Statistically, Stanford's final spring fling Saturday was underwhelming. The offense, which has through the entire history of the program been the signature stamp of Stanford football, was inconsistent in all aspects of the game. Passes were off the mark, either behind a receiver or over his head. Receivers dropped passes. The offensive line was very up and down, with an early emphasis on the down. And penalties marred some of the successful plays and drive attempts.
But there was more than meets the eye to this offensive gameplan and performance, as I learned by talking to offensive players and coaches afterward. One observation from the stands would be that the running game was not as assertive, particularly early in the scrimmage, as had been hyped all winter and spring. The answer: the coaches scripted the early plays with an emphasis on the passing game. They did so because they felt like they had learned a lot about the running game during the spring, and had a lot of good film in the can for analysis in the coming weeks. But scrimmage conditions for various passing plays for the quarterbacks were deemed "in need," and thus the air-emphasis for much of the first half of play.
Another observation that jumped out at you was the major struggles of the offense in the first half of play. The timing and protection was poor for the passing game, as the defense swung through a seeming revolving door on the O-line. An answer: offensive line coach Steve Morton and head coach Buddy Teevens both noted to me after the game that a few of the freshmen offensive linemen were wide-eyed and semi-paralyzed with their first experience taking snaps in the Stadium. Actually, there was more colorful language used to express the reactions of those frosh OL to the Stadium experience which I will not repeat. But the improvements in play that we had seen in protection and blocking by these young linemen the last two weeks were almost completely eradicated, as they appeared to hop in a time machine and whiff on some blocks they hadn't been missing since the first week of the spring. Ismail Simpson proved beyond any doubt this spring that he was the most athletic and capable of the healthy frosh OL, but he was beaten in one of the first plays of the scrimmage as if he were wearing cement boots.
The good news is that the line settled down for a dramatically improved second half of play. Morton said that as disappointed as he was in the first half, he thought the second half protection was a little better than he expected to see today. It showed throughout the offense, as some of the better runs came in the second half and much of the offensive scoring came as the scrimmage wore on. The passing game started to click better, as well, though they were handicapped with several key receiving personnel unavailable. After the game, offensive coordinator David Kelly lamented that the passing offense was handcuffed without Nick Sebes, Gerren Crochet, Greg Camarillo, Brett Pierce and Alex Smith. In a starting offensive series in a game this fall, that group may contain as many as three starters. Kelly was also careful to note that what you saw in the Spring Game was not necessarily a reflection of what the scheme will look like this fall. He talks quite a bit about the experimentation the offensive staff is employing this spring, with several plays that will be deleted and other plays yet to be added.
With all those caveats being said, there was a careful eye watching the quarterback performances Saturday, as that starting job has remained open throughout the spring. The official depth chart published before the final Spring Game showed Chris Lewis as the #1 guy, with Trent Edwards and Kyle Matter tied for the #2 spot. But Edwards was head and shoulders above his position mates on this day. He showed the quickest release, threw the most crisp passes with the highest velocity and overall had the most success moving the football. The first year player from Los Gatos completed 12 of 19 passes for 122 yards, plus one touchdown. He took the most snaps and was the most consistent on the day, though the youngest of the four quarterbacks, playing in his first spring game.
Chris Lewis was a little disappointing, but he salvaged the day during the "two minute drill" that closed the scrimmage. He found Luke Powell (8 catches for 76 yards) on the right side for the biggest gain of the day, which moved the sticks and set up a short touchdown throw of eight yards to Brandon Royster immediately thereafter. Lewis was seven for his 14 attempts for 75 yards, more than half of which came in that final drive. He also tossed an interception to Capp Culver in the middle of the field late in the second half.
My heart goes out to redshirt sophomore Ryan Eklund, who was limited through much of the spring with a broken thumb. He had been cleared to throw for the latter portion of the spring, but Teevens' tight rotation of snaps for the quarterbacks permitted little work for the second eldest of Stanford's signal callers. He approached Teevens prior to the final scrimmage and asked for his chance to show himself, and the head coach told him he would get two series. The tragic result was the worst possible scenario, with Eklund throwing two interceptions on his two lone throws of the day. The first was picked off by redshirt freshman Nick Silvas, who benefited from Stanley Wilson's and Calvin Armstrong's injury absences this spring and gained a lot of playing time as a second string cornerback. Silvas took off down the sideline and scored 50 yards later. The second pick was snagged out of the air by Jared Newberry.
If there truly was a tie between Edwards and Matter before Saturday, it was cleanly broken by the day's performances. Edwards really was that good and has a very firm grasp for the #2 position. If not for Lewis moving the ball for a score in the two-minute drill, I think Teevens might have been forced to unseat his senior quarterback, but the Long Beach standout did enough this spring on the field and in the leadership category to maintain a slight hold on the starting spot. The gap between him and Edwards significantly narrowed, however, and there is a meaningful component to Lewis' #1 position that is owed to his experience and veteran reputation within the team.
The defense was swarming in the game and deserve their fair share of the credit for the offensive travails in the game. They were handicapped in their own right without three of their top linebackers, as Michael Craven, David Bergeron and Kevin Schimmelmann all sat out with injuries. But the push from the defensive front was a sight to behold, with big bad Babatunde Oshinowo leading the way. He recorded two sacks on the afternoon, but fans in the stands may best remember his wrestling match with Simpson at the end of one play near halftime. Oshinowo, who is a soft-spoken player off the field, was the most heated and animated I have ever seen him at Stanford after the struggle and had to be restrained by defensive teammates. It took nearly 15 minutes for his fellow defenders to cool him down. I inquired afterward and was told that he felt Simpson had his hands inside his face mask with some unmentionable extra-curriculars, though on the other side of the coin Simpson claimed that he was fired up after Oshinowo's hand had slipped inside his face mask.
Teevens held up the scrimmage while he brought the entire team onto the field for a huddle to refocus them and to address some rough aspects of the physical play to that point. Earlier in the scrimmage, Mike Sullivan had been flagged for a personal foul for some activity in the pile at the end of a running play. And Amon Gordon had drawn the yellow hanky for what was called a late hit on the quarterback by the referees. Personal fouls were a particular problem in the first half of last season, with Gordon being the lead culprit. There was some thought that Teevens was not hard enough on his players to maintain a proper level of discipline, but in this scrimmage the head man showed his resolve he claims will hold over into the 2003 season. Any player hit with a personal foul, deserved or not, will be pulled from the game with a warning. A second instance will result in a benching for the game. Sullivan, Gordon and Simpson were all sent to the bench immediately by Teevens in this affair.
Teevens confided afterward that he knew Gordon's penalty wasn't very fairly deserved. "He got a little hands to the face at the end, and I know that wasn't a good call," the second year Stanford coach revealed. "But I told Amon that he was the top offender in the conference in personal fouls this past fall, and the referee called number 18 on this particular play. They saw something and that's what counts. No if's, and's or but's. Nobody will be allowed to hurt this football team."
If there is a silver lining to the personal fouls that resulted in benchings, it would be the resultant substitutions made. When Sullivan went to the bench, that allowed Steve Morton a great opportunity to put Jon Cochran at right tackle with the first string O-line. When Simpson was yanked after his infamous tussle with Oshinowo, Morton took the opportunity to move Brian Head over to guard and Drew Caylor up to the first string center position. The overhead video tape of the day's performances on the line, with various individual performances and the shuffling among the first string, will be heavily scrutinized in the coming days as Morton draws up his game plan for the fall.
Returning to the defense, some of the big performers of the day included Oshinowo, Casey Carroll, Capp Culver and Timi Wusu. The coverage from the cornerbacks was very good in the game, as well. The clamped down in a hurry after many of the receptions.
In the et cetera department...
- Two young offensive players on the rise were David Lofton and Matt Traverso. They both benefited from the extra snaps they received with veteran counterparts out of the game injured, but they also rose to the occasion. Lofton had the second-most receptions and receiving yards in the game. Kudos also go out to Gerald Commissiong for a physical and inspiring day running the ball, Kris Bonifas for two scores, and Trevor Hooper for a strong showing in an increasingly prominent role at strong safety.
- Stud quarterback recruit C.J. Bacher was in attendance for the game with his father, which marks their second trip to The Farm this spring from Sacramento. Not only did the youngster have his eye squarely on the offense, but also former quarterback K.C. Basher took an analytical look at the performances and schemes. "I like to watch what the defense is doing and map out what is the best offensive attack," says the elder Bacher. The pair admit they took in the game for holistic measurements as much as offensive analysis, they said they liked what they saw. "The offensive line is really young, but I thought the offense did some good things out there," K.C. opines.
- Another interested signal caller in attendance was T.C. Ostrander from nearby Menlo-Atherton, who is in the midst of his senior season of baseball at the local high school. He enters this fall as the lone quarterback in the jumbo-sized recruiting class, and had a keen eye on the QB competition. His assessment? "Trent [Edwards] looks pretty good out there today."
- Several future Cardinal stars were at the game in addition to Ostrander, getting an up-close look at the team one last time before they report for freshmen duty in August. Spotted at the game were defensive tackle Nick Frank, linebacker Landon Johnson, defensive end Udeme Udofia, defensive end Chris Horn, wide receiver Evan Moore, wide receiver Jai Miller, fullback Emeka Nnoli and running back Jason Evans. There are also reports that a handful of walk-on players who will join the 2003 class were in the Stadium, and with recent developments there could be as many as five or six walk-ons arriving in August. They include a placekicker, long snapper, offensive lineman and a defensive back - among others.
- Quarterbacks coach Bill Cubit had to miss the game due to a death in the family. The QBs missed him not only for guidance, but also for the driving force he has provided this spring to get them in the huddle in a hurry. It was observed afterward that the pace of the offense getting in and out of the huddle was slower than it had been the last few weeks.
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