A: It would depend upon whom you ask. I know the Stanford coaching staff was thinking, quietly, that we could be "very, very good". I believe our "program insiders" had lofty expectations, tempering them only with valid concern over depth and game experience after Andrew Luck at quarterback and legitimate worry over a looming uncertainty at right tackle, where senior Derek Hall's surprisingly steady play has been a major factor in the team's continuing success.
There were a lot of fans who felt that with a healthy Luck, we would have a shot at an outstanding season and a possible BCS bowl. That said, there is no question that the Cardinal defense, at least when healthy and playing its starters, has performed way above even the most optimistic of expectations. No one would have predicted multiple shut-outs of conference foes on the road.
Q: Is there any concern about Stanford having an emotional letdown after the utter destruction of the Cats last weekend and the Cal game looming next week? This could be a "trap" game and ASU has won the last four matchups in Tempe.
No. Harbaugh does not let the team look past anybody. There is a very deliberate and well-maintained week-to-week focus on each opponent. There are plenty of stats like the "0-4 in the last four trips to Tempe" that the staff can bring up in meetings. ASU has lost some close games, but has hung tight with Wisconsin, Oregon, Oregon State, and USC. The Devils are just eight points away from being 7-2. A conference road game against a talent-rich opponent is never something to be taken lightly, especially late in a season.
However, one needs to remember that the teams Stanford was putting on the field during those years of 2004, 2006, 2008 would be brutally annihilated by the current "relentless & cruel" Stanford team in a head-to-head match-up. The 2004 Stanford team lost to UC Davis at home and one of the bigger shocks that year was that we lost to ASU by just four on the road. The 2006 Stanford Football team went 1-11, a complete, unmitigated disaster. The 2008 team had a losing record and played the game in Tempe in Week #2 in debilitating 103-degree heat (we knew that would be big trouble going into that early September game against a ranked ASU squad well-accustomed to hot weather), with three picks and just 14 completions from our three quarterbacks, none of whom was Andrew Luck. There is little if anything to be learned from comparing the performance of the 2010 team to those previous visits.
I would not take any solace from those previous visits, if I were a fan of the sinister Solar Satans. A 5:30 PM MT start should preclude our team from encountering climatically adverse playing conditions.
Q: Can you talk about the improvement of QB Andrew Luck from last season and how realistic are the chances of him leaving for the NFL draft?
A: He is playing only his second season, but the improvement has been marked. He has a great command of the offense and is making very few mistakes. His savvy decision-making has people shaking their heads in admiration. We knew he was mobile, but his ability to use his feet as a formidable weapon has surprised everyone. The guy has two touchdown runs of more than 50 yards! Andrew would be chosen very early in the first round if he were to leave early, with two remaining years of eligibility.
Naturally, it will be a great temptation, to strike while the iron is hot and secure his financial future. That said, I would expect him to stay one more year. He is a very, very smart kid with a very smart, non-overbearing father. They will think long and hard before bolting too early for the NFL.
Q: Are you surprised that the loss of Toby Gerhart has had no affect whatsoever on your team's rushing attack? Is that a testament to your great offensive line?
A: Well, to say that the loss of Toby Gerhart has had "no affect whatsoever" is inaccurate. Toby brought an element of "unstoppable force" that the current team doesn't enjoy. That said, the fact that we have managed to continue to run the ball effectively is indeed a testament to the veteran offensive line (aka the "Tunnel Workers Union"), but I would also credit Andrew Luck, who on average has rushed for more than 41 yards per game (up from a 29-yard avg. last year) representing a significant contribution to the team's total of 223 rushing yards per game. Luck's viable threat to run has opened things up for the stable of talented backs.
Q: Jim Harbaugh's resurrection of this Cardinal program has been remarkable. What do you think are the key points to his success?
A: Converting nearly 60% on third downs – that tends to keep drives alive. No, being serious now… Coach Harbaugh is "fearless" and possesses a remarkably strong competitive desire along with the proven ability to foster a similar attitude among his coaches and players. "We bow to no program" is one of his more memorable quotes. The coaching staff he has assembled (and upgraded each year) has shown great skill in designing effective game-plans.
Q: It seems to be a question of when, not if, as to Harbaugh leaving for greener pastures. Agree or disagree and when do you think this will happen?
A: That of course depends on how one defines "greener" pastures. Can he make more money elsewhere? Sure. Can he have more success or enjoy a more pleasant overall existence elsewhere?…not quite so certain (he might want to give Tyrone Willingham a quick call). "Harbauer" is going to get a healthy raise, very healthy by traditional standards at Stanford. Even if he should leave, please note that Jim Harbaugh already has had a longer tenure at Stanford than Bill Walsh (in his first stint at Stanford from 1977-78) or Denny Green (1989-91), two outstanding coaches who left for the NFL after two and three years respectively.
Q: Do Stanford alums really care about football? If yes, why were there so many empty seats last weekend in the Arizona game?
A: it is hard to generalize about "Stanford alums", but it would be fair to say that there are many fanatic and loyal followers of our football program, and at the same time far too few. Stanford alumni typically have a wide variety of interests. The university draws from all 50 states and 60+ countries and many members of the diverse student body did not grow up wholly indoctrinated with a cultural heritage that centered around football, as is the case with schools in other parts of the country. It would take many pages to explain all the complex issues related to game attendance.
Progress is being made, but you have to understand that the Cardinal produced seven consecutive losing seasons in a very competitive Bay Area sports market from 2002 to 2008. It takes time for a strong following to regenerate and a concerted effort from the athletic department to promote the team. We need a little more of the former and a lot more of the latter.
Q: Has there been any appreciable difference in the level of play for the Cardinal on the road vs. at home?
A: The team has played extremely well in shut-outs of UCLA and Washington on the road and had a lead against the #1-ranked Oregon at the half in Eugene, but in general I think one still would have to say "yes". After starting out 1-11 in the new Stanford Stadium, things have turned around and the Cardinal has been 16-2 since. Stanford is "a very tough out" these days, home or away.
Q: Stanford's defense – "bend, but don't break" or "aggressive"?
A: Not sure it is that simple. I would say the scheme and strategy has been different depending on the opponent and particular game circumstances. A traditional drop-back quarterback is likely to experience a very aggressive attempt to generate pressure upon him. If an opposing team can't effectively run the ball or pass-protect, they are usually in big trouble.
Q: Name one player of each side of the ball that may be unknown to ASU fans but someone we should keep an eye on.
A: That wasn't a question (just being a Stanford jerk!), but I will attempt to respond to the request.
Of course, it depends how much ASU fans know about Stanford's team, but on offense, one might keep an eye on true freshman Anthony Wilkerson (#32). Wilkerson is starting to emerge as a pretty impressive option, complimenting starter Stepfan Taylor (#33) ( a Scout 4-star from Texas), who is on his way to a 1,000-yard season and nails-tough Scout 4-star Tyler Gaffney (#25), 2008's California High School Offensive Player of the Year.
Q: What is your prediction for this week's game?
A: We smoke you guys! 38-23. I may see the world through Cardinal-colored glasses, but honestly, I really like the Cardinal's chances on Saturday. The stakes are too high and Harbaugh is way too focused to experience a significant let-down. The Sun Devils are fully capable of getting a win. Obviously, a lot can happen in a football game – turnovers, penalties, bad bounces, etc. But the fast-starting, well-balanced and currently pretty healthy Cardinal (knock on wood!) is averaging more than 42 points a game and has scored at least 30 points in each game this season.
ASU will have to score a lot of points to win, probably 35+. Certainly possible, but not likely. How many Sun Devil fans would be taking the Devils "straight-up" in this one?