football

Stanford offense needs to change, and the Cardinal know it

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Christian McCaffrey tries to elude a swarm of Colorado defenders during Stanford's 10-5 loss Saturday.
Bob Drebin, isiphotos.com

Stanford's fall from arguably the best Power-5 offense last season to one of, if not the, worst in 2016 has been a staggering experience for all involved.

The 10-5 Homecoming loss to Colorado in front of a sparse crowd, who on two occasions loudly booed play calls, recalled the nightmares of the Walt Harris regime. After the game, head coach David Shaw said the staff would gather in the coming days to talk about necessary adjustments, but he wouldn't answer questions about specific changes to starters or offensive approach.

Those questions may begin to be answered Tuesday morning at the regularly scheduled press conference with Shaw and several players. Here are some of the issues that need to be addressed going forward:

Who will be Stanford's starting quarterback against Arizona?

Unfortunately, Ryan Burns' time as starting quarterback likely is coming to an end. I say unfortunately because I'm not 100% convinced that a new quarterback will dramatically change the fortunes of the Cardinal offense. If fixing the offense was as simple as replacing one starter, the staff would have have done so several weeks ago.

After a promising start that included 10 straight completions against Kansas State, Burns' play has regressed over the past two games. And the fumbled snap in the Colorado loss ended Stanford's best chance to score and win an ugly game. But at least it would have been a win.

Shaw on Burns' play after the game: "Bottom line, we need more production from the quarterback position. We're not going to have that conversation here about who's going to start, who's not going to start, who's going to play and how much. You can ask the question, we're not going to have that conversation here. We're going to go back and evaluate the film again, and we're going to find out the best way possible to move forward."

Is there a fix for the offensive line?

Before the season started I was asked my top concerns for the team and my only slightly tongue-in-cheek response was: No. 1 offensive line, No. 2 offensive line and No. 3 offensive line.

I never thought the prospect of replacing three starters from an elite line was getting the national attention it deserved. Some people waved it away with variations of, "Stanford is a strong enough program that it doesn't need time to rebuild."

But Stanford's offensive approach heavily relies on dominant line play. Not average or good, but dominant. While Stanford has lined up under center less than 40% of the time this season, it has been a run play on more than 80% of those occasions. But both of those percentages are actually down from last season.

Obviously not all running plays are the same, but the Cardinal showed last year and in the Rose Bowl they had enough talented players that it didn't matter if the defense knew what was about to happen.

This season a combination of inconsistency and injuries has caused the staff to start three different variations of the offense line. The players aren't going to change this season (although, at least there is a chance the four starters expected to return next year are much improved by then), so the staff has to find a way to consistently move the ball despite the difficulties.

How does Stanford maximize the potential of its offensive players?

Stanford isn't Alabama with a starting lineup of prep five-star talents, but the athletes on offense are better than the results on the field. And that's the assessment of Shaw and Stanford's top defensive player, Solomon Thomas, who lines up across from his teammates in practice.

Shaw said: "Our personnel doesn't reflect our production, and all the fingers point to me. That's on me. That's my responsibility to get the most out of the players that we have.

"Yes, we have injuries, but nobody cares. Got a couple guys back, got Christian McCaffrey back, probably not 100 percent, but obviously really good, still really good.

"When we don't get enough 1st downs, we don't maintain our possessions, then no one gets enough touches. Bryce Love doesn't get enough opportunities. Michael Rector doesn't get enough opportunities. Trent Irwin doesn't get enough opportunities. These are very, very good football players."

Add tight ends Dalton Schultz and Greg Taboada and several promising young receivers and the list is long enough to expect a much more dynamic offense.

Thomas added about the offense he practices against compared to game day: "It's not the same offense. They're way better than what they put out on there, and we believe in them. We believe they'll come together. We have faith in them, and we love them, and they'll play their best football sometime this season, and they will shock the world. I believe that with my whole heart, and I believe in my team and I believe in my teammates and I believe in my coaches."

It's startling to think that Stanford's offensive struggles have managed to make it possible to miss that the Cardinal have one of the best players in the country with McCaffrey. But he can't turn the ship on his own.

The question for the coaches becomes how to better involve players such as Love, Taboada and Schultz to help spark the offense. By the end of the Colorado game the touches for those three players were:

Love: three carries and one reception for a total of 29 yards.

Schultz: two catches on two targets for 15 yards.

Taboada: zero targets

The expectation outside the program was that those three players -- and Rector and Irwin -- would help take the pressure off a new quarterback and even McCaffrey. While it's true the tight ends have had to stay back to block more often, the position use to be a crucial mismatch that Stanford exploited to extend drives.

This week could be different than any previously under Shaw as Stanford faces tough questions and a short deadline to find answers.

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