Dec. 29, 2011
PHOENIX, Ariz. - Many answers were thought provoking. Some were obvious. But none were more wise.
As Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and several of his offensive players met with the media at the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale on Wednesday, a question was posed to each one in advance of the Cardinal’s matchup against Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2.
What will be the keys to Stanford’s offensive success?
To which tight end Coby Fleener responded:
“That Andrew Luck gets to the game on time.”
It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic.
However, beyond the crucial occurrence of the star quarterback’s arrival, the success of Stanford's offense could come down to these four factors:
• Control the line of scrimmage
• Be efficient on third down
• Score touchdowns in the red zone
• Protect the ball
The following is a breakdown of each:
Control the line of scrimmage
Remember, Stanford is first and foremost a running team. This means that even if the game is high scoring, Stanford must not be goaded into an all-out aerial attack, unless there is no alternative.
By controlling the line of scrimmage with the run, the offense opens up in other areas.
“If we’re successful running the football, it’s going to force them to make an adjustment with their secondary and force them to bring an extra hat in the box, to bring their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage,” Hamilton said. “In time that’s going to give pass catchers like Coby the ability to release at the line and get downfield on safeties and linebackers.”
An important aspect of controlling the line of scrimmage is what Hamilton describes an aspect of this as “being patient with the run game.”
“I liken it to a heavyweight fight,” Hamilton said. “The body blows start to wear on our opponents over the course of the game.
“Again, it gives us the ability to use our play-action passes to get our tight ends downfield and to use our receivers to where they have one-on-one matchups.”
Some stats to consider: Oklahoma State is 83rd of 120 FBS schools against the run, allowing an average of 180.08 yards.
However, the Cowboys haven’t necessarily been hurt by running teams. The biggest totals of rushing yards allowed and carries came in the same game, a 59-carry, 365-yard game by Tulsa. Oklahoma State won by 26. However, Kansas State gained 276 in a tight 51-45 game. The Cowboys allowed 192 – close to their average – in their only loss, to Iowa State.
Stanford is 22nd in rushing offense, averaging 207.92 yards, and there seems to be a correlation between rushing totals and performance. Stanford’s lowest total, of 129, came in its only loss, to Oregon.
This responsibility will be placed largely on the back of junior Stepfan Taylor, who has 1,153 rushing yards while achievng his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
“We’re going to run our plays, run our play-action passes, and take our shots when the opportunity presents itself,” Hamilton said. “We’re a power running football team.”
Be efficient on third down
This goes in tandem with run-game success. Stanford’s goal on every running play is a gain of at least four yards. If the Cardinal can be effective with gains of that sort on first and second down, Stanford will be in a manageable third-down situation. Manageable in Stanford coachspeak is a third down and four yards or fewer to go.
Stanford has been hugely successful on third-down conversions, ranking No. 4 in that category by converting 52 percent of its opportunities.
In contrast, Oklahoma State is 69th in third-down percentage defense, stopping opponents 41 percent of the time.
Sustaining drives carries the added bonus of keeping the high-powered Oklahoma State offense off the field. The Cowboys are second in the country in scoring offense, averaging 49.33 points per game.
Spread teams such as Oklahoma State typically use their defense to help manufacture the up-tempo nature of the offense. This often means that the defense is apt to gamble more often by blitzing in order to create sacks, turnovers and shorter possessions.
But by sustaining long drives – Stanford is ranked ninth in time of possession – the Cardinal can take the Cowboy offense out of its rhythm.
Score touchdowns in the red zone
Another Stanford strength is its ability to score in the red zone (inside the 20-yard line). Indeed, Stanford leads the nation in that category, scoring on 62 of its 63 red-zone opportunities.
Of those trips, the Cardinal scored touchdowns on 50 of them, or, 78 percent of the time. Given Oklahoma State’s ability to score, trading touchdowns with field goals could be a killer for Stanford.
This is where the health of tight end Zach Ertz comes into play. Ertz injured a knee on the opening kickoff against USC on Oct. 29. Until then, Ertz had caught 22 passes, including seven for touchdowns.
With Ertz back and with no restrictions, Stanford can go back to employing the three tight-end sets that caused so much trouble to opponents.
“I tell you, it will make a big difference for us, just to have the ability to be multiple in our personnel groupings,” Hamilton said. “This gives us the ability to line up in power run formations with the same personnel grouping that we can line up in empty formations, with no backs in the backfield. And in the red zone, those guys present matchup problems for their opponents.”
Protect the ball
This may be a cliché in any keys-to-the-game rundown. However, it carries more weight when a team faces Oklahoma State because the Cowboys lead the nation in takeaways, with 42. Included are 23 interceptions – the No. 2 total in the nation.
“I roll over in the middle of the night just thinking about their 42 takeaways,” Hamilton said. “They’re a really good defense.”
Among the nation’s individual interception leaders are Cowboy cornerbacks Broderick Brown, who has five, and Justin Gilbert, who has four.
“They’re very opportunistic,” Luck said. “When the ball’s in the air, if it’s thrown in the wrong spot, they will catch it. The DBs will catch it and will make a play returning it.”
Said left tackle Jonathan Martin, “They’re just playmakers. That’s what makes them dangerous. They can make a game-changing play at any point, so you really have to be focused all the time.”
Stanford, by the way, has lost only 15 turnovers – tied for ninth-best in the country.
“We pride ourselves on not beating ourselves,” Hamilton said.
And that includes getting the quarterback there by gametime.
* * *
With Oklahoma playing in the Insight Bowl in nearby Tempe on Friday, there is a large media contingent from the Sooner State in the Valley of the Sun.
One representative reporter asked Luck if he had any advice for Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, who could opt to make himself available for the NFL Draft. Luck faced the same situation a year ago, but elected to remain for one more season.
Luck revealed that he and Jones are close, having roomed together at football camps, and they keep in regular communication via texts. In answering, Luck detailed his own reasons for remaining at Stanford.
“No. 1, it inherently felt right,” Luck said. “That was a big part of it. Two, I wanted to finish school. And three, I sort of wanted to prolong growing up for another year and live the college experience again, and be with my teammates and learn and grow as a football player before hopefully getting a shot at the next level.
“What I would tell Landry is if he’s a religious man, to pray about it. Obviously, talk to his family members and the people he cares about as coaches, and then make the decision that he’ll be happiest with.”
* * *
The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Fleener was described by Hamilton as the third or fourth fastest player on the team, and that he compared favorably with a pair of NFL tight ends.
Hamilton described Fleener as “a combination” of the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Olson and the San Francisco 49ers Vernon Davis. Hamilton was on the staffs of both players’ original NFL teams, including Olson’s Chicago Bears.
“Coby’s probably a little better blocker than Greg, though he’s not quite as fast,” Hamilton said. “But he has the straight line speed that Vernon Davis has.”
* * *
Stanford incorporated three new starters on the offensive line – left guard David Yankey, center Sam Schwartzstein, and right tackle Cameron Fleming joined incumbent starters David DeCastro (right guard) and Martin (left tackle) – and they’ve been able to adapt well as the season has continued.
“Every year, you’re always worried,” DeCastro said. “You get old guys leaving and new guys stepping in. I think it took me a little time to realize we’re going to be OK, just the fact that you’re so used to old guys and what they did. And then the new guys come in and you realize, yeah, we’ll be all right.”
Luck said the improvement indirectly can be credited to DeCastro and Martin.
“As much as they’ve wanted to succeed for themselves,” Luck said. “I don’t think they wanted to let David or Jonathan down.”
* * *
Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bill Young on the challenge of facing Stanford’s run-first attack after playing mostly spread offenses in the Big 12:
“We've been playing basketball on grass for about nine games, and all of a sudden it’s going to be smash mouth football; that's hard to simulate.”
* * *
Fleener thought hard after being posed this question: What do you think that people watching Stanford play for the first time will notice?
“That Andrew’s really all he’s cracked up to be,” Fleener said. “That he is the best player in the nation and he deserves that title.”
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics
Note: Stanford's practice on Thursday (1:30 p.m.) at Pinnacle High School will be open to the public. No cameras or video equipment are allowed.