The criticism of Stanford’s mediocre performance on the offensive end has been the passing game and its apparent conservatism. Certainly the results are undeniably bad: Nunes’ 4.8 yards per attempt are so far below par they drop through mediocre and crater in a spot just above the depths. But what made those results so bad? Was it a question of not completing enough passes given the mix of playcalls? Or was it that the playcalls didn’t have enough aggressive shots downfield? (In addition, besides the passing game, one could argue, a more aggressive posture might open things up for the running game—passing to set up the run, in other words.)
I went back and counted the passes (data here) and charted them into three categories: passes that traveled 1-10 yards in the air, passes that traveled 10-20 yards, and passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. (I classified plays not by their total yards but by the number of yards the ball was thrown. So a little bubble screen to a wideout who takes it 15 yards counts in the 1-10 category rather than the 10-20 categories. For some plays, it was hard to tell exactly which receiver was targeted—I tried to substitute my best guess for who was targeted when possible. I also counted plays that were invalidated by penalty, whether, say, holding or pass interference. The intent is to examine process rather than results.)
So here’s Nunes’ pass mix (won’t add exactly to 100%, as I just couldn’t tell for some plays what the intention was): 60.7% for 1-10, 32.1% 10-20, and 7.14% 20+. (Nunes took two 20+ yard shots: to Montgomery and to Kelsey Young. The former was dropped; the latter was pass interference.)
OK, but what does that mean in comparison? I compared Nunes’ pass mix to two of Andrew Luck’s games (at Duke and vs. OK State) and Keith Price’s game versus San Diego State last Saturday.
It will probably not shock you that Luck’s mix was far more aggressive than Nunes, registering at 16.67% versus OK State, and 24.1% at Duke. Yet the passes that weren’t aggressive went to an interesting place—not the safe 1-10 yard passes, but rather the 10-20 category. In the latter category, Luck attempted 27.6% versus Duke, and 16.67% versus OK State. Against San Jose State, at least, Nunes targeted intermediate passes far more.
Keith Price’s passing mix is interesting because it roughly mirrors Nunes—8.82% 20+ attempts versus 7.14% 20+ for Nunes. Yet Price averaged nearly a yard-and-a-half higher per attempt than Nunes. While just poking over 6 YPA is pretty average, attaining that mark against San Jose State probably would’ve resulted in a solid 10-15 point win—still disappointing, yet not the same bitter flavor as we got last Friday. On the other hand, the timing looks suspicious—both of Nunes’ downfield shots came in the second half, well after SJSU had success stacking the box and daring us to crack open coverage behind them.
There’s a truism in poker that if you win every hand in a showdown, this actually means you’ve entered too few showdowns. The same would seem to hold true for Stanford: Nunes’ two pass attempts were good calls—Montgomery dropped a bomb, so the playcall was right even if the execution was not ideal; Young drew pass interference and had a solid step on his man. So, yes, Stanford probably should’ve been more aggressive—assuming it has the tools to do so. If it doesn’t, focusing on the in-game coaching is the wrong place for scrutiny.