USC at Stanford Preview

Let me start off by apologizing for the late preview post as well as not posting the end game strategy post I promised earlier.  I have been fairly busy this week as well as sick, so I haven’t had time to go through the numbers.

This post will look at the Stanford Cardinal that USC will face on the road.  Stanford is ranked #16 in the nation after 5 games.  They have won games against Sacramento State, UCLA, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame.  Their only loss was on the road to #4 Oregon.  They have a strong offense that ranks #4 in the nation with 44.6 points per game.  USC’s defense has its work cut out for them and the offense will have its hands full trying to keep up with the points being scored by Stanford.  This post will look at the play calling by Stanford, their conversion rate, and their gain histogram.

Play Calling

Stanford is a run first offense.  In 5 games, they have run the ball 224 times (55%) and passed 187 times (45%).  They use a power run to move the ball slowly but steady.  Lets take a look at the run vs pass play calling by down.

As can be seen here, Stanford likes to start with a run on 1st down.  It is nearly 2:1 that they will run the ball.  This is to create much more manageable 2nd and 3rd downs.  Once they’re in 2nd and 3rd down, they tend to be fairly balanced with a slight tendency towards the pass.  Now lets look at the play calling by quarter.

Stanford starts the game fairly balanced in their 1st and 2nd quarters.  There is a slight tendency towards the pass in 1st quarter.  As the game moves into the 2nd half, Stanford tends to run more often, most likely caused by the score differential at this point.  In Stanford’s 4 wins, they were up by an average of 21.25 points at halftime.  With this type of margin, no need to pass the ball when you can run it and just go home with a win.  Don’t expect that type of mercy from Stanford if they find themselves up by a lot against USC.  As last year showed, Harbaugh has no problem running the Trojan’s noses into the dirt if he has a chance.

Conversion Rates

Stanford ranks 2nd in the nation in 3rd down conversions.  The NCAA credits them to 57.8% conversion rate on 3rd downs.  USC, by comparison, converts 51.8% of our 3rd downs which earns us a #12 ranking in 3rd down offense.  My program credits Stanford to an even higher 69% of 3rd downs converted (my program counts penalties that result in a 1st down as a conversion etc).  My program also logs that Stanford has converted on 80% of their 3rd and shorts.

To see why they are successful, let us first look at the average yards to convert by down.

This graph in itself isn’t too surprising.  It matches up with USC’s graph fairly well.  But now let us look at the average gain by down.

Stanford gets a solid push on 1st down with an average of 5 yards.  Remember most of these are runs, most likely their power run.  2nd down gained a healthy 6.76 yard average.  But 3rd down blew away the average distance to go with a good 8.42 yards gained on average.

Gain Histogram

Let us look at the gain histogram for running and passing by Stanford.  For ease of reading the graph, I have removed the 58 incompletions that Stanford has thrown this season.

Running wise, there is a fairly good bell curve with the peak at 4 yards gained which occurred 34 times this season.  This is what I mean by that slow and steady power run that Stanford uses.  They are perfectly happy running the ball for 4-5 yards at a time.

Now passes are the interesting one.  The thing that stands out is the explosive passes.  36 total passes this season have gained at least 15 yards!  This means there are just over 7 explosive passes per game.  This means 23% of their pass attempts and 38% of their pass completions gain 15+ yards.  That’s 1 in 4 passes attempted and 1 in 3 passes completed.  Clearly, Luck has an accurate deep ball and his receivers know how to get open in the secondary.  A strong play action fake could also help this area.


Stanford tends to run the ball on early downs.  But even if we stop the run, we’ll still have to stop a strong passing attack behind Andrew Luck.  USC’s defense will be tested heavily this game.  The name of the game may just be for our offense to keep up with theirs.  Put points up on the board and in a hurry.  Lets hope for a strong rebound and a win on the road.


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