So what happened to the offensive line?
In his weekly Tuesday lunch press conference, head coach David Shaw tried to downplay the significance of the blowout loss to Washington and focused on moving forward. (“Sometimes you just lose a game. The other team played better.”
Offensive coordinator and offensive line guru Mike Bloomgren was more noticeably agitated and candid about how he felt the offensive line played on Friday.
“It was our worst performance in six years,” Bloomgren said. “Very clearly.”
Six years might have been underselling it a bit. (No, a lot.)
Eight sacks allowed. Eight sacks.
The last time a Stanford offensive line allowed eight sacks was in 2006. That’s a full decade ago. It was only the second time that a David Shaw-coached Stanford allowed more than four, as a matter of fact. (The only other time was 2014 UCLA, when the line allowed Kevin Hogan to get sacked five times.)
Thirty rushes for 29 yards.
The last time a Stanford team was held to under a yard a rush was in 2007, when Oregon State held the Tavita Pritchard-led Cardinal to negative 8 yards rushing on 25 attempts.
The worst part about the absolute stinker from the offensive line to Bloomgren was that he didn’t see it coming. What he’d seen was that the Cardinal’s offensive line had been going through growing pains, sure, but it still keyed 302 yards of rushing against USC and paved the way for 6.1 yards per play on called runs against UCLA.
He was confident – and the linemen were confident – that they were vastly improving as a unit and would put on a good show at Washington.
And when things went so magnificently wrong, it actually just left them in shock.
“I really thought we were going to go up there and play well, and we obviously didn’t,” Bloomgren said.
Bloomgren was having so much trouble processing the magnitude of how badly his line got steamrolled that he couldn’t even wait until he got back to campus – he keyed up film of the game on the flight back from Seattle.
“It was a lot like a dam breaking loose,” Bloomgren said. “You went to plug one hole and tried to make an adjustment there, and somebody came up the other one. And then the other one. It was frustrating and tough.”
Obviously, when a man who’s seen as much as Bloomgren has in his coaching career speaks of a defensive line’s performance in such terms, it’s high praise for Pete Kwiatkowski and his boys – they’ve developed the toughest line in the Pac-12, no questions asked, up in Seattle.
What’s more: Bloomgren said that Friday’s performance was all the more confusing because he couldn’t necessarily pinpoint what the coaches could have done differently to prepare the offensive line better for the game.
“You really think you’re trending the right way,” Bloomgren said. “And then you go and play like you did last Friday, and it does leave you scratching your head.”
The general consensus around the staff and offense is that the line, for its missteps at the beginning of the year, is still trending the right way, and that the focus has been razor-sharp since the game to prove that the clunker at Washington was, in fact, an aberration.
For Bloomgren, it wasn’t necessarily a matter of scheme – it was just lapses in technique, resulting in the boys up front losing one-on-one matchups that they don’t normally lose, especially in pass protection, which is something that they normally take great pride in.
Looking at the film, it’s not tough to see that the technique, especially in footwork and use of hands, got very sloppy as the game wore on, likely due to frustration and confusion from the crowd noise, and, of course, the inability of the offense to do much of anything all game. Whatever it was, Bloomgren is adamant that it’s not indicative of this line’s potential.
“We’re a very talented unit, and that’s so much the frustration of last Friday night,” Bloomgren said. “We think we’re a very talented offense and that was a really poor showing.”
He’s not quite sure if “angry” is the right word, but he’s convinced that the offensive line was deeply affected by their performance.
“They work so hard all year for these 12 opportunities, and to perform like that hurts us all,” Bloomgren said. “And it does hurt them deeply because they all care. They all care immensely. Whether it’s anger or freaking hurt, whatever the emotion is, I think they all feel it immensely.”
David Bright, who has been working at tackle this week (more on that below), said that everybody on the line has “little things” in technique to fix so that “this never happens again.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t.
It’s not all bad, though
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, regardless of how bad it seemed. The coaches seemed cautiously optimistic about Ryan Burns, and were really happy with his ability to not let the pressure (of the situation and of purple jerseys beating him down) get to his head.
As far as his quarterbacking went, Shaw noted that it was Burns’ first time dealing with a heavy pass rush in his career, and was pleased to note that he never seemed to be afraid of the pressure or let it affect him at all – he kept looking downfield and standing tall in the pocket.
“What he did is he stood in there and continued to lead throughout the game,” Bloomgren said. “He stepped in and made the right throws, and even after getting hit, you never saw a fear factor coming into play. He’s not ducking or shying away from the game.”
But more impressive to his coaches was Burns’ mentality – even as the going got tough and Stanford’s deficit grew, Burns was in there being positive and trying to impart enthusiasm into the guys around him.
“Was he perfect? Absolutely not. But his leadership was, and I appreciate that,” Bloomgren said.
Shaw said that the decision to burn freshman receiver Donald Stewart’s redshirt was made during the middle of the week of practice leading up to Washington, but only after careful consultation with Stewart and his family to make sure that they were on board with Stewart committing to play this season.
“He’d been practicing so well and doing so well, and with the injuries, an opportunity to get on the field showed,” Shaw said. “We really looked at it and said that there are some things that he does that he’s going to be able to help us with.”
As is the case with any redshirt being burned, Shaw and Stewart considered first and foremost whether Stewart would continue to play even after Owusu and Taboada return – and they concluded that Stewart had showed enough in practice that he would continue to be a factor in the Cardinal’s passing game moving forward.
Stewart, a three-star New Jersey native, was one of the top-rated receivers on the East Coast and chose to commit to Stanford over Michigan. He’s a tall receiver with great hands that figures to fill out to become a big threat for Ryan Burns working the middle of the field.
“He’s going to play in every game, and he’s going to push to have opportunities,” Shaw said. “He’s going to push to be a part of what we’re doing. In due time, he’s really going to show how talented he is.”
Holder practiced on Tuesday, but in a non-contact jersey. Regardless, Shaw says he’s doubtful to play on Saturday against Washington State.
Shaw said that Meeks will likely start practicing later this week.
Owusu is passing a lot of the return-from-concussion protocols and is “ready to sweat,” according to Shaw. He’ll still be held out on Saturday because they’re not in a hurry to rush him back.
David Bright has been working out at tackle this week in case Tucker isn’t healthy. Coach Bloomgren says that in such a case, left guard would be manned by “some combination of Fanaika and Herbig.” It’s looking like Fanaika might be close to ready by this weekend (he practiced in a limited capacity on Tuesday and it looked promising), but given the offensive line’s recent struggles, moving a true freshman as a starter to the interior of the line might just compound issues – but that’s where Stanford is at right now. Tucker did not practice Tuesday but the team will try to test him on Wednesday.
Taboada did not practice on Tuesday and like Tucker, the team will try to test him on the field on Wednesday.
"It's just one loss. Just because the score is big doesn't mean it counts as two losses." - Shaw