-Sign hanging above squad room at 77th Street LAPD Precinct House, from the book L.A. Rex
”Stop reading this article all ye who have abandoned hope.” There has been much wailing and gnashing of keyboards in the wake of Stanford’s epitomizing 20-17 Double OT loss to Utah last Saturday. There will be more to come. It’s all justified. The game featured every problem Stanford has confronted since its first game against a legitimate team in week 3 of the season. Most demoralizing of all to me was that Stanford was handled at the line of scrimmage for most of the game, especially the offensive line. Overall, it was the same old song. Bizarrely, what stuck with me were the few positives the offense provided at the start and at the end of the day, and the hope I gleaned from the utter despair from the most vilified and least regarded individual at the top of the bill in this melancholic malaise of malfunction. There have been SO many words about how bad Saturday was, how bad the season’s been, and how perilous the future is for Stanford. I know. I’ve written many of them. And I’ll write more. But in this space, in this time, three points of on field positivity, in chronological order, are the focus for a short and long term purpose. The short term reason is just thesaurus fatigue from searching words to use in place of “futile”, “incompetent,” and “putrid.” Long term, is that at the moment where it seemed darkest and most desperate to some, I actually talked myself into hope for the future.
Stanford’s opening drive was a thing of beauty. On the first play, Hogan hit Rector out of a twins right formation, after Montgomery had cleared the area running a go route from the slot. Rector drags in behind him and makes a first down catch on first down. After a few minimal gains, the Cardinal faced a 4th and 1. Stanford lined up in a Jumbo set, and just as the crowd was groaning, Hogan faked an inside handoff and tossed it wide to McCaffrey for a monster gain. It was an ingenious play call that took advantage of an overaggressive Utah defense and evoked memories of the same call on a warm night in Tucson in the final season of Andrew Luck. Stanford started its red zone possession in an I Form Jumbo Left Set and Remound Wright blasted behind a pulling Bright for an 8-yard gain. This put Utah on high alert against the run, and the Cardinal coaches again successfully played off that lean with a play action pass to Ward (PA to the Fullback?!?!?), an eligible receiver despite what his targets this year may suggest, for a touchdown. The Cardinal had a resounding opening drive under its belt that utilized passing, running, and creativity to march down the field.
With 10:22 left in the 4th quarter, Stanford began with the ball on the 10-yard line and in its traditionally favored I Formation. What I saw was shocking not because of its singularity but rather in its similarity to recent vintage Stanford teams. From my vantage point in Section 236, I watched the entire offensive line burst forward in sync. Kelsey Young took the handoff and ran between the tackles for an eight yard gain. It was a thing of beauty. Intellectual brutality. Character and Cruelty. God Wants Power. God wants 4 yards, and Stanford gave him 8. That kind of synchronicity has been so rare this season, but I got a charge running up my spine watching that play. Stanford, in the 4th quarter, started its march with a sharp, sound, accurate body blow to an elite defensive front. For the first time, it clarified to me the pecking order of problems and resolved the chicken/egg debate about Stanford’s weakened running game. Yes, the absence of a single, dominant power runner has hindered the Cardinal running game this season. However, a dominant o line can carry lesser backs much farther than a dominant runner can carry a weak offensive line. Kelsey Young, an individual I’ve argued has been miscast all year as a between the tackles runner, looked plenty capable on that play. To prove that it wasn’t a fluke, the Cardinal lined up in its Power formation and blasted left once again, with Young picking up 4, fumbling, but fortunately having Austin Hooper there to recover. Stanford then returned to its I formation. Hogan play faked left and swept right, picking up 6 yards. While perhaps not in total control, the Stanford O Line was winning the 4th quarter battle and giving the team a chance to win. Just how everybody envisioned them doing before the season started. On 3rd and 2, the Cardinal once again used play action to slip Wright out of the backfield, where he caught a pass from Hogan and picked up the yardage necessary for a first down. Stanford, still in its I Formation, goes back to Young, who gains 8 yards on Power Left, and within the context of both this game and this season, all I am saying to myself is, “Where is this coming from?”
The Cardinal then shifts to its Wildcat formation. Montgomery sweeps right for a short gain of two, but not before delivering a wicked stiff arm to the Utah defensive end and further convincing me that this should have been his position all along. On the next play, the Stanford O Line takes a step back, but Montgomery bails them out by breaking a linebacker’s tackle at the point of attack and picking up seven yards. This is how a winning team behaves. Nobody has to be perfect. You just have to pick each other up when necessary. After a short pass to Taboada, the O Line gets over on the Utah line just enough for Wright to pick up the two yards needed to move the chains. Wright commits a foolish penalty, but it doesn’t appear to be fatal when Stanford hits Montgomery on a quick screen play for 20 yards to the Utah 37. Stanford has had some successful drives this year, but none that looked like Vintage Stanford against a ranked team, at least none that I can remember.
As I promised, this article is only going to spotlight the positive plays Stanford produced, so we are going to stop talking about the aforementioned drive. Needless to say, it ultimately failed to produce points. So we move onto the only other play that produced six points for Stanford on the evening. Facing a 2nd and 10 in overtime at the Utah 14, Stanford ran a play that has worked extremely well dating back to Coach Harbaugh’s tenure. Hogan semi-waggles right, then comes back across the field to hit a tight end (Hooper in this case) for a touchdown. It was a great call, a great red zone call, and the punctuation of a gritty response after Utah began OT with a one-play touchdown drive.
These blips of success don’t change the result, of course, but they stuck out in my mind because they addressed so many of the issues that seemed correctable all along. Maybe it was the talent, or lack thereof, on the offensive line, that most sabotaged this 2014 season, but it sure didn’t look like it on the two drives discussed above. Maybe Stanford’s runners are flawed and not up to the caliber of back it featured for the past 4 runs to BCS Bowls, but given the chance to run behind a firing offensive line, they looked good enough. Good enough to set up play action that Hogan, a maligned player most of the season, proved that he can execute. There was a healthy synthesis of simplicity and creativity that indicated that a 10,000 play playbook isn’t necessary for Stanford to move the ball. McCaffrey was featured more extensively. That it all added up to 7 regulation points at home can’t be dismissed, but let’s be honest, the concern now is about the future far more than the present. Yes, going to a bowl is far better than not going to a bowl, but let’s be honest. Everybody is freaked out because of the perceived long term ramifications of this season. Is this the beginning of the end? The last of the Harbaugh recruits and walk-ons peace out this year, and this program will be wholly Coach Shaw’s, and many are concerned that’s not a good thing. There can be no ignoring the negatives from this past Saturday’s loss and from this season, but the few rays of sunshine against the Utes should not be dismissed just because they were so fewer in number. This offensive line can push people around. Whether it’s a matter of poor coaching or inexperience or both, this group showed in spurts that it can sustain physical success within a drive. With the entire group eligible to return, this matters. The running backs showed they can hit holes, the coaches showed that they can dial it up and put this team in position to succeed.
Now, it’s fair to accuse the coaches of being broken clocks, right twice during the course of a three hour game. The same can be said for the O Line, but as I said, all I am offering here is the suggestionof hope amongst the avalanche of hopelessness raining down on this program as surely as the precipitation headed for Strawberry Canyon this weekend. Changes need to be made. Dramatic changes. That starts with one individual, and everybody knows who. There will be more on him to come. However, the greater point here is that at least in terms of the offensive line, Stanford may be cooking with the right ingredients. Am I delusional here? Just being contrarian in front of a staggering amount of evidence that suggests the end is nigh? Perhaps. But delusional is what many thought Jim Harbaugh was when he said we bow to no program, and delusional is what most fans on the Bootleg would have called anybody who said the Cardinal would go to 4 straight BCS Bowls. Stanford didn’t turn a corner in losing, and there are no guarantees. But not to be lost among the wreckage of last Saturday and this season is the notion that Stanford’s path back to the Promised Land may not be as perilous or as long as many believe.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!