Stanford bullied its way to the 2012 Pac-12 Conference championship with imposing defense and, typically, just enough offense. With season-defining games against explosive offenses upcoming, this year's Cardinal will have their ability to outscore opponents tested.
Offensive woes were supposed to be a thing of the past. And through the 2013 season's first few weeks, that certainly seemed to be the case.
But since scoring 165 points through the first four games, including 55 against Washington State—its highest output since the 2011 season opener—Stanford has dipped. The Cardinal have failed to break into the 30s their last two times out and managed just 279 yards in their 31-28 defeat of Washington.
In its loss at Utah, the Cardinal defense regrouped after giving up an uncharacteristic 21 points in the first half. The held the Utes to just two field goals after intermission. However, the offense going cold throughout the second and third quarters vexed the Cardinal.
The defense is there, but the Utah loss begged the question, can Stanford score enough to win the conference again?
Stanford was stuck on three points far into the mid-third quarter last week against UCLA. The Cardinal finished with 24 points, despite accruing 419 total yards of offense.
Against both Utah and UCLA, Stanford had red-zone opportunities that didn't yield points. Quarterback Kevin Hogan had a pass deflected for an interception last week, and the final Cardinal drive at Utah stalled on a failed fourth-down attempt.
Head coach David Shaw seems unfazed.
"We don't call plays we don't think are going to work. Last week [against Utah], we threw the ball too much and didn't run enough. This week we ran the ball and didn't throw the ball enough—I don't care about any of that," Shaw said in his press conference after Saturday's win, per GoStanford.com.
Cardinal offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren called for a heavy dose of running back Tyler Gaffney against UCLA, and the senior responded with a 171 yards. Gaffney's punishing style complements the hard-nosed defense for which Stanford is known. But perhaps the team's more important offensive asset is not offensive at all.
Shaw talked about the significance of special teams play on Tuesday's teleconference. Special teams have been integral to Stanford's success this season.
Wide receiver Ty Montgomery is one of only three players in the nation with two kickoffs returned for touchdowns. Both came in conference action, against Washington and Utah.
Montgomery had a third that setup a touchdown in the Washington win.
"With everybody talking about yardage [and] how many plays they can run, no one’s talking about field position," Shaw said. "Field position matters. If we can stay in positive field position, we have a better chance to win."
Shaw is such a firm believer in special teams, he hired former Fresno State coach Pete Alamar in 2012 to focus exclusively on that aspect of the game.
It's paid dividends. FootballOutsider.com finds that Stanford has the nation's second-best field-position ratings.
Such a strategy lends itself to a much different style of game when compared to the spread offenses that are so prevalent around the conference. Whether Stanford can continue to work effectively with this style will determine its championship bid.
As Oregon, Stanford’s top challenger to the Pac-12 Conference crown, refines its efficient offense, a repeat of last year’s 17-14 defensive struggle seems unlikely. The Ducks are a year older and more experienced. One Oregon player who has made the biggest jump from last year to this season is sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is surging ahead in preliminary Heisman Trophy projections.
Oregon forces its opponents to keep pace. It's not the only high-octane offense remaining on Stanford's schedule, though.
Oregon State welcomes the Cardinal to Reser Stadium this week, and the Beavers offense is the nation's ninth-highest scoring unit.
Stanford faced three of the conference's stingier defenses in the past three weeks. Oregon State's defense is more of a work in progress than that of Washington, Utah or UCLA. Still, the Beavers are figuring it out. Since giving up 30-plus points in three of its first four games, Oregon State has held three consecutive Pac-12 opponents to a combined 58 points.
"They’re really active, they know their defense inside and out," Shaw said. "They gave up some big plays early in the year, and you just don’t see that anymore."
The big play has been the one consistent element in a sometimes inconsistent Stanford offense. Two of its touchdowns last Saturday were the result of long passes—one a sideline route to wide receiver Devon Cajuste that put the Cardinal on top of the goal line, the other a circus catch of a deep ball by wide receiver Kodi Whitfield.
Cajuste left last week's game with an injury, but his status for this week is promising, Shaw said Tuesday. That's good news for the Cardinal offense, which needs all of its weapons to capitalize on the opportunities the defense and special teams create.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer for B/R. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.