TAMPA — Ask Andrew Phillips about the innovative charm of the Stanford offense and the former Cardinal offensive guard thinks back to 2009 and the Monday before Stanford played at Southern California, and an impromptu package called "NASCAR."
Stanford's offensive brain trust — coach Jim Harbaugh, now with the 49ers; offensive coordinator David Shaw, now Stanford's head coach; and running backs coach Willie Taggart, named this week as USF's new head coach — surprised their players with a no-huddle package, thinking it could catch the Trojans off-guard.
Sure enough, on Stanford's second drive, the call came in, and NASCAR drove down the field for a momentum-stealing opening touchdown.
"We're in the middle of a goal-line play and SC had like 15 guys on the field, trying to sub, and we scored anyway," said Phillips, a three-year starter who now works for Google. "It was a total mental blow to SC, you could tell."
Stanford went on to a 55-21 win, handing the Trojans their worst home loss since 1966. It has been three years since Taggart left Palo Alto for Western Kentucky, but as USF fans wonder what their offense will look like in 2013, it will start with the Stanford offense: a power running game and a little imagination.
"We were able to run the ball and step away from the traditional Stanford mind-set of throw first, the West Coast offense," Phillips said of Harbaugh's open-mindedness. "They turned us into a ground-and-pound type of team."
Taggart's final season as running backs coach at Stanford saw senior Toby Gerhart rush for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns, winning the Doak Walker award as the nation's top runner and finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Now with the Vikings, Gerhart has followed Taggart and his teams, seeing tweaks to the scheme with each new season.
"He has a great offensive mind, and he's put his own twist on it," Gerhart said. "They can air it out if they want, but they take pride in running the ball. A lot of defenses nowadays are built for that spread offense. Stanford will line up with seven offensive linemen and dare you to stop the ball. They commit so many people to the box to stop the run that it opens up the play-action pass. It's tough to stop that, and that's the mind-set Coach Taggart wants in his players."
Taggart is as confident as he is creative. Western Kentucky's overtime win at Kentucky this season came when the Hilltoppers not only went for two in the first overtime but scored on a lateral to a running back who threw back to the quarterback for the winning conversion.
The offensive toughness extends to its receivers, who are expected to be physical.
Bucs rookie Chris Owusu, who overlapped two years with Taggart at Stanford, said even with a potent passer such as Andrew Luck, being a successful receiver in the Stanford offense started with being a downfield blocker.
"You have to be the whole package. You have to have the mind-set to block for your running back," Owusu said. "Sometimes, it's something receivers don't want to do. They just want to catch passes. You have to be able to block. You have to want to block. It'll show on the film if you're not willing to sacrifice your body for another teammate."
As offenses go, throw out any preconceived notions. Five offensive linemen? That's only a start, with six or even seven on the field at times, as well as guards lining up as 300-pound fullbacks. And tight ends? The Stanford offense loves them, as does Taggart, whose leading receiver in his past two seasons at Western Kentucky was 6-foot-6, 253-pound Jack Doyle, with a combined 99 catches.
"We throw the ball to tight ends more than anybody I've ever heard of," said Phillips, noting that the philosophy's strength might be its flexibility to mold to personnel strengths. "The ingenuity and honesty within the program is being able to say, 'This is what we've got. How can we best take advantage of that and get creative with it?' "
Taggart played quarterback at WKU, but even then, he liked to run the ball. When the Hilltoppers drubbed USF 31-3 in 1997, playing for Harbaugh's father, Jack, Taggart attempted seven passes, completing only two.
His offense is more balanced, and the best asset for a quarterback running an offense developed at Stanford is intelligence and instinct, being able to read defenses and find the vulnerabilities.
"In any offense, you've got to find that right guy at the QB position," Taggart said Saturday as he was announced as USF's coach. "That's going to be important to get a QB. Not just any QB. He's got to be smart. It's going to be hardly ever that he goes to the line with one play. He's going to have to get us in the right play."