The Stanford Cardinal are the Pac-12's blue collar program. On offense, they grab a lunch pail and go to work for their yards, often taking the most direct route to the endzone -- straight at you -- behind anywhere from five to nine offensive lineman. One example:
Yes, they have a formation that uses more offensive lineman than WSU had on the roster last season:
And that's just one of their goaline sets; they use other "Jumbo" or "Monster" packages loaded with offensive lineman and tight ends for short yardage situations -- all of them executing with a low pad level that is almost impossible to overcome. The technique worked on in the above video is perfected by the Cardinal lineman; on just about every play, a big offensive lineman is dropping someone with low pad level, often at the second level.
Stanford will attempt around 44 rushes and 22 passes per game. If the ground game is the Cardinal's bread, the butter must be play action. Quarterback Kevin Hogan doesn't attempt many passes, but he manages 13.7 yards per completion thanks in large part to deep strikes off of a play action pass.
Against ASU, deep crossing routes were used twice with great success. For both, Hogan reverse drop-steps (opening to the left under center), feints a draw/counter and gets extreme depth. Nearly all of Hogan's play action passes were off a reverse drop-step, either counter/draw fakes in the pocket or zone/counter fakes off tackle. With only two receivers downfield, he doesn't need to have eyes on the defense throughout the whole play and his line is more than capable of giving him the time to reach that depth on his drop.
In this play, which led to one of the best catches over the weekend, Stanford's crossing routes take advantage of a rolled man coverage. ASU starts in what looks like a man coverage underneath with two free safeties; the field safety rolls up to man cover the receiver in motion and the boundary safety bounces over to the middle of the field, taking the tight end off the line of scrimmage. It looks like ASU was a little confused on responsibility with the outside backer also abandoning the rush to guard the motion receiver. The safety essentially removes himself from the play chasing motion.
The boundary corner just gets beat to the inside on a post, and what's impressive here is that Hogan was able to take a nine yard drop, hitch to seven and chatter to five without being threatened at all. Receivers cannot have this kind of time to get downfield and the quarterback cannot have the space to pick and choose where to make a perfect throw.
The Cardinal caught them again, this time sitting in Cover 2 (what are defensive coverages?).
Here the tight end breaks an out route at 10 yards and the receiver busts a seam, splitting the two high safeties. Hogan again takes the reverse drop-step and gets plenty of depth, giving the receivers time to get downfield. When the Cardinal look for a big gain, they like one on one fades to the outside and deep posts or seams over the middle off play action. But that's not all they do with play action.
Stanford loves running this play action wide receiver screen. Who knows why ASU thought putting their secondary on a line at the down marker was a good idea; regardless, this is an impressive offensive play. Hogan fakes a counter and bootlegs to hit the receiver on a screen.
What makes this so special? In addition to linemen blocking two players in the secondary, they sell a counter before doing it. Two of the safeties bite. As a safety, one of your reads can be the offensive line in certain coverages. You read their footwork for run or pass. Getting a quick read on a run play is crucial for an impact run stopper like Deone Bucannon. On this play, the Cardinal make everything about it look like a counter run until it's too late.
Apologies for the telestrator, not my doing
Did No. 73 have to fake a down block before leading the charge upfield? No, probably not, but it's the little things like this that are what people think of when they talk about a well coached, technical team.
Good news is the Cardinal aren't perfect. The lineman don't always win, and a defense can blow this play up if the linebackers are disciplined and secondary swarms.
Hogan's play action is predominantly to the left, meaning he often has his back to the field at some point in his drop. Play sound coverage, don't bite on the fake and his options are fairly limited. Deone will be a huge factor in stopping the run, the Cardinal are counting on him being too aggressive, leaving an opening down the middle of the field off a play fake. A great pass rush up front and sound coverage could lead to some turnover opportunities for a secondary that hasn't really been tested deep.
Shifting gears to the Stanford defense.
The Cardinal defense feasted on the Coug offensive line last season. If you're into masochism, we broke down all 10 sacks from the game last season. While reliving that experience is painful, you can get a good handle on the stunts the Cardinal front will throw at WSU.
The Cougar defense has gotten the majority of attention, and for good reason, but the offensive line has to be near the leader board of "most improved unit". This years' O-line is light years beyond what it was capable of on its best day last season. It's really not even close.
The Stanford front seven are great, one of the best in college, but the Cougs may have already faced the best in the conference at USC. The Trojan defensive front is every bit as talented as the Cardinal, and the WSU big men stood up pretty well against it.
Stanford played the majority of ASU open sets in what looked like man coverage with two free safeties, showing this alignment against 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE).
ASU stacks their doubles to each side, which is a little different than the WSU "Ace" formation that is evenly spread across the field. Stanford is not afraid to leave wide open space inside and rush their outside backers, relying on the safety to pick up coverage to inside routes. ASU went to a wide receiver screen -- a lot -- with limited or no success. Stanford's ability to close on a screen and lock it up is a little concerning, WSU also relies on the screen game quite a bit. It's hard to see the screen being very productive against this team without a missed tackle, and the Cardinal don't miss too many tackles.
Here, Stanford shows it's alignment against 20 personnel, a commonly used formation by the Cougs. The weak side end is standing up, outside shade. The field side is an overloaded nightmare. A nose tackle and two stacked backers plug the middle, with some trio of DEs and/or OLBs filling between the left tackle and inside receiver. All three of these players will stunt while a linebacker blitzes. A safety will then roll down to cover the inside receiver.
Stanford showed this against WSU last season as well. ASU tries a screen, but Wazzu QB Connor Halliday should recognize this with his inside receiver and work for a hot route completion before the coverage can roll down. It's also important to notice the discipline of the OLB, he breaks off his rush for man coverage of the running back.
Stanford's front is so nasty because it can twist with speed not common at the college level.
A twist is a defensive stunt where rushing players cross. The interior DL push to the outside to create space for the OLB on a twist up the A gap. Stanford executes this very well.
Another very useful telestrator addition that is not mine
Last year they tried it against WSU and sacked Jeff Tuel, but the back on a twist got stonewalled by Carl Winston. Keeping at least one running back in for pass protection is a pretty good idea against Stanford. The rush is too good, and their coverage of backs out to the flat is too disciplined to get caught. How well the line does with these various stunts and blitz packages will probably determine how necessary it is to take an RB out of the passing game and block with six.
Another twist from Stanford, facing trips to the right.
Like any man coverage team, crossing routes can be a bit of a problem for Stanford, and they were occasionally open for ASU. The defenders have to know if they're passing those shallow cross routes off, or following them across the formation. Miscommunication can lead to big plays if the offense can find the crossers in space, or with a step on a backer.
This game will be won or lost up front, which isn't saying a whole lot, as most games are. Halliday has been a completely different quarterback when he's under pressure versus when he has a little time. Getting through reads quickly, and having decent protection will be key to the success on the offensive side of the ball. Stanford will bring some pressure, they'll get a couple sacks, so Halliday needs to make them pay for trying to man cover these receivers.
The Coug offense hasn't yet proven it can dominate man coverage -- both USC and Auburn did decent jobs keeping it bottled up. Saturday night in Seattle, facing a top 5 team in the nation, Halliday and the Wazzu receivers have their opportunity to make some noise. Can't wait to see if they take advantage of it.