2019 NFL Draft: Bryce Love may have a mathematical problem in Stanford's offense

Bryce Love's 18-carry, 29-yard dud in Stanford's opening-season win against San Diego State didn't have much to do with him at all. 

The Aztecs dominated the Cardinal in the trenches, running lanes were clogged all evening, and it took a monstrous 200-yard, three-touchdown game from JJ Arcega-Whiteside for Stanford to cruise to victory. 

The poor statistical outing damaged Love's Heisman campaign, and if what occurred in that game continues up front, Love will be a long shot to go in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. And, as a college football fan, I want more game-breaking explosions from Love in his final year routinely playing on Saturdays.

The trend I detected against San Diego State wasn't necessarily a man-on-man blocking issue. It was a mathematical problem. Head coach David Shaw repeatedly ran Love into loaded boxes all evening, and in some cases, even with what seemed like the entire student body on the field to block, Stanford was outnumbered up front by Aztecs in the box. 

As I re-watched, I tracked the men in box vs. blockers on each of Love's runs, and here are the noteworthy discoveries: 

  • Stanford utilized eight or more blockers on 10 of Love's 18 runs and was outnumbered by defenders in the box on four of those scampers ... which went for a grand total of negative three yards.
  • On Love's 18 rushing attempts, Stanford had the number advantage up front just twice, and those plays netted negative two yards. One of those plays was a negative three-yard rush. At the snap, San Diego State had just six men in the box to Stanford's seven blockers, but the Atzecs were in the midst of sending a run blitz with extra defenders that clearly worked. On the other play, shockingly a shotgun handoff, Stanford's additional blocker was a split tight end. 
  • The Cardinal were even in the men in box vs. blockers battle on 11 of Love's carries, and, unsurprisingly, those plays gained 32 yards, a respectable figure in such a lopsided running effort.
  • In total, Love was hit behind the line of scrimmage on eight of his 18 rushes, and he was initially touched right at the line on a few other of his runs.

And here are some screen shots of the crammed, overloaded run plays: 

bryce-love-supercrowded-box.png
bryce-love-superduperloaded-box.png

Yeah, it was brutal. For as much as I prefer a power or gap philosophy to a zone-blocking scheme (man-on-man blocking creates less traffic and provides more defined lanes for ball-carriers), I can't get behind the idea of repeatedly trying to win on the ground when you're simply outnumbered near the line of scrimmage. Also, shrinking the field to around the width of even a jumbo offensive line is archaic and, obviously, not the best method to provide a dangerous runner like Love what he needs ... space. 

Even in last year's Stanford-San Diego State game, the Cardinal had the most success on the ground when they ran Love away from the loaded boxes.

The speedy back registered runs of 47 yards and 51 yards (a touchdown) on two sweep plays, and he galloped for a 53-yard score on a run off tackle.

And I get it ... we aren't going to see a widespread philosophical change from Shaw. He's a descendant of Jim Harbaugh, who's a disciple of Bo Schembechler, the late legend and advocate of the jumbo/power run game that was popular when climbed the ranks coaching during the 1950s and 1960s and rose to prominence in the 1970s at Michigan.  

But less and less teams now at the pro and especially the college ranks utilize an exorbitant amount of blockers and ram it down the opposition's throat all game. And there's good reason for that paradigm shift. Space is a friend of offense, and because of that pesky quarterback, the team with the football always starts at a number disadvantage when running. 

Beyond the style of offense Shaw learned early in his career, he's quite the established coach, particularly when it comes to rushing success, and last year, Love ran for over 2,000 yards at a 8.1 yards-per-carry clip, the third-highest average in the nation among running backs. 

However, as a whole, the Cardinal haven't been as efficient as you probably expect on the ground over the past five seasons. Check this. From 2013 to 2017, Stanford averaged 5.1 yards per carry as a team, certainly not a bad figure. But their national ranking in team yards per carry over that span averages out to nearly 28th. 

I just don't think it's too much to ask for Shaw to occasionally use Love when he and his line aren't having to deal with an extra defender on what's essentially a compressed field. And, to produce, he doesn't need the parting of the Red Sea. But, like every back, he needs some breathing room.

And maybe (hopefully) that starts to happen in the Cardinal's big intra-conference showdown with USC on Saturday. The Trojans were gashed on the ground in the season opener. As a team, UNLV ran the ball 43 times for 308 yards (7.2 per rush) and a touchdown, which included 136 yards on 14 attempts and the one score from feature back Lexington Thomas, a small, quick ball-carrier with some stylistic similarities to Love. 

Clearly, with Arcega-Whiteside rebounding out wide along with Trent Irwin and Kaden Smith as quality complementary targets, Stanford can be very imposing in the pass game, which, theoretically, should draw defenders out of the box. Also, some unpredictability when Love will get the football -- more runs while Stanford's in three-plus receiver sets -- would probably help to tap into all of the superstar's abilities. 

Take this as a subtle acknowledge of a potential disaster. And I plan to check back on this topic later in the season, when, Love's running wild again, or we're all talking about his plummeting draft stock due to a major lack of production in his senior year. 

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