Stanford breaking offensive mold

Stanford's passing attack continues to thread the needle between potent and perplexing. The wide receiver production has been inconsistent, to say the least. The running backs and fullbacks have more receiving touchdowns than the wide receivers. Tight end production has been off the charts.

What gives?

Conventional wisdom says wide receivers can't be merely reduced to role players -- that without a legitimate wide-receiving threat to stretch the field, a team can't be successful. Right? Isn't that what we've been sold in this five-wide, spread-attack generation?

Convention, meet Stanford. Which has been anything but conventional in the first half of the 2011 campaign.

"We don't discriminate around here," said coach David Shaw. "Whoever makes plays gets the ball. If it's a running back, great. Tight end, great. Wide receiver, great. We never stop the competition. The wide receivers have had opportunities. Some guys have made some plays and some guys didn't. It's all competition-based and it's all production-based."

So it begs the question: Does Stanford need a legitimate wide-receiving threat?

Consider how Stanford uses its wide receivers compared to the rest of the teams ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings:

  • Last in percentage of targets to the wide receivers, at 45 percent.

  • Last in percentage of yards through the air (36 percent) and really, really last in percentage of receiving touchdowns (15.8).

  • Only Oregon is worse in completion percentage to wide receivers (57.6 to Stanford's 61.6).

Now, compare that to how the rest of the top 10 uses its tight ends, and the needle swings up to Stanford.

  • The Cardinal are first in completion percentage (78.7)

  • First in percentage of targets (39.3)

  • First in percentage of yards (53.7)

  • And they really, really lead in percentage of touchdowns (78.9)

"Stanford is not a conventional place by any means," said wide receiver Corey Gatewood. "We're winning games so it's kind of hard to complain, even though we're not the ones catching balls and catching touchdowns."

If there was ever a more black-and-white example of just how far ahead the tight ends are over the wide receivers, one needs only to look at last week's game against Washington State and the tale of two halves.

In the first half, Shaw said the tight ends weren't as much a part of the game plan because he thought there were some things he might be able to exploit with the wide receivers and safeties. Three different receivers were targeted 10 times in the first half, but only Griff Whalen caught the ball -- five times for 49 yards.

For the game, quarterback Andrew Luck targeted five different wide receivers 17 times, but only Whalen caught the ball -- seven times for 76 yards. That means 10 of Luck's 13 incomplete passes (including the interception) were directed at wide receivers.

After getting just three looks in the first half, the tight ends were targeted 11 times in the second half and caught nine balls for 204 yards and three touchdowns. Luck's fourth touchdown went to running back Stepfan Taylor.

Translation: The tight ends are making plays while the majority of the wide receivers aren't.

"The defense has to pay special attention to [the tight ends]," Whalen said. "It's pretty obvious how big of a threat they are so I'm sure they get some extra attention."

Which is exactly why Stanford needs its wide receivers to play better. As teams start to commit more defenders to the tight ends, the wide receivers will likely be left with more one-on-one matchups. And so far, the wide receivers haven't capitalized on those opportunities.

Chris Owusu has been the go-to guy of the wide receivers, and in his defense, he missed most of the Wazzu game after taking a vicious hit going over the middle. He leads the team in catches (25) and yards (309) with two touchdowns. But Luck is completing only 65.8 percent of his passes to Owusu -- lowest among all players on the team with at least 10 targets.

Luck is completing only 61.7 percent to his receivers (note, the chart is all Stanford quarterbacks) compared to 72.9 percent to the tight ends and 90 percent to his backs. The tight ends have combined for 11 of Luck's 18 touchdowns, the backs have four and the wide receivers three.

"We had hoped [Owusu would] have more production by now," Shaw said. "Some of it is circumstantial. Our tight ends have been phenomenal. We'll continue to use them. We thought Chris would have more of an impact by now. The season is young still. We have a lot of games to go. We think he's going to get rolling pretty soon."

Outside of Whalen, who has come on very strong the last two weeks, there really hasn't been much production from any other wide receiver. Luck has targeted Ty Montgomery three times for one catch of 9 yards; Gatewood three times for one catch of 22 yards; Drew Terrell four times for three catches of 21 yards and Jamal-Rashad Patterson three times for no catches.

That's not to say they aren't contributing in another way. Stanford's wide receivers are all very good blockers, and Shaw made it a point to note Montgomery's contributions in the blocking game last week. But in the receiving game, no one has stepped up to be a threat that defensive coordinators have to scheme for.

"As a receiving corps as a whole, we're not satisfied," Gatewood said. "We're trying to get better. Coach Shaw says every day at practice, 'The season begins with the next game.' If we want the games to be as important as we'd like them to be come November, we have to get better."

And yet Stanford is winning. Teams still haven't figured out how to defend the Cardinal when the three tight ends -- Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- are on the field at the same time.

Fleener has proven to be the deep threat, with touchdown receptions of 60 and 51 yards and another reception for 62 yards. Owusu has one catch for 43 yards and another for 39. No other wide receiver has a reception longer than 30 yards.

Ertz has been the reliable receiver on third down and Toilolo is a physical presence at 6-foot-8.

"When we put three tight ends on the field, we might be the only team that gets Cover 2," Shaw said. "Most of the time it's a single safety and they drop guys down in the box to stop the run. Hopefully we've done enough in the passing game to create some doubts in the defensive coach's mind how to play those personnel groupings."

And then there are the backs -- specifically fullback Ryan Hewitt, a converted tight end with 17 targets, 15 catches, 143 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Say what you want about a lack of wide receiver production -- and there is plenty to say -- but the Cardinal are bucking the notion that wide receivers are the keys to a good passing game. Stanford's coaches have found some extremely creative ways to get the ball to their playmakers.

"We have an intricate offense," Gatewood said. "It involves a lot of different players and a lot of different positions. Conventionally, receivers catch a lot of balls … here, there are other ways to contribute. We're all competitive and we want to make plays. But winning games is what matters."

So, does Stanford need a threat at wide receiver? No. But it sure would help.

Kevin Gemmell covers Stanford football for ESPN.com.