A Stanford program celebrated for its cerebral style fell victim to overthinking its approach in Saturday's 20-17 loss at USC.
Despite averaging six yards per carry employing the run game that helped ground Oregon's explosive offense a week ago, the ball was put in quarterback Kevin Hogan's hands in critical spots late. That proved damning for Stanford's BCS National Championship aspirations—the loss effectively eliminates the Cardinal from the discussion—and brings negative attention on head coach David Shaw.
Indeed, the Cardinal struggled through a bad case of offensive deja vu reminiscent of another head-scratching loss in Pac-12 play earlier this season. On Oct. 12 at Utah, Hogan passed twice on Stanford's final two plays, needing just two yards with the Utes' goal line in reach.
Likewise, against USC, Stanford moved into Trojans territory in the fourth quarter. Two consecutive pass plays proved costly, as the second was misread and intercepted by Dion Bailey.
A key difference between Stanford's loss at Utah and the game against USC that makes the second-half play-calling all the more confounding: Utah's offense came out hot against Stanford, scoring 21 points in the first half.
Saturday, the Cardinal held the Trojans below 20 until the game's waning moments. Stanford played an outstanding defensive game, particularly after battling back from a 17-7 deficit in the first half. The ground-and-pound style that was so crucial to Stanford's upset of Oregon seemed tailored to the game's flow in the second half.
USC's starting front seven is stout. However, the operative word there is starting, due to the injuries and NCAA sanctions that slashed the Trojans roster below the numbers of even a Football Championship Subdivision program.
Such an opponent seems ripe for the Hulk formation to force a war of attrition. And as good as USC defenders like Devon Kennard, Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard have been all season, running back Tyler Gaffney still broke off an average of 6.6 yards on his 24 carries.
Those 24 carries are 21 fewer than Gaffney had against Oregon and 12 less than in the Cardinal's Oct. 19 defeat of UCLA. Conversely, Hogan threw almost twice as many passes against USC as he did against Oregon.
Less Gaffney and more Hogan is not an ideal recipe for the Stanford offense. The Cardinal have been at their best when both phases are firing, obviously. Hogan threw as many passes against UCLA as he did at USC. However, he was more effective exploiting the openings the Bruins gave him.
In particular, Hogan connected with receivers on sideline routes against UCLA that his receivers made available against the USC secondary, but Hogan missed on overthrows.
Gaffney wasn't perfect either. Before the critical red-zone interception, Gaffney was dragged down in the backfield to turn a six-yard goal-to-go possession into 10 yards.
Still, Stanford deviated from the game plan that brought it to the dance. As a result, Oregon's cut in on the Cardinal's place in the Pac-12 Championship line.