Stanford's offense disappears in its first road game

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Stanford's Sept. 15 upset of USC focused attention on the Cardinal's defense, and how good it is.
Stanford's Sept. 27 loss to Washington focused attention on the Cardinal's offense, and how poor it can be, especially on the road. It raises questions about how the Cardinal (3-1) will fare against a team capable of scoring a lot of points, such as Arizona, which is Stanford's next opponent on Oct. 6 at home. And it raises questions about how the Cardinal will fare in its second road game, which happens to be an Oct. 13 game against nationally ranked Notre Dame.
The 17-13 loss the Huskies pinned on Stanford in the Cardinal's first road game highlighted all the flaws in the Cardinal's offense, and it was not just at quarterback, although that was a problem, too.
Stanford's defense played an outstanding game, putting constant pressure on talented Washington quarterback Keith Price, forcing him to have a mediocre game. He was just 19 for 37 for 177 yards, one interception and one touchdown pass.
Plus, the Cardinal defense scored Stanford's only touchdown, essentially outscoring its offense 7-6.
The Cardinal did give up two big plays that led to the Huskies' only touchdowns, but Washington (3-1) had the ball so many times because of the Cardinal's inability to hold the ball on offense that it can hardly be blamed for two blown plays.
Stanford's offense had seven three-and-outs and punted nine times.
"We kept the defense out there too long," Stanford coach David Shaw said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "Every team in our conference, if you give them enough shots on offense, they're going to hurt you. That's what happened tonight."
After rushing for a school-record 446 yards in a 65-21 rout of Washington last year, the Cardinal rushed for just 65 yards against the Huskies this season and had no runs longer than seven yards. Washington's run defense is better than it was last season, but it still entered the game ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense.
Quarterback Josh Nunes did not provide the passing threat needed in his first college start on the road. Despite generally having enough time to throw, Nunes completed less than half of his passes (18 for 37) for just 177 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. That one pick came on a poorly thrown ball on the Cardinal's final possession.
Tight end Zach Ertz continued to look like an All-American with 10 catches for a career-high 106 yards, but the Cardinal still lacks a significant receiving threat on the outside. Only six of Nunes' passes were caught by wide receivers, all by Ty Montgomery, for just 39 yards. And Montgomery failed to snag three catchable passes that would have been big gainers.
The bottom line is, Stanford's offense failed to score a touchdown in the game and failed to score a point in the second half against a Washington defense that Stanford had overwhelmed the past three seasons and is far from outstanding this season.
Certainly, the loss of Andrew Luck plays a major role in the Cardinal's offensive concerns, but the loss of guard David DeCastro, a first-round NFL draft pick, and offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, a starter for the Miami Dolphins this season as a rookie, may have had a bigger impact than expected.
The Cardinal has been unable to consistently carve out holes for its running backs against defenses that are now stacking the line of scrimmage. And future Stanford opponents will continue to bring eight or nine defenders close to the line if Stanford cannot become a passing threat.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Stanford has nine days until its next game on Oct. 6 at home against Arizona, and it will need the extra time to wash away the memory of the disappointing loss to Washington and figure out ways to move the ball against defenses that are crowding the line of scrimmage more and more. The Wildcats, who lost to nationally ranked Oregon State on Sept. 29, have an explosive spread option offense and were ranked before their disappointing 49-0 loss to Oregon. After that, Stanford plays two road games -- against No. 10 Notre Dame on Oct. 13 and against traditional rival Cal in Berkeley on Oct. 20. The Cal game is typically at the end or close to the end of the season, but television considerations by the Pac-12 placed it in the middle of the season this year.
--Stanford's habit of using a number of tailbacks in a game disappeared against Washington. Stepfan Taylor did virtually all the work, carrying 21 times for just 75 yards. He was the only Stanford tailback to get a carry, with fullback Ryan Hewitt carrying twice in short-yardage situations and backup quarterback Kevin Hogan running once from a shotgun formation early in the game in a new wrinkle. Backup tailback Anthony Wilkerson was not available because of a leg injury, and Tyler Gaffney, the third tailback who received a lot of work last season, left the program over the summer to play pro baseball. Ricky Seale and Kelsey Young were expected to see playing time against Washington, but neither had an official carry in the game (Young did have one carry but it was erased by an offensive penalty). Ever since Jim Harbaugh arrived as head coach, the Cardinal had given at least two tailbacks, and usually three, significant playing time in a game.
--It may be unfair to compare this year's Stanford offense to last year's offense, which had Andrew Luck, but the difference is rather startling. Stanford averaged 43.2 points last season and is averaging 26.0 through four games this year. Stanford averaged 5.3 yards per rush last year compared to 3.9 this season. The Cardinal converted 52.6 percent of its third downs last season (third in the nation), but has converted just 30 percent this year after going 5 for 18 against Washington. The Cardinal failed to score touchdowns on either of its two penetrations into the red zone against Washington and has scored touchdowns on just five of 13 red zone possessions (38.5 percent) for the year. Last season, Stanford scored touchdowns on 53 of 69 trips into the red zone (76.8 percent). Luck completed 71.3 percent of his passes last season; Nunes is at 52.0 percent. And here's the eye-popping stat: Stanford went three-and-out just four times in its first seven games combined last season; the Cardinal went three-and-out seven times against Washington.
--Stanford entered the Washington game ranked No. 8 in the country. It is certain to drop out of the top 10, but probably will remain in the top 25. The Cardinal has not been unranked yet this season.
--The highlight of the game for Stanford was the third-quarter interception by LB Trent Murphy, who blocked, then intercepted Keith Price's pass from close range and returned it 40 yards for Stanford's only touchdown. Coach David Shaw called it "an unbelievable play."
KEEP AN EYE ON: TE Zach Ertz is playing as well as any tight end in the country. He is the team's key third-down target and is looking more and more like a first-round NFL draft pick. He had 10 catches for 106 yards, nearly two-thirds of his team's receiving yardage against Washington.
LOOKING GOOD: Stanford's pass rush continues to be the team's biggest asset and has been particularly effective the past two games after being a bit sluggish in the first two. The Cardinal had only three sacks against Washington's mobile Keith Price, but he was harried and hit on nearly every throw. The pass rush was the chief reason he completed barely more than 50 percent of his passes (19 for 37) for just 177 yards. Nearly all of his passes were quick tosses for short gains, including the 35-yard touchdown pass to Kasen Williams, which was caught at the line of scrimmage before he eluded tackles by Cardinal defensive backs. Three different players had the sacks against Washington, and eight different players have been involved in the Cardinal's 13 sacks for the season.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Virtually everything on offense needs to improve, starting with the run blocking and ending with the proficiency of QB Josh Nunes. Although the pass protection has been decent, Nunes failed to complete at least half his passes for the second straight game, which were the Cardinal's only two Pac-12 games. The Cardinal also needs to find a big-play receiving weapon on the outside, although it's questionable whether one is available on the current roster.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We didn't make the throws we needed to make. We didn't make the catches we needed to make. We didn't sustain blocks in the running game as long as we should have. We got outplayed tonight." -- Stanford coach David Shaw, after the 17-13 loss to Washington on Sept. 27.

--TB Stepfan Taylor had 75 yards rushing on 21 carries against Washington, and he's still averaging better than 100 yards per game (104.5). But his per-carry average is 4.8 yards after being 5.5 last season. His receiving numbers against Washington were particularly interesting: four catches, zero receiving yards.
--QB Josh Nunes is completing 52 percent of his passes for the season, including 47.8 percent in Stanford's two conference games.
--TE Zach Ertz had a career-high 10 catches for a career-high 106 receiving yards against Washington. His previous career highs were five catches and 78 yards. Ertz leads the team by a wide margin in receiving yardage with 252.
--OLB Trent Murphy had his first career interception and his first career touchdown against Washington. He also had one tackle for loss, giving him 5.5 tackles for losses for the season, tied for the team lead.
--DB Usua Amanam did not start against Washington, but he had a team-high six tackles, giving him 23 for the season, one behind the team leader. He also had a tackle for loss, giving him 5.5 for the season, tied for the team lead.

--TB Anthony Wilkerson sat out the Washington game with a lower leg injury. He is questionable for the Oct. 6 game against Arizona.
--FB Geoff Meinken sat out his fourth straight game with a knee injury, and it's unclear when or if he will return.
--S Jordan Richards left the game against Washington briefly with what appeared to be a shoulder injury, but he returned to the game later.
--QB Josh Nunes will remain Stanford's starting quarterback, coach David Shaw said after the loss to Washington.

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