ASU Football: Behind Stanford’s ground-and-pound approach

PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 30: Bryce Love #20 of the Stanford Cardinal runs in for a touchdown against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Stanford Stadium on September 30, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 30: Bryce Love #20 of the Stanford Cardinal runs in for a touchdown against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Stanford Stadium on September 30, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

When ASU football played Stanford last year, Cardinal running back Bryce Love rushed for over 200 yards. What makes the Stanford run game so effective?

The ground and pound offensive attack is an offense that is slowly working itself out of college football as spacious offenses take its place. These offenses have been made widely popular at schools such as Oregon who use the spread attack to get the ball into the hands of playmakers with room to make a play.

While these offenses have become extremely popular and will only continue to be expanded to other schools, Stanford has stuck to its ground-and-pound approach under head coach David Shaw.

The Stanford Cardinal prides itself on what can be called the smartest ground-and-pound approach there is. The highly acclaimed academic school has turned into one of the top teams in the Pac-12 football conference year in and year out under Shaw.

Since Shaw took over in 2011, the Cardinal have placed or tied for first in the Pac-12 North in five of his first seven seasons. The team won two of the three Rose Bowls they appeared in during this stretch.

This has largely been in part to a stout defense and a run game that helps Stanford control the time of possession while also breaking off big plays late in the game after wearing down the opposing team.

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The offense is based on putting the running back into the best possible position to run through running lanes gained through a variety of methods.

The two most basic formations the team runs is the I-formation with a fullback and running back in the backfield with one or two tight ends on the line of scrimmage or a single running back set out of the shotgun with three receivers.

Both of these formations are effective in opening running games in part by allowing offensive linemen the proper angles in order to create running lanes. This includes pulling offensive guards and tackles from one side of the formation to the other.

An example of this would be the right guard going behind the center to the left side after the snap to be able to block a free rusher who was sucked into coming upfield.

This allows the running back to run right behind this block and have a chance to break off a play in the second level. This “trap” block is a staple in Shaw’s offense and is used to create sharp running lanes for the backs.

The most recent Stanford running backs have had extreme success in this offense as now Carolina Panther Christian McCaffrey was a Heisman runner-up and AP College Football Player of the Year and the current running back for the Cardinal, Bryce Love, was also a runner-up for the Heisman a season ago.

Love ran for over 2,118 yards last season in route to a great deal of offensive awards including Pac-12 Player of the Year, and All-American while setting multiple records. These records include a Stanford record of 12 straights games over 100 rushing yards, an FBS record with 13 games with a 50-yard rush, and 11 straight games with a 50-yard rush also an FBS record.

While Love entered the 2018 season with high hopes of being a top draft pick in this year’s draft, his stock has steadily fallen after a slow start to the season. Love began the season with a 29 rushing yard on 18 carries performance and has not got back on track since as he sits at 327 rushing yards in four games played.

This has been in large part due to opposing team’s taking advantage of what many would call a weaker offensive line than years past for the Cardinal while also stacking the box against Love. While Love struggles, the junior quarterback, K.J. Costello has thrived throughout the first six games this season.

After throwing for 1573 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games last season, Costello has already surpassed his yardage output with 1611 passing yards through six games this season with 12 passing touchdowns.

This has been due in large part to opposing defenses stacking the box and selling out on the run and forcing Costello to beat them through the air. Costello has done just that with the help of senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside.

Whiteside, who was a Pac-12 Honorable Mention a season ago, reeled in six catches for 226 receiving yards and three touchdowns to help lead Stanford over San Diego State and has been a key factor on offense since the season opening victory.

The offense will look to return to the run against Arizona State who has shown prone to giving up yards on the ground, evident in an upset against San Diego State where the Aztecs racked up almost 400 yards on the ground alone.

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Love will look to return from injury as he did not play in the team’s most recent game in a home loss to Utah 40-21.