STANFORD — The offense has struggled enough through the first four games this season that even Stanford's stoic coach vented in public.
Three days later, David Shaw is sticking to the critical assessment he gave after the Cardinal's 20-13 win at Washington. He said the offense is not playing up to its potential and the team can't keep relying on the nation's best defense to bail it out.
“The frustrating part is that there's not one thing,” Shaw said Tuesday. “It would be great if there was one thing that we have to change.”
Shaw's sluggish offense will need to fix its problems fast. No. 14 Stanford (3-1) has a date at ninth-ranked Notre Dame (4-0) on Saturday, the team's final non-conference game.
Stanford has the nation's top scoring defense (6.5 points) and is allowing a Football Bowl Subdivision-low 198 yards per game. But the Cardinal's offense hasn't been able to keep up, ranking 77th in scoring (27.5 points) and 68th in total offense (413.3 yards) per game.
Stanford also has nine turnovers, is averaging nearly six penalties per game and senior kicker Jordan Williamson is just 4 for 8 on field goals.
“Turnovers and penalties and missed field goals have crushed us in the red zone,” Shaw said. “It's being confident. It's being efficient. It's being productive. It's always advancing, never retreating.”
Unfortunately for the coach and the Cardinal, it has been too much of the latter lately.
Stanford has won three of four games despite its offense, though a 13-10 home loss to Southern California in which the defense dominated still stings. The Cardinal nearly repeated that disaster last Saturday.
Six times Stanford drove inside the Washington 30, but a missed field goal by Williamson and a fumble by quarterback Kevin Hogan kept the game close. The Cardinal committed three turnovers, including Remound Wright's fumble late in the second quarter that Shaq Thompson returned 32 yards for a touchdown to pull the Huskies (4-1) even at 13.
“I think it's just honing in on the details and the little things,” Hogan said. “We're putting together good drives â€” good, long drives â€” and it's just one or two plays once we get further down. So it's just keeping those long drives going and not relaxing and not allowing those mistakes to happen.”
Shaw said the mistakes are correctable and he will not change the offense's schemes in the red zone because they have been remarkably efficient with Hogan and Andrew Luck at quarterback previously. Instead, he said he expects his players to complete the plays like they do in practice.
Shaw also will continue to use a rotation of running backs â€” Wright, Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders and Ricky Seale â€” that has come under scrutiny because, like the offense, it has produced mixed results. Stanford is averaging 165.5 yards rushing after running for 207.4 yards per game last season behind featured tailback Tyler Gaffney.
Part of that is also due to a talented but young offensive line, which has four new starters this season. The unit has improved, Shaw said, but needs to get better.
The challenge this week will be as daunting as any Stanford's offense faces all season.
The Fighting Irish play a similar, physical front as Stanford's defense, and the teams have matched up well against each other recently. The Cardinal beat Notre Dame 27-20 last season at Stanford. In 2012, the Irish stuffed Stepfan Taylor inches from the end zone before a controversial whistle blew the play dead on fourth down, sealing a 20-13 overtime victory against the Cardinal in South Bend.
Shaw compared Notre Dame's defense to the aggressive styles New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio employ because “everybody is a viable blitzer.” He said the communication between Hogan and the offensive line will need to be at its best.
NOTES: Shaw said neither he nor any of his representatives have been contacted by anyone from the Oakland Raiders about their coaching vacancy. Shaw, an assistant for the Raiders from 1998-2001, reiterated that he has no desire to head to the NFL right now. “I love it here. I think everybody knows I'm dedicated here (at Stanford),” Shaw said. … Backup S Kodi Whitfield will likely sit out at Notre Dame with an undisclosed injury, Shaw said.