Hidden Key to the Pac-12 Championship and Possible Nat’l Championship: Stanford’s O-Line

Kevin Cline

 As Duck fans, we have to face the facts.  Stanford beat us last year.  That night they were the better team.  Don’t anybody accuse me of “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” because I don’t have any. It’s the responsibility of the superior team to put enough distance between itself and the competition such that it doesn’t come down to a referee’s call, a missed block or a missed field goal.

That being said, I still believe that Oregon was the better of the two teams last year and that it was a matter of Stanford having its best night – when Oregon had its worst.  In 2012, Stanford had a great defense, but Oregon had a great offense, certainly better than San Jose State, Washington, Arizona, Notre Dame, Washington State, Oregon State and UCLA, all of which scored more points against Stanford than Oregon.  The national pundits seemed to share my point of view, as they ranked Oregon ahead of Stanford at the end of the year, despite the head-to-head outcome.

Ertz and the fateful catch of 2012

Kevin Cline

Ducks — You’ve been ’86ed’ — Ertz, of the infamous “Fateful Catch,” is gone.

As is always the case at the dawn of a new season, we’re all trying to out-think Fate – with painfully inadequate information to go on.

Our Ducks have big holes to fill at linebacker and a few other depth-chart issues, of course,  but we are optimistic that the “Next Man Up” philosophy will sort itself out in the end.  Stanford doesn’t have much in the way of holes to fill — on a defense that truly was one of the best in the nation last year.

Offense is another story, however.  Outside the quarterback position, every aspect of the Cardinal offense has major questions, including – if I dare go against what everybody seems to consider a given strength — their offensive line.

Gone are all of their top receivers.  Gone is Stepfan Taylor, their career rushing leader.  Gone is Zach Ertz, who has given the Ducks fits over the course of his career.

Stefan Taylor and his O-Line

Kevin Cline

Stepfan Taylor is gone, but most of the O-line that led Stanford to a 35th-place national ranking in yards per carry, returns.

Stanford returns four-out-of-five players on what is generally regarded as a great offensive line, but it is at this point where I question the national perception.

ESPN’s Pac-12 blog labels Stanford’s offensive line as “one of the nation’s best,” declaring that All-American guard David Yankey and tackle Andrus Peat will anchor the best O-line in the Pac-12, this season.

While ranking Stanford’s offensive line ahead of both Oregon and USC, the ESPN blog rated USC’s run blocking as being “only mediocre,” last season.  (Note that USC’s performance against Hawaii last week – 45 carries for 192 yards and a 4.3 average, did nothing to prove them wrong.)

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There are probably as few statistics available for the performance of an offensive lineman as there are for any position on a football team, short of water boy.  What’s more, the real issue is how the group functions as a whole, so the meaningful statistics are the team statistics.

Here, in my opinion, is where the proposition that “Stanford returns a great offensive line” scenario, breaks down:

If USC’s run blocking was only mediocre last year, where does that leave Stanford?  Last year USC ran 392 times for 1,958 yards (5.0 per carry).  Stanford ran 549 times for 2,440 yards (4.4 per carry), and that was with its career rushing leader, Taylor, in his senior year.  Oregon, by the way, returns three starters on the offensive line — center Hronis Grasu; tackles Jake Fisher and Tyler Johnstone — and has highly-experienced replacements for the other two spots, for a team that ran 685 times in 2012, for 4,098 yards (6.0 per carry – tops in the country).

The Stanford offensive line has also received glowing marks for giving up the fewest sacks.  Indeed, they gave up only 20 all of last year.  That’s a good achievement, but Oregon gave up only 19, and USC, on 62 more passing attempts against than Stanford, gave up only 17.

In 2012, Stanford was ranked 96th in passing yards, 72nd in scoring, 49th in rushing yards, and tied with Texas-San Antonio for 55th in yards per carry. These are all pedestrian rankings that correspond to their ho-hum offensive statistics.

Two out of their three major playmakers from 2012 (Taylor and Ertz) are gone, with only Hogan returning.

And while they do have some young playmakers, Stanford hopes someone will step up soon.  The core issue of the Cards’ ability to succeed on offense, lies squarely on the shoulders of the offensive line.  The Cardinal OL has been touted as being among the best in the nation – the results from last year, however, do not support this proposition.

It is true that Stanford was within a touchdown a game of being undefeated last year, but it is also true that there were eight games (including Washington State) that they won by a touchdown or less.  If the Cardinal offensive line truly is the best in the nation, the loss of Taylor and Ertz may be of little consequence, but without a significant improvement from the O-line, it is doubtful that the Cardinal will make it to November 7, with an unblemished record.

David Fales of San Jose State after winning the Military Bowl

www.freep.com

David Fales of San Jose State after winning the 2012 Military Bowl

Stanford opens this weekend against one of last year’s surprise teams, San Jose State.  The Spartans have a lot of talent, but not much depth.  While San Jose’s defensive line was strong last year, this year’s group is unproven, because their two defensive ends (including WAC Conference Defensive Player of the Year Travis Johnson) have moved on.

It may well be that Stanford’s offensive line will be as dominant as it was last year — as many pundits seem to think – but if the Cardinal struggle offensively against San Jose State, a good number of those eight touchdown-or-less games that were wins in 2012, may end up on the wrong side of the Won/Loss ledger for 2013.

 

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