Stanford's Unexpected Identity
By Michelle Smith
For a team that boasts a quarterback as talented, as hyped, as respected as Andrew Luck, Stanford's identity as a football team is a little different that most might expect.
This is not a pass-happy team, airing it out at every opportunity, padding the stats of its Heisman-contending star.
No, Stanford wants to run. The Cardinal want to run first, run often and run with a variety of backs. They want to control the clock, dictate tempo and own the line of scrimmage.
Heading into Saturday's titanic matchup with No. 6 Oregon - the first time the Cardinal have ever hosted a matchup between a pair of top-10 teams - Stanford will likely need to squeeze every inch out of its running game to keep pace with the potent Ducks.
"We all know it's a big game," said senior tailback Stepfan Taylor. "We need to stay calm and go out there and focus on what got us here."
What has gotten the Cardinal here - and by here we mean the country's No. 3 ranking, a 9-0 record, a 17-game win streak and a potential shot at the national championship - is a balanced offensive attack that includes an equally-balanced corps of bruising tailbacks.
Taylor leads the way for Stanford with 891 yards in nine games, ranking him fourth in the Pac-12. Taylor is averaging just under 100 yards a game with eight touchdowns.
Junior Tyler Gaffney has rushed for 346 yards and six touchdowns.
Fifth-year senior Jeremy Stewart, a short-yardage specialist, has rushed for 166 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Cardinal rank second in the Pac-12 in rushing behind Oregon with 2077 yards for the season so far.
"The big thing is that we want to be balanced," said Cardinal coach David Shaw. "We have tried to present different looks to the defense. We want to run the ball and throw the ball."
Balance through power. Control through ball control.
Stanford has won the time-of-possession in 18 of its last 22 games dating back to last season.
The Cardinal have run on 55 percent of their offensive plays this season. With injury-related absences of receiver Chris Owusu and tight end Zach Ertz for the Oregon game, an effective and efficient running game will be more of a factor than perhaps any point this season.
"For us, 'Power' is our big play," said Shaw. "But at the same time, we tweak it, we augment it every week.
"We'll run counters, we'll run different kinds of leads, we'll run dives. We'll run all kinds of things just to keep people off balance, and try to find a spot to really have a chance to get a crease. While you do all that, at the same time, you are still looking for play-action opportunities."
Oregon coach Chip Kelly called the Cardinal "diverse."
"They have the best quarterback in the country, but they can line up and pound you," Kelly said. "And if you pay too much attention to the run they will kill you with the play-action pass."
Two years ago, Stanford's running game broke out behind Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, who did the lion's share of the work behind a loaded offensive line. But over the past two years, it's been a shared load, with another big boost from the guys up front.
"We knew that coming in, it would be running-back-by-committee," Taylor said. "We all have our special skills and the coaches have done a good job of putting us in the right spot."
And then there's the added bonus of fresh legs, which the Cardinal will need against Oregon on Saturday.
"I think that's been an advantage for us," Taylor said. "We can bring guys in when it seems like the defense is wearing down."
Perhaps most important, however, will be the Cardinal's ability to control the clock. Keeping Oregon's spread offense off the field might be the best defense.
"We want to make every possession count," Taylor said.
The Cardinal's offensive has been called a throw-back, old school and traditional. Oregon State coach Mike Riley said there are times when it looks like something out of the 1950's.
Taylor would prefer to view it as a ticket to the NFL for himself and the Cardinal's other running backs.
"I think it has prepared a lot of people for the next level," Taylor said. "These are the kind of offenses people are running in the NFL and that means it's already suited to us."
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