Friday October 31st, 2014

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Late in the first quarter of Stanford’s blowout of Oregon State last Saturday, Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan deftly faked a handoff, tucked the ball under his left arm and punctuated a 37-yard touchdown run with a violent stiff-arm of Beavers defensive back Ryan Murphy.

The play appeared cathartic for Hogan, who had thrown two early interceptions and has become the face of Stanford’s season-long offensive identity crisis. The touchdown run could also be considered symbolic of the Cardinal’s offensive evolution, as it came on a zone read play in a one-back, three-receiver formation on a day when they strayed from their between-the-tackles roots.

Stanford ran no-huddle, used tempo and relied less on the Jumbo extra offensive linemen packages that have come to define them. Stanford’s three losses, persistent red zone meltdowns and evolving personnel have forced the it to adjust offensively and look less like, well, Stanford. “Point blank,” coach David Shaw said, “what we had been doing wasn't good enough.”

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Stanford's game at No. 5 Oregon on Saturday will certainly be billed as a clash of styles, with Oregon’s tempo-fueled spread offense contrasting with Stanford’s steamroll pro style. But the game’s most intriguing subplot comes from the Cardinal’s philosophical crossroads, as to beat the Ducks they need to play more like them.

Last season, Stanford methodically crushed Oregon’s national title aspirations -- and soul -- in a 26-20 victory that epitomized the Cardinal way. (Or maybe their former way). Stanford held the ball for 42 minutes, shut out Oregon for three quarters and played 70 percent of its offensive possessions in Jumbo packages. It was Stanford at its hulking, will-imposing and battering ram best. Ducks players felt the stigma from that loss for months after.

“That’s the kind of thing when you’re a man and someone tells you you’re not tough enough or are scared of someone,” said Oregon junior tight end Pharaoh Brown. “Going into this week we’re going to emphasize hitting them right away.”

The key matchup on Saturday will be Oregon’s No. 5-ranked offense (45.5) against Stanford’s No. 2-ranked defense (12.5). And if Oregon’s offensive line continues to pass block like a row of Autzen Stadium turnstiles, it could be a long night for Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota. (And a nervous one for the general managers of bad NFL teams in need of a quarterback).

The best way to beat the Ducks since Chip Kelly created an offensive juggernaut in 2007 has been to keep the ball away from them, which means the game will likely come down to Stanford’s ability to be consistent and mistake-free on offense. And that’s prompted some soul searching and distinct adjustments from the Cardinal's staff. Stanford isn’t going to match tempo with Oregon, but expect the Stanford to look different.

“I don’t think anyone needs to get too far away from who we are,” said Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. “What we realized is not that we’re not trying to be Oregon or one-back gurus. What we realized is that we need to run core plays.”

That starts with Hogan, who has been so bad at times this year that Stanford radio analyst Todd Husak has turned into a critic. Hogan entered this season with a 16-3 record as a starter, so it’s hard to brush him off as a liability. But with the Cardinal at 5-3 and ranked No. 88 in scoring, he’s failed at taking the step from offensive caretaker to playmaker. He’s been maddeningly inconsistent, as he’s thrown six interceptions and coughed up a key fumble against USC on a failed hand-off, and struggled with the center-quarterback exchange. No one has embraced the move away from Stanford’s power-offense roots more than Hogan, as it fits his fleet-feet skill set. “Something needed to change,” he said, “and I think it changed for the better.”

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Shaw used the words “streamline” and “player specific,” a nod to the notion that just lining up and smothering people doesn’t work with the current set of personnel. The Cardinal are constructed completely different than past iterations. There’s no bell cow tailback like Tyler Gaffney or Stephan Taylor, which has been the biggest identity issue for a team accustomed to power football. That means more run plays for Hogan to keep defenses off balance and more touches recently for true freshman Christian McCaffrey -- son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey -- who is the most dynamic of Stanford’s solid-but-unspectacular backfield.

The Cardinal are also radically different than they were in the Andrew Luck era in that they have high-end, field-stretching receivers in All-America Ty Montgomery -- who looks every bit like a first-round draft pick -- along with Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector. Stanford has lacked a big-play tight end since the exodus of Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo to the NFL, although redshirt freshman tight end Austin Hooper flashes that type of potential.

That all means Stanford’s best playmakers are furthest away from the ball these days. Hogan chose his words carefully when talking about the offensive evolution, but it’s clear from his success last Saturday how he’d prefer to play. He saw the Oregon State defense struggle to get set at times when Stanford went up-tempo. He also theorized that stretching the field could open back up the power run game. “I think it’s good recognizing this team is different personnel wise,” he said. “You have to adapt to your personnel and stretch the defense with our runners down field.”

When Bloomgren and Shaw looked at the offense the week leading into Oregon State, they made the realization that experience can’t be replicated and Stanford’s inexperience on the offensive line (four new starters) and at tight end and tailback has had a cumulative effect on execution. Based on pure talent, this could be one of Stanford’s best teams. Junior left tackle Andrus Peat is playing like a Top 10 NFL Draft pick. Bloomgren said that not only has Peat not allowed a sack, but he also doesn’t believe he’s given up a quarterback hit.

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But overall, the Cardinal just couldn’t mow over teams like past editions. So they’re going to spread it out, gently accelerate the tempo and see if they can navigate Oregon’s pedestrian defense (ranked No. 60 in points per game with 25.9). “We'll never completely scrap who we are and what we've done,” Shaw said. “We still want to approach every single game as a physical running team.”

Stanford will be in Jumbo sets on Saturday with seven and eight offensive linemen, but it won’t live in them. Hogan and Co. will be a faster, more nimble and wide open version of their former selves. If the Cardinal are going to win in Eugene and put themselves in position to win the Pac-12 for a third straight time, it will be more a testament to adjustment and innovation than soul-crushing force.

To keep pace, Stanford is increasing it. We’ll see Saturday if the Cardinal can catch up to their past success with a more futuristic offense.

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