Stanford Offensive Preview

This post will look at Stanford’s offense in preview of the upcoming game on Saturday.  First, we will look at some comparative stats for Stanford to get a sense how good they really are.  Then we will look at Stanford’s play calling.  Finally, we will look at their gains by down and their gain histogram.

Comparative Stats

A fellow forum poster whom I respect very much pointed out an interesting statistic earlier this week.  He noted that while Stanford has put up some amazing numbers offensively, they have faced some fairly weak competition in terms of their opponents’ defenses.  The telling statistic is that their opponents have an average ranking of #93 in total defense.  In fact, no defense they have faced has a rank higher than #73 for total defense.  USC currently ranks #43 in total defense and should be the toughest defense that Stanford has faced thus far.

So I decided to take it a step further and run some comparative stats, just to try to get a sense how good Stanford’s offense really is.  A comparative stat is when you analyze how good Stanford’s offense did when compared to the average the defense usually gives up throughout the season.  For example, Stanford gained 615 total yards in their recent game against Washington.  Washington’s defense currently allows an average of 431.3 yards per game.  So in this game, Stanford has a +183.7 margin above the average.  Good teams will consistently land above average.  The good thing about looking at comparative stats is it accounts for how good the opposing team is.

So let us take a look at Stanford’s main comparative stats.  As can be seen here, Stanford has a positive margin for comparative stats in the main three yardage categories.

First, there is a caveat to the rushing offense.  Stanford gained a phenomenal 446 yards rushing in their most recent game against Washington.  This was just under 300 yards above what Washington typically allows.  While I don’t want to discredit how much Stanford was able to manhandle Washington with the run, this greatly throws off the averages shown in the chart and should be noted.  If you take out the Washington game, Stanford’s margin for Rushing Offensve comparative stat drops down to a +13.3 yard margin, which isn’t as spectacular.  In fact, Stanford has been held under their opponent’s average rushing allowed three times this season.  Against San Jose State, they were held -44 yards under what SJSt usually allows.  Against Colorado, it was -22 yards.  Finally, against Washington State, it was -2.9 yards (so pretty much at average).  The run is important as you typically get inflated rushing numbers in blowout wins due to increased numbers of running plays.  Add in that Stanford’s opponents have an average ranking for rushing defense of #72 while USC currently ranks #11.  I expect for USC’s defense to be able to contain Stanford’s running attack.

For the pass, the numbers seemed surprisingly low given how much praise Andrew Luck gets.  However, there is the converse affect in the Washington game as Stanford was able to power the run so had no need to pass.  This caused Stanford to have a -115.43 margin for comparative stats on the pass in this game.  If we ignore this game, the season’s average jumps up to +47.68.  Also account for the fact that these numbers will be lower given blowout wins due to reduced passing.  Yet, Stanford’s opponents have an average ranking for passing defense of #96.  Initially this looks good, but USC currently ranks #104 in passing defense.

The problem with looking at passing offense and rushing offense stats in the context of comparative stats is that it doesn’t take into account the number of attempts, time of possession, and any number of other factors.  So now let us look at it in another way: passing efficiency and yards per carry.

Andrew Luck currently has a passing rating of 180.  If you average his passing rating from each individual game, you get a fairly close 179.5.  Comparatively, Stanford’s opponents allow an average QB rating of 144.9, giving an overall margin of +34.6 for Stanford.  These opponents have an average pass efficiency defense ranking of #98, while USC has a ranking of #54.

Yards per Carry gets a little tricky.  Simply averaging out the yards per carry for each game isn’t technically correct as it loses information on how many carries each game had.  Yet, we need a way to average out the yard per carry defense of each opponent.  I did the simple averaging out, but keep in mind the discrepancies that this will give.

If you average out the Yards per Carry by game, Stanford gains 5.5 yards per carry (in actuality, Stanford averages 5.9 yards per carry, the discrepancy I noted earlier).  Comparatively, Stanford’s opponents allow an average of 4.77 yards per carry, giving an overall margin of +0.7 yards per carry.  These opponents have an average yards per carry defense ranking of #92, while USC currently ranks #33.

For a closer look at all the numbers, here is a spreadsheet that has every game in multiple categories:  Click here.

Play Calling

Overall, Stanford likes to run the ball more than pass.  This season, they have run the ball 255 times (54%) and passed 215 times (46%).  First let us look at the play calling by down.

Stanford relies on the run on first down.  Their success on the run on early down leads to better situations for later downs.  For second down, they are fairly balanced.  Finally, they rely mostly on the pass on third down as they trust in Andrew Luck to get them the conversion.  The threat of the run on 3rd down typically only comes on 3rd and short, as only five of the 26 runs on 3rd down have been greater than three yards to go.

Now let us look at the play calling by quarter.

Stanford is fairly balanced up until the fourth quarter, when they start to run the ball heavily.  This is due to the large lead they have built up until the fourth quarter.  In fact, when the game is close (within seven points either way), Stanford has been perfectly balanced in their play calling with 96 calls for run and 96 calls for pass.

Gains by Down

Let us look at Stanford’s average distance to go compared to their average gain.

Stanford’s success on the run and their quarterback’s ability to get positive yardage leads to a very low average distance to go.  Most teams hover at around six or seven yards to go on average for 3rd downs.  Stanford is sitting below five.  In fact, only 23% of their 3rd downs are 3rd and long.  43% of their 3rd downs are 3rd and short.  This makes it easy for Stanford to keep drives alive and score points.

The ability to keep drives alive is shown by their field position stats.  Their average starting field position is their own 36 yard line, yet they take 57% of their offensive snaps on the opponent’s side of the field.

Gain Histograms

Let us take a quick look at their gain histogram.

Not only is Stanford good at gaining positive yardage consistently, but they also get a lot of explosive plays.  Stanford has had 75 plays this season gain 15 or more yards.  This includes 47 passes (22% of their total passes) and 28 runs (11% of runs).  In contrast, Stanford has had 26 runs that have gained negative yardage or no gain (10%) and only 2 completed passes failed to gain positive yardage (1%).


Overall, this is a very strong Stanford Offense.  They have consistently gained more than their opponents allow on average.  However, ranking wise, they face a much stronger defense in USC than they have faced this entire season.  The average defense they have faced has been weak thus far.  We will see if USC’s defense can fare much better against this balanced offense.  I personally expect USC’s defense to be able to slow Stanford down, but probably not stop them completely.  I expect USC to be able to stop Stanford’s rushing attack, but I don’t know if USC can stop Andrew Luck.  This may be a shootout.


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