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Decay of Stanford's offense makes elite defensive play feel empty

After playing in four straight BCS games, Stanford is now just trying to be bowl eligible. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the quiet murmur outside the losing Stanford locker room on Saturday night, a reporter asked James Vaughters if he felt the Cardinal defense had played well enough to win.

The senior linebacker, still dazed after the double overtime loss to Utah in his final career home game, paused for several seconds.

It seemed like an eternity.

Vaughters' anguish was palpable as he pondered the question. His unit had recorded another one of its vintage performances, holding the Utes to just seven points in regulation while ransacking the backfield to the tune of 13 tackles for loss.

"No," Vaughters finally muttered in a quiet, defeated fashion. "We didn't."

In that one, long moment, the bleak realization was as painful as it was clear. This was a 2014 Stanford football saga of wasted opportunity.

When viewed from afar, the idea that the Stanford defense didn't do enough to win, of course, is preposterous. But that's how badly reality has been skewed on the Farm this season: Smothering the opposition to the tune of a meager 4.1 yards per play, forcing punts on 90 percent of their regulation possessions, and holding a team to more than 100 rushing yards under its average total is no longer enough for consistent success.

That warped reality has been around far longer than just one game.

The Stanford defense is leading the Pac-12 by significant margins in every key statistical category. They've been at or near the top of the national heap throughout the entire season in these criteria, too. Regardless, bowl eligibility for the 5-5 Cardinal is in serious doubt, and defensive leaders like Vaughters must agonize over details after their sterling performances frequently come up short.

The vexing story plays on repeat, and the Stanford offense is at fault.

The Cardinal attack, shaky at best since Andrew Luck left after the 2011 season, has taken a complete nosedive this season. It's now painfully clear that the presence of a power running back (Stepfan Taylor in 2012, Tyler Gaffney in 2013) was the aging, drying glue barely holding the offense together.

Without a 220-pound bowling ball, Stanford's house of cards collapsed more quickly than Frank Underwood's version will next year.

The team's 23.9 points per game ranks dead last in the Pac-12. The Cardinal is averaging a meager 11.4 points in its five contests against ranked teams. The offense is ranked No. 125 (out of 128 FBS teams) in red zone scoring efficiency, coming up completely empty-handed on one third of its trips inside the 20 yard line.

"You know, if I knew exactly what this team needed, I'd give it to them right now," coach David Shaw said. "It's not like we don't play with emotion. It's not like we don't play with energy. It's not like we don't work."

A small bit of that work shows: The Cardinal's talented offensive line generated a solid push against Utah's sturdy run defense, leading Stanford to average five yards per carry. But a steady stream of mistakes elsewhere again obliterated any positives. Bad drops, bad Kevin Hogan throws, bad penalties, and bad fumbles -- Stanford's fumble rate has nearly doubled this season, from 1.4 to 2.7 fumbles per game -- have all combined to stall the offense.

The problems are not isolated. Mistakes are sprouting up in all corners, and that's a telltale sign of a fractured system. In Stanford's case, it appears as if the offense is suffering from a perpetual identity crisis, uncertainly trying to cling to an angry David DeCastro-led past at times, while struggling to adapt to an explosive Christian McCaffrey-dominated future at others. There's blue chip talent on this team that seems better suited for work in space, but the Cardinal hasn't been able to firmly drive forward with the determined conviction of the past.

The fallout has been disastrous: It's led to crippling mistakes and a .500 record that's disheartening to fans given the team's elite defensive performance.

Cracks in the offense were evident in each of the past two seasons -- red zone scoring failures likely cost the Cardinal chances to play for a national title in both 2012 and 2013 -- but matters have reached a boiling point now.

It has spiraled down to a matter of bowl eligibility. Stanford will have to beat either California or UCLA on the road to reach the six-win plateau, and that marks a jarring fall from four consecutive trips to BCS bowl games. It is especially difficult since the defense has statistically improved this season.

"Our guys work hard," Shaw said. "They work as hard as anybody."

At this point, that work has been buried under a mess of uncertainty. Only two chances remain for the Cardinal to salvage at least some of their efforts. Otherwise, senior leaders like Vaughters -- pillars of the team's phenomenal defensive success of the past three seasons -- will leave the program on the same dazed note that they left Stanford Stadium on Saturday.