On Thursday the 28th, in San Antonio, the TCU Horned Frogs (13th in S&P+, 43rd in Offense, 14th in Defense) face the Stanford Cardinal (30th, 29th, 54th) in the Alamo Bowl, the Frogs second trip to the game in three years. S&P+ predicts the Frogs to win 29-25, with a probability of 59% — about a coin flip — which is what you’d expect from a bowl game between two teams who played in their respective conference championship games. CBS Sports’s expert panel all picked Stanford to win, with the exception of Chip Patterson, who stuck with the Frogs. The Alamo Bowl is the most compelling non-NY6 matchup this year, featuring the two highest ranked teams not included in the festivities. Evidently that extra data point can hurt you.
TCU and Stanford are similar stories this year, teams who have looked great at times (Washington and Notre Dame for Stanford, Oklahoma State and Texas for TCU) and have had ugly affairs (Oregon State, Washington State, and Iowa State, both OU games). Despite those moments of looking great, both teams have tended more towards “one-trick pony” than “multi-dimensional contender”, which is precisely why there are meeting in the Alamo Bowl. Below, I’ll dive into the mechanics of Stanford’s vaunted rushing attack and their less-than-stellar defense to see where TCU’s opportunities lie for an Alamo Bowl win.
Stanford Offense (75th in Total Offense, 29th in S/P+):
1. Success Rate: 39.9%, 89th
2. IsoPPP 1.39, 8th
3. Avg. Field Position: 33.0, 12th
4. Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity: 4.98, 22nd
5. Turnover Margin: +15, 2nd
The Stanford rushing attack is not what you think it is. Doak Walker winner Bryce Love carried the ball 237 times for 1973 yards and 17 touchdowns in 13 games this year. Thats 8.3 yards a carry, for those of you scoring at home; Bryce Love is not a workhorse. Love carried the ball more than 20 times in only four games, and 11 of those 13 games included a run longer than 50 yards. Stanford’s run game is not your father’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, evidenced by a pedestrian 39.4% rushing success rate. Stanford’s offense thrives on big runs; their Isolated Points per Play on Rushing plays is 1.44, best in the nation by a long shot. Their line is not especially effective in getting a push, advancing to the second level, or preventing stuffs. The Cardinal rank 51st in Adjusted Line Yards and in the 70s in opportunity rate and power success rate, indicating that the responsibility for their rushing success tends more schematic than talent-centric on the line. Their rushing attack is also prone to stuffs, ranking in the bottom thirty in the country in avoiding rushes for losses or no gain. They have lost only one fumble on the year in the rushing game, and that ball security is largely responsible for their success - it is far above national averages and expected margins.
The next layer involves discerning when Stanford prefers to run. This SBNation post from October explores the details of Stanford’s rushing attack, which involves a plethora of power formations. The Cardinal also benefit from playing their best lineman at pulling guard (similar to TCU when Patrick Morris is healthy), freeing them up to clear a path for Bryce Love to squeak by the line of scrimmage for his long runs.
As for the strategy behind the Cardinal’s run game, Stanford loves to run on standard downs (65% of the time ranks 38th nationally), and they tend towards the run a little more than average (37%) on standard downs. Note that passing downs are 2nd down with at least 8 yards to go, and third or fourth down with at least five yards to go. Stanford is particularly effective, thanks to Bryce Love’s elusiveness, on those passing downs, ranking 8th nationally in passing down S&P+. Per my calculations, Stanford averaged 4.3 yards per rush on third down, and a hyper-efficient 8.58 yards per pass on third down. This third down matchup will be perhaps the crucial aspect of the Alamo Bowl: the Stanford Offense strings drives together by staying alive on third down, and TCU’s defense thrives on stopping third downs - the Frogs rank in the top twenty nationally in third down S/P+, and allow a 29.7% conversion rate on 3rd down (8th nationally).
In terms of pace, Stanford masquerades as a low tempo team, which is deceptive- rushes take more clock time in between than passes, and so pace numbers can be misleading. The Cardinal average 88.92 plays a game, about 8 plays fewer than the national average, very in line with a team that prefers the rush. Stanford averaged 25.01 yards per touchdown, also consistent with fewer plays. TCU’s defense is well familiar with that odd pace - the Frog defense averages about 86 plays a game. In the case of the Alamo Bowl, more might actually be less - stifling the rushing game depends on minimizing big plays and forcing Stanford to succeed by consistently gaining small yardage.
Stanford Defense (74th in Total Defense, 54th in S/P+):
1. Success Rate: 45%, 99th
2. IsoPPP 1.09, 34th
3. Avg. Field Position: 24.3, 1st
4. Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity: 4.01, 32nd
5. Turnover Luck: +7.41 points per game
The Stanford Defense plays a base 4-3, and tries to match their fundamental approach to offense. As the Washington highlights show, they bring a fairly effective pass rush, but are limited on the edges, susceptible to blocks sealing off the outside. This is worth exploring, as TCU’s offense focuses on space, spread, and speed around the sides. Let’s explore that defense.
Stanford’s defense controls the field well, ranking first in the nation at starting field position on defense. They are prone to long drives, allowing opponents a successful play 45% of the time. Stanford definitely subscribes to the “bend and don’t break” school of defense, though, as they limit big plays (34th in IsoPPP) and they limit teams to field goals instead of touchdowns in scoring opportunities.
Against the rush, the Cardinal ranks 54th in S&P+ efficiency, and they allow very few long rushes for scores - they are 26th in IsoPPP against the run. They are weaker on the line, where they are in the bottom thirty in the nation in defensive line yards (allowing an opposing line to get a push) and stuff rate (stopping a run at the line).
The passing defense is where they allow more scores, ranking 62nd in IsoPPP and 87th in Success Rate against the pass. Their defense does not play a disruptive style; their overall havoc rate is 14.5%, and most of their pass defense rides on drops instead of secondary defense - their Passes Defended to Incompletion Ration ranks 95th in the country.
The Bottom Line:
Stanford is battle-tested: the Cardinal 8 top 40 teams on their schedule, in terms of S&P+ rating, whereas TCU has faced only two such teams. TCU has faced teams similar in profile to Stanford, in terms of rushing efficiency - Oklahoma, Texas Tech, West Virginia, and Arkansas all have similar levels of rushing offense, but none of them have a Bryce Love or a Stanford front seven package. TCU has been a hyper-efficient run defense - third in the country. All season, the Frogs have made their money stopping rushing attacks, and Stanford has made theirs in securing big running plays. The TCU defense has been a little bit big-play happy (126th in Defensive IsoPPP, 59th in Rushing, 119th in Passing).
This game hinges on the Frogs ability to string together consistent, touchdown drives while forcing Stanford to earn their points in short yardage. Should the Frogs be able to force Stanford to play white-bread, football-flavored football, perhaps they can restrain Bryce Love to mere goodness-not-greatness, and then they can notch another hallmark win over a major program.