Stanford hasn’t lost much in the three seasons David Shaw has been head coach. The Cardinal’s 24-20 loss against Michigan State in Wednesday’s Rose Bowl was just their seventh in Shaw’s tenure, but a recurring critique from the more recent Stanford stumbles is the coach’s offensive play-calling.
Shaw didn’t deviate from the game plan that carried Stanford to a second consecutive Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance. The Cardinal stepped up toe-to-toe with Michigan State’s ballyhooed defense for a throwback slugfest, and the Spartans punched just a little bit harder.
Aside from Tyler Gaffney’s 47-yard carry in the first quarter and touchdown rush on the game's opening drive, Michigan State showed exactly why it’s the nation's premier rush defense by rendering Gaffney a non-factor much of the day.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Gaffney carried 24 times for 91 yards, a 3.8 yards-per-carry average. Take away his big gainer, and his average was half that.
When Gaffney couldn't get free taking handoffs from quarterback Kevin Hogan, Shaw lined the running back up in a single wing, or Wildcat. The formation has been a point of contention between Shaw and his naysayers for all three of his seasons leading the Cardinal.
Gaffney defended the Wildcat just this week when asked at his Rose Bowl press conference, per GoStanford.com.
"I love the [W]ildcat," Gaffney said. "It gives you an opportunity to be an athlete. You get the ball, you see there's not just one hole drawn up. There can be multiple. You hit it with everything you've got and hope for the best."
Gaffney was Stanford’s top offensive playmaker throughout 2013. He led the way for the Cardinal with 1,618 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns coming into the Rose Bowl. Shaw chose to stick with the one who brought him to the dance.
But while rushing Gaffney behind Stanford's outstanding offensive line pounded speed-based Oregon and blitz-happy Arizona State into submission, Michigan State was up to the task.
Going away from Gaffney offered the Stanford offense no relief, however.
On Stanford's final possession and facing 3rd-and-2, a Gaffney rush out of a shotgun handoff fell short. In a jumbo package on fourth down, Shaw called fullback Ryan Hewitt's number. It was Hewitt's first carry of the game, and Stanford's last offensive snap of the season.
That Stanford’s five losses in the last two seasons have all been by single digits makes it easier to put every decision under a microscope. Such was the case in a 20-17 loss at USC on Nov. 16, as well as a 27-21 defeat at Utah on Oct. 12.
The narrative in those Pac-12 tilts, however, was that Shaw went away from Gaffney in calling for Hogan to pass more. He threw 27 passes at Utah and 25 at USC, including a critical red-zone interception in the latter.
Hogan passed 18 times against Michigan State, completing 10, including his first attempt, a 43-yard connection with Michael Rector. Hogan also found Devon Cajuste on a 51-yarder in the third quarter.
Otherwise, big plays were hard to come by against Michigan State's "No Fly Zone" secondary.
Certainly some of the Cardinal's offensive anemia is due to the conservative approach.
But play-calling was not the only reason Stanford lost. Hardly.
The Spartans defense answered the bell against a stout offense and lived up to its billing. The offense also found a way to do just enough against a Stanford defense that played admirably and kept a Cardinal victory within reach.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook stepped up against the outstanding Cardinal defense, sustaining drives with his poise in the pocket.
When Stanford's pass rush reached Cook—and it happened often—he was able to get the ball out quickly. He was also unfazed by throwing a first-half interception returned for touchdown.
The Spartans made more plays than Stanford, something that has happened all of seven times in Shaw's career. But with an offseason to marinate on his team's Rose Bowl loss, Shaw will have an opportunity to make additions to his playbook to perhaps bridge that gap.