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Can Stanford survive with inefficient red zone offense?

Stanford is in the red zone? Get the field goal unit ready.

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Steve Dykes

The #14 team in the nation has converted red zone trips into touchdowns on only 42.1% of their opportunities. The lowest among all Pac-12 teams. And with eight games remaining for Stanford, they will face only two teams outside of the top fifty nationally in red zone defense.

What appears to be the Cardinal's biggest test comes tomorrow, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Brian Kelly's squad from South Bend boasts the ninth (tied) best red zone defense in the nation. David Shaw and company do not have the luxury of time to right this ship, they've got to figure it out--now.

Upcoming Opponent's Red Zone Defense

Opponent National Rank Percentage # of RZ Attempts
Notre Dame 9th (Tied) .667 9
Wazzu 37th (Tied) .765 17
Arizona State 51st (Tied) .800 15
Oregon State 61st (Tied) .818 11
Oregon 37th (Tied) .765 17
Utah 42nd (Tied) .778 9
Cal 30th (Tied) .750 20
UCLA 47th (Tied) .786


63.2%. Stanford's conversion rate of red zone trips to points. But breaking that number down, one third of those opportunities resulted in field goals.

Through four games, Stanford has made nineteen trips into the red zone. Four have results in rushing touchdowns, four in passing touchdowns, and four in field goals (one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown each in three games). But only three of those touchdowns came against Pac-12 opponents, and only one of the rushing touchdowns were by a Cardinal listed as a running back or full back on their depth chart, full back Patrick Skov (Others: QB Kevin Hogan - 2, WR Ty Montgomery - 1).

Moreover, the only game where the Cardinal did not score both a rushing and passing touchdown in the red zone was against the USC Trojans, Stanford's only loss. And against the two Pac-12 opponents faced, Washington and Southern Cal, Stanford is averaging 15 points per game.

This inefficient red zone offense is indicative of a larger issue within the Stanford offense.

Where is their running game?

Intellectual brutality has been screen printed onto the back of Stanford football t-shirts, but the brutality of their running game has softened from 2013's vicious ground attack.

The image of a guard pulling, RB Tyler Gaffney gaining four to five yards, and Stanford driving 70 yards for a touchdown is a memory of the past. They are still getting their yards per carry, but they're missing a work-horse with a nose for the end zone.

In 2013, Stanford finished the season as the 18th best rushing team nationally, averaging 4.97 yards per game and scoring 30 touchdowns (Average of 2.14 rushing TDs per game). Up to this point, Stanford is averaging half that level of scoring productivity, as the Cardinal had eight rushing touchdowns through four games in 2013. Against the 65th toughest schedule through four games (Sagarin Ratings), Shaw's rushing attack is ranked 69th, averaging 4.66 yards per carry. The YPC numbers are similar, but the results are black and white.

Offensively, it appears the roles have reversed. Whether it is a schematic change, the type of defenses they've faced, or the lack of a do-it-all running back like Gaffney, the Cardinal have found more success through the air. Kevin Hogan has frequently gone to wide receivers Montgomery and Devon Cajuste to move the chains, both of which were relied upon heavily in last week's game at the University of Washington. And in red zone situations, Hogan accounts for half of their rushing touchdowns.

By the end of 2013, the Cardinal had the 77th best passing offense in the nation, with a 61% completion rate, 21 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Heading into South Bend, the Cardinal are the 56th best passing offense in the nation, with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions.

But unlike 2013, they're 3-1.

Stanford's offense is fortunate that their scoring issues have been overshadowed by their dominant defensive performances. In red zone situations, the Trees' defensive is on the other end of the spectrum.

The Cardinal's red zone defense ranks as the ninth (tied) best nationally, allowing only three red zone attempts (which resulted in one rushing touchdown and one field goal). Although defensive stoutness has been the embodiment of Stanford's identity in recent years, what they have done is even more impressive with the loss of key components from last year's front seven.

This unit's strength, like the offense, has shifted to the air. Stanford's secondary is ranked first in the nation, allowing only 74.0 yards per game (I'm sure playing Army helps here), something they will have to continue in the pass-happy Pac-12. But what happens if they break down?

Can the offense bail out the D?

In 2014, probably not.

Stanford lacks the the type of running back they have been successful with in the past, and Hogan is not going to take over a game with his arm--we saw the result of this last year when Stanford was upset in Salt Lake City by Utah.

So, how can they overcome the lack of over-powering offense they've had in the past? The Cardinal must capitalize on their opportunities.

The defense cannot always bail them out. In a conference that is filled with prolific offenses, Stanford cannot respond with eight minute drives that result in three points. That's not going to cut it. The results of this are evident, as Southern Cal revealed on The Farm a few weeks ago.

With one loss already, if Stanford wants to survive the Pac-12, they better start scoring.