STANFORD, Calif. – Sick of losing and on the verge of irrelevance in the Pac-12 race, David Shaw did what some thought he never would.
Shaw scrapped Stanford’s model of offense for a spread-style approach more in line with the rest of the conference. The Cardinal crushed Oregon State 38-14 last Saturday with fly sweeps, read-options and multiple wide receiver sets, sometimes even looking like their rivals to the north in a no-huddle offense.
The sudden and surprising change gives the Pac-12’s marquee matchup this week quite the twist.
The Cardinal (5-3, 3-2) visit fifth-ranked Oregon (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday night, and the winner will move into first place in the league’s North Division. Stanford has dashed the Ducks’ national championship hopes the past two seasons on the way to Pac-12 titles and Rose Bowl berths, ending quarterback Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy chances each time.
But those program-defining victories followed another blueprint, notably a ground-and-pound run game that controlled the line of scrimmage and the clock. The formula limited Mariota’s minutes and helped Stanford’s defense – the most efficient in the nation this season – quiet one of the country’s highest-scoring offenses.
“We just have to do whatever our guys can do,” Shaw said. “If we can get like we did last year and get to our big personnel to be able to run the ball efficiently, hey, that’s great, we can do that. If we have to spread it out and run and throw and move the football, hey, we have to do that. Nothing is off limits to us.”
Shaw seemed reluctant to make such a dramatic change previously. Losses to Southern California, Notre Dame and Arizona State left him fed up and frustrated, though, especially given the talent on his team.
So Shaw searched deep in his playbook and created a few new tricks last week, partially abandoning the power running game that played a leading role in transforming the program from an afterthought to an unlikely juggernaut under Jim Harbaugh.
“What we had been doing wasn’t good enough,” Shaw said.
The Cardinal passed more to offset a young offensive line that has struggled to block in the run game. They ran more to the outside than between the tackles because the running backs are faster and shiftier than the physical bulldozers on past teams. And they opted for a no-huddle offense, at times, to speed up the tempo for quarterback Kevin Hogan – who seems to thrive in a quicker pace.
Stanford also created more touches for top playmaker Ty Montgomery, promising freshman Christian McCaffrey and deep-ball threat Michael Rector. And it spread the ball around more to utilize all of the team’s threats, including wide receivers Devon Cajuste and Jordan Pratt and a trio of blossoming tight ends.
What players found is the offense actually got simpler, allowing them to think quicker and play faster.
The quick-strike approach is still in its infancy, though, and the sample size is limited. What worked against an overmatched Oregon State team might not work against an Oregon team that can score as fast as anybody.
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