STANFORD – Stanford coach David Shaw may have found a way to jumpstart the Cardinal’s rushing attack.
The Cardinal unveiled a “slow mesh” concept last Saturday in its 41-28 loss to USC, resulting in 221 rushing yards – its most since Nov. 10, 2018, against Oregon State.
Stanford’s run game had fallen to the bottom of the FBS over the previous three seasons, and this offseason the Cardinal’s top two running backs from a year ago made the almost unprecedented move of transferring as underclassmen to schools with more productive rushing attacks.
This season the Cardinal adopted the slow mesh scheme, made popular by Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, and the early returns have been promising.
The slow mesh is a style of RPO (run-pass option) in which the quarterback can hand off to the running back or pull the ball back and attempt a pass. The key difference between a traditional option and the slow mesh is that the tempo varies. After the snap, the quarterback and running back stand side-by-side before a decision to run or pass is made. That decision could be made immediately, or at the last instant as defenses try to guess what is happening. Sports Illustrated once described the scheme as an “anxiety-inducing backfield exchange between quarterback and running back.”
Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee (18) signals to a teammate before snapping the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
It is a departure from the power football that Stanford is known for, but Shaw thought it would be a good fit for his players.
Shaw only got “some cryptic answers” when he asked Clawson about the system, so the Cardinal staff broke down film of Wake Forest to figure out how it worked.
Stanford started implementing the slow mesh during spring practice, the players worked on it on their own over the summer, and the team refined it during training camp.
“Honestly, I thought it was great,” McKee said. “I felt like it was the most balanced we’ve been running the ball and throwing, but mainly I thought it helped our run game a lot. Definitely stretches the defense, makes them change things. I feel like everybody knows that Stanford makes a lot of different calls and changes before the snap. So just solving them post-snap I think has been great.”
Stanford was one of five FBS programs that didn’t make a single coaching change in the offseason, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t tinker with its system.
“It’s part of the evolution of college football and we’ve always been open to change and open to new ideas and new thoughts,” Shaw said. “And we’ll still have some pre-snap decisions for the quarterback, but the RPO world now is a lot of post-snap decisions, creating difficult situations for the defense, and as a staff we’ve grown to adopt some of those things.”
The decision was made easier by the presence of McKee. At 6-foot-6, the redshirt sophomore can see over the line to help him process what the defense is doing post-snap. Shaw also praised McKee’s decision-making and quick release, which allows him to pull the ball back and throw it without needing a long wind-up.
Scheme changes are especially important at a place like Stanford, which has stringent academic requirements that prevent the team from making wholesale changes to its personnel like other schools can. While first-year USC coach Lincoln Riley brought in 26 transfers, Stanford has had three transfers in the history of the program.
“We’ll never have 20 guys transfer in,” Shaw said. “We’re going to take freshmen. We’re going to take great students and great football players. We’re going to teach them. We’re going to develop them. That’s going to be our mode.
“We believe in the collegiate model that we recruit freshmen, come in, get a great education and learn how to play football, and end up hopefully in years like this where we are a senior-heavy football team.”
Taking away the negative rushing yards by McKee, which were impacted by sack yards that count against rushing totals, Stanford had 37 carries for 233 yards against the Trojans, an average of 6.3 yards a run. The Cardinal averaged 87.3 yards and 3.2 yards a carry last season.
The team had an open week to further refine the slow mesh before a stretch of 10 straight games, starting Saturday at Washington. It will no longer have the element of surprise as it did against USC, but Shaw has promised more wrinkles ahead to keep opponents off-balance. But against the Huskies, the Cardinal will be without leading rusher E.J. Smith, because of an injury. Junior Casey Filkins will be Stanford’s lead back.
“There’s still some more aspects to it that will probably kind of eke out over the season for us,” Shaw said. “It’s been a fun offseason putting all these things together, but now we gotta get out there and really make it better than it was last week, and hopefully improve every single week.”
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 10: Stanford’s E.J. Smith (22) scores on a 5-yard run in the 2nd quarter against USC during an NCAA college football game in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Sep. 10, 2022. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
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