let fly to Arcega-Whiteside for 226 yards and three TDs on six catches. The SD State D that was great at using speed and hybrid personnel on D to swarm the run game didn’t hold up so well when the Cardinal were picking at their CBs down the field, or throwing jump balls to a 6-7 TE (Colby Parkinson) in the end zone while the Aztecs doubled their top WR:
This is a particularly nasty combo that produced this TD. While Arcega-Whiteside is working on the boundary against bracket coverage, the Cardinal have Kaden Smith running a whip route in the middle of the field and then Parkinson running a slot fade outside of him. The Aztecs ran out of guys to use in bracket coverage and ran out of big coverage defenders that could avoid getting posted up by a tall, physical target like Parkinson. Much like most anyone else would in that situation.
It was a solid win for Stanford, avoiding the early setback loss against SD State, but it also spoke volumes about the potency of Stanford’s normal strategy. In two years against the Aztec’s dime-structure defense the Cardinal hit them with an explosive rushing attack and lost 20-17, then hit them with a pro-spread and won 31-10.
Comeback against the Ducks
The next game that revealed the higher upside for the 2018 team in the spread passing attack came against Oregon. The Cardinal got down 24-7 in that game before coming back thanks to a few quick-strike drives late in the third and then in the fourth quarter that sent the game into overtime where they overcame the Ducks.
The keys to those drives were their pro-spread formations that threatened the seams with their TEs and drew the attention of safeties away from their wide receivers.
On the year, TEs Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson combined to catch 76 balls for 1115 yards and nine TDs. The threat they posed in the seams often freed up Arcega-Whiteside to catch 63 for 1059 and 14 TDs and Trenton Irwin to snag 60 for 685 yards and two scores.
All that damage and production for their passing game but truth be told, K.J. Costello wasn’t even a consistently accurate passer or quick decision maker. Stanford obviously had a lot of investment still in the I-formation, their “Ogre” packages, and the power run game and weren’t all in on the pro-spread passing attack as the main engine of their offense.
Shaw even tried to get back to the run game in Stanford’s bowl game against Pitt, having Costello throw only 17 passes in a narrow 14-13 victory. That was a bizarre decision on the part of Shaw for a variety of reasons. One was that Pat Narduzzi’s defense at Pitt is designed to gang up on the run game and predictably held Stanford’s lead back to 4.3 ypc and 94 yards. He ran for both of Stanford’s two scores but each was set up by a long completion to Arcega-Whiteside.
Head coach David Shaw will have an interesting dilemma confronting his program this offseason
There’s not much debate to be had over which strategy is most effective for Stanford. For years the team has been able to stockpile OL and TE with NFL talent and are positioned in the fertile country of California where skill talent grows on trees with a national recruiting pitch to scan the country as needed for WRs and QBs. Their 2019 class includes a pair of 6-3, four-star WRs, five OL, and a 6-4, 3-star TE.
The 2019 offense will include some big, former blue-chip offensive tackles like Walker Little, K.J. Costello behind center, and Colby Parkinson at TE flanked by young bluechip WRs that were waiting behind Arcega-Whiteside and Irwin.
They could go back to their ground and pound strategies, or they could throw out half the run game playbook and build around potential NFL draft pick K.J. Costello and flexing Parkinson all over the field. If they want to maintain a “pro-style” sales pitch to recruits that’s what will be necessary, it’s also the right move if Shaw wants to see this team break through and win at the level you’d expect from their recruiting.