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Stanford defense can't overcome struggling offense

Stanford begins this week trying to pick up the pieces following Saturday's disastrous 17-14 loss at Notre Dame, and there's a complicating factor: The several shattered fragments the Cardinal must retrieve come in various incongruent shapes and sizes.

Entering South Bend, deficient red-zone performance was the Stanford killer.

But leaving Indiana, the Cardinal offense faces a more complicated reality. In a tale of frustrating irony, they scored two touchdowns on two trips to fix their red-zone problems, only to discover that everything else was broken.

The team averaged only 3.0 yards per play and 1.5 yards per rush, both lows of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era. Lest rainy weather be an excuse, remember that Stanford's 2012 visit to Notre Dame in similar conditions featured 4.9 yards per play and 3.7 yards per rush. So this past weekend's game featured an offensive performance that -- on a per-play basis -- was significantly less efficient than one of quarterback Josh Nunes' low-water-mark performances in 2012.

Diagnosing the offensive malaise

A sturdy Irish defense exposed Stanford's glaring weaknesses. Behind a retooled offensive line and smaller running backs, the power rushing attack that formed the spine of the Cardinal's attack isn't what it once was. As a result, Kevin Hogan -- a quarterback who thrived when utilizing his own athleticism off play-action in prior seasons -- is being forced to play outside of his comfort zone as a standard passer: He's averaging 27 throws per game this season, compared to 21 in 2013 and only 15 in 2012. Stanford's tight ends (no catches) disappeared completely from the passing game Saturday, and that's also a direct byproduct of the team's inability to establish a credible rushing threat. Of course, a handful of drops from Cardinal receivers aren't helping matters, either.

In short, Stanford's issues on offense are now both abundant and apparent, and they're rooted in the disappearance of a once-mighty running game. Against competition not named UC Davis or Army, the Cardinal are averaging just 14.7 points per game. The attack can't be asked to replicate the soaring exploits of the Andrew Luck era (43.2 points per game). Given abundant talent up front and along the perimeter, though, it should be delivering more than 14.7 points per game, an output that would be good for No. 126 nationally (there are only 128 FBS teams).

Stanford's defense still leads the nation, allowing only 7.2 points per contest. But that effort is going to waste, as the Cardinal have already lost twice despite the sturdiness on that side of the ball. The bottom line: Stanford's weaknesses are currently outweighing Stanford's strengths, so the nation's only program to have reached four consecutive BCS bowl games is now a long shot to make the College Football Playoff.

Righting the ship

The Cardinal hope Washington State's porous defense is the necessary medicine for the Stanford offense. The Cougars have registered a couple decent defensive performances, but they struggled against Stanford last season and are fresh off a game in which they allowed a staggering 60 points to Cal.

The potential fix for Stanford is simple, though the path to reach it may be easier said than done. The Cardinal must re-establish a consistently credible rushing threat so Hogan can again return to his realm of greatest effectiveness. In the past, heavy 220-plus-pound running backs aided Stanford's offensive line to create that needed running backbone. Now, 225-pound receiver Ty Montgomery is the only speedy option with that kind of size, and Shaw may have to commit to more backfield touches for Montgomery to set the tone in a favorable way.

Hogan also has the legs to become part of the ground threat Stanford craves, and the staff will likely search for a method that mixes his talents with some creative perimeter running to replicate ground production of the past. Regardless of any schematic adjustments, though, Stanford's offensive line -- the one showered with so much recruiting hype back in 2012 -- must begin living up to expectations for improvement to come to fruition.

The silver lining here for the Cardinal: It looks as if Notre Dame featured the best defense Stanford will face all season. The conference title is still within reach, and Shaw's team should have some breathing room to find its new identity against a series of Pac-12 units that have been porous at best. With two losses already, though, Stanford's margin for error is gone, and Saturday's offensive performance cannot inspire much confidence.