Editor's Note: The following commentary offers the author's personal views of the on-field performances of some of Stanford University's exceptional student-athletes. In no way should constructively-intended criticism be deemed as a lack of respect or admiration for our players' obvious desire, dedication, sacrifice and commitment. The views expressed below do not reflect necessarily those of Bootleg management, Major Upset Productions, the Scout Network, Fox Sports, News Corp or Coach Harbaugh.
It does not take a rocket scientist, or even a Stanford graduate, to figure out that a five-touchdown shutout conference win on the road qualifies for an easy "A+". But when it comes to football fans who constantly seek perfection from their teams, there is still plenty of nit-picking to do when it comes to grading the huge, historic Stanford victory at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
RUN GAME: A
back-by-committee"? Where? All through the preseason and through the first week,
all the talk had been about replacing Toby Gerhart with a "running
back-by-committee" approach. That approach appeared to last exactly one week.
Sophomore Stepfan Taylor is the starting running back for your Stanford
Cardinal. His 20-carry effort far outdid Tyler Gaffney's eight carries or Usua Amanam's three carries. Coach Jim Harbaugh in the past said the Cardinal would
ride the hot hand and on Saturday night it was
Gaffney again looked tough in short-yardage running this week, gathering up 28 yards and a 3.5 average. Amanam was held to nine yards on his three carries.
The key to the A-grade in the run
game though was QB Andrew Luck. On a night when his passing was by his own
admission "sub-standard", he was able to pick up his game and the Cardinal
offense by using his legs. Officially, he ran the ball seven times for 63 yards
and nearly a touchdown (his knee went down just before the ball crossed the
plane of the goal line). Luck converted key third downs by running the ball.
The one question mark that seems unanswered about the running game is who the goal-line and red-zone runners are going to be. Fullback Owen Marecic finished off a drive with a one-yard tumble, but when the field gets tight, that seems to be where the Cardinal miss the great Gerhart the most. There does not seem to be that big, punishing back that can get two or three yards when needed. Maybe Gaffney will become that back? Maybe it is Marecic? But it seems to be a job yet to be filled.
Overall the Cardinal ran for 211 yards. Not a bad night at all. When the team needed to grind it out in the second half, they were able to do so. A great deal of credit goes to the offensive line who for the most part was dominant against an outmanned UCLA defense.
PASS GAME: C+
Even at 35-0 you have to find fault some place, it was clear the passing game was that weal link in Saturday's game. Cardinal fans are spoiled by all that Luck can and does do, so to see him under 50% was, if not disconcerting, at least a bit surprising. The fact of the matter is that for whatever reason, he just seemed to be a bit off his usual game. Too pumped up and excited? Receivers running bad routes? Defenses that forced different reads? We may never know for sure. But knowing Luck, he will take the blame no matter what the cause. Several times, he overthrew his receivers. Normally a strong-armed quarterback that puts the ball right on the numbers, #12 just was not finding his rhythm on Saturday.
Luck ended up 11 of 24 for 151 yards and two touchdowns. Of course the positives included zero turnovers, the pair of touchdowns, and the fact that the Cardinal offensive line once again kept Luck untouched for most of the night.
While Luck did miss on some of his throws, his receivers did seem to struggle to get open against a talented Bruin secondary. UCLA for all its weaknesses has a very good defensive backfield. It showed on Saturday, as the unit created difficulty for the Stanford receivers trying to get open.
All that being said, the passing game was responsible for two touchdowns and a number of key third-down conversions to extend drives. One would expect that whatever the issues were on Saturday, they will be resolved by the next game. We would assume that it may well be a major area of focus during practices this week.
RUN DEFENSE: B
Another prime example of this grade should be a defensive "A" just on the principle of the rare shutout. But we are here to shoot constructive holes in our own team's performances and the reality is that the Card defense gave up 4.6 yards per carry. UCLA really started to find some openings with the straight-ahead running out of the pistol offense. Jonathan Franklin ran for 6.6 yards per carry and Malcolm Jones was at 7.4 yards per carry. UCLA found ways to move the ball in the second and third quarters, but kept killing itself with mistakes, penalties and turnovers.
At middle linebacker, Max Bergen and Owen Marecic did yeoman's work, but the defense does miss normal starter Shayne Skov. Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas made their debuts at the outside linebacker position. Keiser's sack came when he was playing with a hand down at the line of scrimmage. Overall, the bookends each played well, but at times it did not look like things flowed very naturally. That will come with additional game experience. The defensive line did its part to back the offense. The defense always played a notch above when Sione Fua was in the middle.
The key to the Cardinal run defense was the play of the safeties. Michael Thomas and Delano Howell were outstanding. Thomas was obvious with a number of key tackles and of course two forced fumbles, recovering them both, and returning one for the back-breaking touchdown. Howell was also into the fray, helping out with some hard hits and sure tackling. Adding help from the secondary, CB Johnson Bademosi led the Cardinal with six tackles in the game and one rather spectacular stick on kick coverage.
Tackling as a whole may have been better for Stanford than Cardinal fans have seen for years. There were a few missed attempts, but they were relatively few and far between. For the most part, when a defender was there, the ball carrier was going down.
PASS DEFENSE: A
The stats tell the story here. The two UCLA quarterbacks combined for 11 of 21 for 81 yards and two interceptions. Add three sacks from the Cardinal defense and you really can not ask for much more from the pass defense.
Richard Sherman opened the game with a pass interference penalty, but after that he was great with a couple of beautiful pass defenses and an interception. That interception was created by a strong pass rush and Kevin Prince was hit as he threw it. Keiser was always a presence in the pass rush getting the one sack and securing an interception at the end of the game to preserve the shutout. Hard-charging defensive linemen Matt Masifilo and Sione Fua each had a sack as well.
Again, Howell came up big in the secondary making one jarring, touchdown-saving hit to knock the ball away from a Bruin tight end down the sideline. Michael Thomas missed once on run support, but was around the ball all night long.
Overall there really was not much to dislike in the area of pass defense. They allowed no big plays, applied good pressure and created turnovers. There is nothing wrong with that.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
In a 35-0 game, special teams does not always play a big factor. The Cardinal did what it needed to for the most part. The big ding would be one Nate Whitaker kickoff that went out of bounds giving the Bruins a start at the 40-yard line. Whitaker went 2-2 on his field goals though.
Daniel Zynchlinski was good enough at punting. He averaged 52.3 yards on his punts, but his long of 64 came off a short kick that bounced about 30-yards in Stanford's direction. He had a second punt that was also a short line-drive.
Kickoff and punt coverage both were strong. Kickoff and punt return were adequate enough.
Again, Stanford 35 UCLA 0. Getting a shutout on the road in a venue in which Stanford has struggled in the past is nothing short of huge. A sea change. It was the first win at the Rose Bowl since 1996. It was the first Cardinal shutout of UCLA since 1941 - before Pearl Harbor! The debate will rage all week about whether this was because Stanford is that good or if UCLA is really that bad? The reality is likely a bit of both.
The University of California - Southern Branch looks like it is going to have a very long season in front of them. They have big questions at quarterback. The offensive line is banged up. The front seven on defense is very young. The Bruins have some problems. Sweet.
As for Stanford, the team did what they needed to do against a lesser team. They beat them into submission. The Bruins had to tap out. Cardinal fans had to worry at halftime when the team was only up 13-0. Was the back door open for a Bruin comeback? Lesser teams allow for that to happen. (Any comments from 49ers fans?) Stanford took control in the third quarter. A demoralizing, 18-play drive resulting in a touchdown is a great "statement"! Follow that with a forced fumble and return it for a touchdown and that's your ball game right there.
Stanford has some details to work out in the red zone. They have questions after this game about the state of the aerial attack. There may still be some defensive questions against the run. But the bottom line is the Cardinal did what was needed to smack down the Bruins and emerge with a 2-0 record on the season.
Next up is
Most Valuable Performances
OFFENSE: QB Andrew Luck
DEFENSE: DB Michael
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Nate Whitaker
Dave Fowkes is a longtime Stanford Cardinal fan, who is finally seeing his loyalty pay some serious dividends. Born at Stanford hospital and raised on the Peninsula, he has been a football season ticket holder since 1981. In that span he has only missed three home games, but of course never a Big Game. Dave currently works in media both on the air and behind the scenes in advertising sales. He has covered sports on and off since 1992. Currently he works as a traffic, news and sports man on several Bay Area radio stations under a few different on-air aliases. Dave blends the passion of being a fan with the perspective of being a reporter in his stories. For more Stanford football coverage by Dave Fowkes, you can read the "Stanford Football Examiner" at www.stanfordfootballreport.com
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