SANTA CLARA, Calif. – At a school that has had a faculty member win a Nobel Prize in science for three consecutive years, a football game is not going to be the most complex thing happening on the campus today.
Especially not when the contest is between two programs – Washington State and host Stanford – that take a minimalist approach to their playbooks and eschew complicated schemes in favor of a more streamlined approach to the game.
Washington State’s Air Raid offense, while it may take years to perfect, was installed within a week of Mike Leach’s first practice in Pullman. There were core beliefs to instill, some routes and concepts to learn, and everything since has been all about execution.
That same simplicity is something Leach admires in this week’s opponent and believes it is a core reason for Stanford’s success during the last two seasons, in which the Cardinal have won the conference.
“They have their core beliefs that they believe in and work on that and center their skills and their focus around that,” Leach said. “I don’t think there will be a bunch of surprises or different stuff.”
More to the point: “They value execution over playing on the chalkboard and trying to out-scheme somebody.”
Buoyed by the baseline IQs that allow the Stanford players to cut it scholastically at the Pac-12’s most rigorous academic institution, the simplified schemes allow them to use their smarts on the minutiae of each play that can make the difference in which side ultimately has leverage.
WSU receiver Vince Mayle recalls a play during last year’s 55-17 loss when a mere glance in the direction of an opposing player tipped the Cardinal off to his assignment.
“They’re some of the smartest guys I’ve played against,” Mayle said. “You just really have to be very technical and you can’t tip off anything because they’ll come back the next series and know what’s going on.”
“Just attention to detail,” adds offensive lineman Joe Dahl. “Their line stunts, the blitzes, everything seems to be pinpoint.”
If anyone is likely to add a wrinkle, it’s WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske. Due in part to personnel changes over the course of the season, the Cougars’ defense has presented multiple looks to opposing teams.
Against dangerous passers, the Cougars have tried to pressure the quarterback, succeeding in getting to Oregon’s Marcus Mariota for seven sacks but failing to bring down California’s Jared Goff before he could fire off his quick passes.
“One game they’re playing a little more coverage, you watch one game they’re blitzing a little bit more, so I think they’re doing a lot of different things,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Their third downs are impressive to watch how they get after the quarterback.”
But it’s unlikely either team will change anything drastic enough to surprise the other, and this game will be decided by the players, not the scheme.
It’s simple, really.
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