Was It Better?

There have been a wide range of reactions to Saturday night's 31-10 victory over San Jose State, though most lie in some realm of optimism. The question, though, is how much we can really tell about the 2003 edition of Stanford Football from this game. After all, the Card pasted SJSU last year 63-26. Read on for a closer look at what we do and don't know about the improvements in '03.

Though the score for either team did not match the output of the 2002 track meet, this 2003c season opener against San Jose State had several eerie similarities. Stanford had mistakes early that let the Spartans hang around too long for comfort. The South Bay visitors were within two points early in the third quarter last year, and this year they actually led the 14-point favored Cardinal 10-0 late in the second quarter. But just as they did a year ago, Stanford straightened itself out on both sides of the ball to run off more than 30 points to an easy victory.

At its face, you could justify as little optimism toward this team as what you felt at the end of last November.  After all, they made mistakes on both sides of the ball for the first quarter and a half, beaten by lowly Sannizay both on the scoreboard and in the stat sheets.  Sure, Stanford handled almost all dimensions of the game by the final gun (and train whistle), but we saw that last year.  Optimism about the Fun 'N Gun offense was stratospheric after that 65-point output, which included 563 yards of total offense.  If you wanted to see an aerial attack, your thirst was slaked with 305 yards passing on 19 completions.  If you craved a good old-fashioned ground game, then your soul was soothed by the better-than five yards per carry for 258 yards.

Stanford would never touch either yardage output in the remaining nine games of the season.  The passing game saw the most precipitous drop-off, with only one game breaking 200 yards, and that came at Notre Dame for just 201 yards in the air.

But the whole point of The Bootleg is to dig deeper beneath the surface.  Your resource of inside information and in-depth analysis, we're here to provide the definitive look at this season opener, with an eye toward the all-important question: Was it better?

The Offense

The defense was excusable last year, on several counts.  They were horrendously young, and game after game they were put in dire predicaments by the offense's turnovers and poor field position.  The undeniable nausea you felt at the end of each ill-fated contest was largely tied to the offense, which mustered a meager 238 yards per game the entire month of November.  That's a piss-poor foundation to build upon, and to make matters worse, the Card were set to put six players on the field for the SJSU game in their first career college starts.

Both the 2002 and 2003 San Jose games saw Chris Lewis in action as well as a redshirt freshman, and both games ended with a pleasing passing result.  But the nature of the passing game was quite different.  The 2002 edition looked to put the ball down the field and strike with big plays, while Saturday's passing offense was more controlled.  Rather than launch the ball down the field, the plays were run to spots on the field.  Receivers got open with slants and comebacks, and the routes actually took WRs across the middle of the field.

The overwhelming difference between the state of Stanford's passing game a year ago at this time and its condition today is the quarterback position.  The hype may be a tad overdone, simply because he has played but one game in college, but Trent Edwards lit up Stanford Stadium Saturday night in a manner only matched by the new BootTron™ scoreboard.  

After Chris Lewis had two series on the field, Edwards was put in the game for his audition.  Though some uninformed fans may have thought the fifth-year senior was given the hook by head coach Buddy Teevens, the insertion of the redshirt freshman was instead planned for the third series all week.  I know that because I heard it from Teevens lips a week ago.  Each quarterback had their shot to move the offense and demonstrate their effectiveness, and it was a no-brainer decision to stick with the heralded Edwards for the duration.

In Lewis' first two series, he hit 3-of-7 passes for just 15 yards, but more importantly he badly missed a pair of open receivers on two of his incompletions.  One was a streaking Luke Powell along the right sideline for what would have been at least a 15-yard gain.

In Edwards' first series, he started off 3-of-3 for an incredible 71 yards in his first collegiate pass attempts.  The statistical comparison would leave little doubt in anyone's mind who had the hotter hand that day, but seeing was believing.  Edwards had the same open Powell for his second and third passes, but he delivered the ball on a rope with far greater accuracy and pace than Lewis.  The redshirt freshman immediately earned the playing time for the remainder of the game, coming out only in the final countdown minutes of the fourth quarter.

Many fans in the stands, and indeed around the Cardinal Nation, will react to this development with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, it is difficult to not feel your blood pressure soar at the prospect of "The Next Elway" being delivered into our midst.  Trent Edwards is unquestionably the best ready-made first-year quarterback I have seen in my decade-plus watching Stanford football, and longtime observers put his debut in the same breath as that seen by John Elway and Jim Plunkett.  This performance confirmed everything I have seen in the last 13 months of Edwards' practices and scrimmages at Stanford.  Simply put, he is the real deal.

But it is difficult to not feel a pang of heartache for senior Chris Lewis.  He has worked hard since last season to recreate himself, both in physical rehabilition and in mental focus and leadership.  Even if Lewis does not start another game this year, those dividends will still pay off for this team.  His senior leadership helped to frame a highly successful off-season as well as last month's pre-season camp.  He helped to drive the work ethic of this offense, and returned his teammates to serious business.  Furthermore, it is a fool's paradise if you believe that one quarterback can stay healthy throughout this season.  Edwards will take his shots behind this young offensive line, just as he did in several second half instances Saturday night.  Lewis will unquestionably be called to center stage several times this fall, even if Edwards holds down the starting job.

Fans who feel like Lewis deserved more than two series to "lose" his starting job, however, have a warped view of what this quarterback situation was coming into the season opener.  Lewis had held the lead in the race through the few few weeks of camp, but he was clearly bested by Edwards in the scrimmage against UC Davis.  And that game situational evidence confirmed what we saw in the Spring Game in April, where Edwards first truly closed the gap on Lewis.  Teevens in fact felt in his gut then that Edwards might have been deserving of the #1 QB spot, but he kept Lewis atop the chart in deference to senior leadership and experience.

But at some point, performance outweighs experience, and we now have three data points in the last three major contests with these two QBs.  Edwards has decidedly won all three, and frankly his superior showings in the first two should have put him at least on equal footing coming into this game.  In that context, Lewis did not have the starting job "to lose."  Instead, both were given notice that they would both play in the first half, and that an on-the-fly decision would be made for the remainder of the game.  Though some fans on the outside will see Teevens giving the nod to the young quarterback he recruited in his first class, I see a balanced quarterback competition that has produced an unbalanced result.

Teevens incidentally would not proclaim Edwards the starter after the game, and we will get more word on this Tuesday - straight from the head man's mouth.

Despite all the apparent assets that Edwards put on display, the young quarterback was quick after the game to heap much praise on the offensive line.  And justly so.  Though four players started the first games in college, and five redshirt freshman OL made their first ever college appearances, the line was a positive surprise.  They gave Edwards solid protection through most of the game, and most of the shots he took late in the game came with the second team OL on the field.

When the offensive coaches decided they wanted to shove the ball down the Spartans' throats, the line delivered in the second half.  On the very first drive of the third quarter, five rushes moved the ball 30 yards.  Early in the fourth quarter, an even stronger statement was made as J.R. Lemon was handed the ball on all five plays of that drive, which would travel all 51 yards on the ground for a touchdown drive that iced the game.  And in case you are wondering, that series came against San Jose State's first team defense.

Maybe most encouraging about the line play was the depth and success of the rotation employed.  Nine Stanford OL got in the game for meaningful snaps, and there did not appear to be a significant drop in production or protection when second teamers entered the game.  The two non-starters who saw the most time were OG David Beall and OT Jon Cochran.  The latter was the only tackle available to substitute for either Kirk Chambers or Mike Sullivan, and I saw him in the game often - on both sides.

So here comes the caution against overexuberance, if I may steal a page from Mr. Greenspan's book.  San Jose State has a weak defensive interior, which is where you would like to have talented players to really challenge the youth of Stanford's line.  They could not get a good pass rush up the middle, and they were moved handily off the ball in most straight-up drive blocking situations.  BYU will be a wholly different test, given that their best defensive personnel might be found up front.  They are big, strong and as older than Stanford's graduate assistant coaches.  Let's call this a good start, but a soft test.

While we are on the subject of the running game, you have to feel very good about J.R. Lemon.  He racked up 103 on 18 carries, and he did it both between and outside the tackles.  He got stronger as the game went on, and his most encouraging run came for 11 yards during that five-play touchdown drive.  He took the ball outside for what looked to be a short gain at the sideline, then made a cut back inside to beat two tacklers and pick up a first down.

"I knew how hard the linebackers overpursue from watching film," Lemon explains.  "So I decided during that run to make them think I was gunning for the sideline, then I cut back.  I knew they wouldn't be able to react, and it worked."

But there are two cautions to deliver before naming Lemon the starting quarterback.  First, his 5.7 yards per carry is not that far ahead of what starter Kenneth Tolon managed.  Tolon simply had fewer carries before being knocked out of the game at the end of a wonderful 13-yard carry.  Second, a defense like SJSU would be better geared toward stopping Tolon, given their strengths playing with speed outside the tackles.  A smashmouth up-the-gut running approach is more likely to beat and the wear down the Spartans, and Lemon has the body and power to better execute.

I do think that the four-back rotation will have to be narrowed down soon.  When Tolon left the game, the three remaining backs all received meaningful carries, but I don't see the four-headed beast surviving.  And on limited data from just this one game, I would be inclined to decrease the carries for Gerald Commissiong.  He picked up just six yards on four carries, and lost one fumble.  If you tighten your rotation, Tolon and Lemon are the clear frontrunners, while freshman David Marrero shows enough promise that you continue to work him on the field.

Finally, Luke Powell is back.  And that demonstrated fact alone raises the level of offensive expectations this year.  San Jose State showed no ability to adjust to his playmaking abilities, but the explosive fifth year senior receiver will receive loads of attention from defensive coordinators from here on out...

The Defense

There was a lot to also raise one's spirits on the defensive side of the ball.  Though it didn't start quite so pretty.  After a strong three-and-out, San Jose State came back and moved the ball swiftly down the field in the air.  Redshirt junior free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe was burned on consecutive long pass plays totaling 38 yards.  Then another pass for eight yards, this time against soft coverage by cornerback Leigh Torrence.  The drive would have stalled on a 4th down incompletion if not for a bogus pass interference call against Atogwe, but the drive initially got its legs throwing down the field into single coverage.

The good news is that after San Jose's successes in their second and third drives (both in the first quarter), they did not pass midfield again until late in the fourth quarter when a 44-yard pass was completed against cornerback T.J. Rushing.  That was impressive.

Rather than attribute this success to one position unit on the defense, I have to give credit to all 11.  The coverage in the secondary was very good, but there was also a tremendous amount of pressure on Spartan quarterback Scott Rislov that came from an unrelenting front seven.  Sure, San Jose put up 261 yards in the air, but they threw for a school-record 67 attempts.  The more comparable comparison comes when you normalize for yards per attempt.  In last year's game, SJSU put up 5.2 yards per pass attempt, while this year's result was a mere 3.9 yards per attempt.  As another data point, Stanford gave up 7.6 yards per attempt over the course of the entire 2002 season.  This was a very good performance.

Now for the caveat.  San Jose had very poor pass protection up front, and that is conducive to the success of a blitzing scheme like Stanford employs.  When you put so much pressure up front, you have to get to the quarterback.  Otherwise, you are susceptible to the big pass play.  SJSU made few if any adjustments, and Stanford continued to pound Rislov from start to finish in this game.  But what will happen when this blitz-oriented defense meets up with a truly talented offensive line?  That secondary is going to be left in a lot of single coverage, and I suspect that we have some heart-breaking (and possibly game-breaking) plays completed against the Card in the near future.  For that reason, I am not yet ready to stamp this defense with excellence.

This defense, incidentally, has undergone a remarkable transformation in two years from what was run during the Kent Bear era.  In those days, everything was geared toward containment.  Stanford admitted it didn't have the speed to take many gambles, and sat back to merely contain the big pass plays while emphasizing stopping the run.  To say things have turned 180 degrees in philosophy is hardly an overstatement, and it would appear the defensive coaches have the horses to possibly pull this off.

Kevin Schimmelmann was the biggest surprise of the evening, showing just why the staff moved him from safety in the spring.  They coaches always talk about "flying around the field," and the redshirt sophomore fit the bill exquisitely.  He may or may not get pushed by Michael Craven later this year, and to be honest Michael Okwo did some nice things late in the game, too; however, he was a big reason the defensive successfully blitzed in this game.  His reaction and recovery speed brought him to the point of attack time and time again.

But that didn't keep him from heaping praise on the boys up front.  "The defensive line made it all happen," Schimmelmann opined. "They blew open the holes and made it easy for the linebackers."

He's right, of course.  Amon Gordon and Babatunde Oshinowo got some of the best pushes I've ever seen from a Stanford defensive interior in any game, just shredding San Jose's offensive line.  The surprise of the front four was Will Svitek, who didn't hardly get home in the Davis scrimmage but produced a lot of pressures in this game.  But once again, let us remember the celebrated two interceptions by DT Matt Leonard last year against San Jose State.  He was resoundingly quiet much of the remainder of the year.  It is hard to evaluate this defensive line in an absolute manner until they face a sound offensive line.

In summary, components look very talented in all the positions of this defense, and they very successfully executed an attacking defense.  But this scheme will be seriously tested against much better offensive lines to come.

Special Teams

At face, this appeared to be the area of the team that had the most glaring failures.  Several Eric Johnson kickoffs did not clear the 10-yardline.  Michael Sgroi missed one field goal and had another blocked.

But I remember that special teams is almost always the shakiest part of a football team in its opening game.  How many times have you seen blocked punts and botched plays on special teams in a season opener, throughout college football?

San Jose State was playing its third game and by contrast should have been in a position to beat Stanford in the special teams aspects of the game.  But any measurement taken at the end of the game revealed otherwise.  SJSU averaged just 7.3 yards per kickoff return, which would rank in the triple digits in any NCAA ranking; Stanford meanwhile churned out 31 yards per return.  And keep in mind that this Spartan team had already amassed a 28.8-yard return average through its first two games.  And most of those kickoffs came after Florida's string of 11 scores.  After all, Grambling never scored and only kicked off once.

Johnson put his first kickoff of the game into the endzone for a touchback, but after that his strategy changed.  The kickoffs were chipped up in the air, which gave him far less distance, but he also achieved tremendous hang time on the balls.  That hang time was matched by Stanford's excellent coverage team, which not only closed on the ball in a hurry, but did so without missed tackles.  The special teams, both kicking and coverage, was a disappointment last year, and I wrote an article in this month's The Bootleg Magazine on the improvements expected for 2003.  Fifth year senior MLB and special teams standout Brian Gaffney spoke with me for the article, and when he passed by me after the game Saturday night he uttered one quick statement.

"I told you we got it fixed," he confidently proclaimed.

He may very well be right.  San Jose State has some speed and should have broken at least one good runback.  But the coverage by this Cardinal special teams squad could be one of the best we've seen in years.

Johnson's punts were pretty good, though the placement needed a couple times to pin the Spartans deep did not come.  Hard to be displeased when he can kick for a net of 38.3 yards in his first outing, though.  Good hang time, and that despite some uneven long snapping.

The snapping and holding were also a little shaky for Sgroi's field goal attempts, and the blocked FG I credit to the timing of the snap rather than the kick itself.  It is disappointing to start Sgroi's second year in a manner similar to how his first played out - taking field goals but not kickoffs.  But he at least appears to be on the recovery upswing rather than an injured decline.

All in all, I think the improved punting and coverage make this year's special teams a definite upgrade over 2002.  The placekicking is still unresolved, though, as Michael Sgroi protects his back and is worked back into form.

Intangibles

Outside of the three units above, the greatest positive from this game was the bounce back Stanford showed as a team after the slow start.  If you are looking for a game last year where Stanford trailed by 10 or more points and came back to win, you can keep searching until the end of time.  The Card never trailed in the Arizona win, and fell behind only a field goal in the San Jose win.  With a 2-9 memory hanging around their necks like an albatross, it would have been easy (and to some, expected) for Stanford to fold after the 0-10 start in this game.  Instead they never looked scared, and there was no signs of panic on the sidelines or on the field.  There will be far greater tests of resiliency against more talented teams and greater deficits this year, but Saturday night was a positive sign.

I also believe that the Cardinal were able to rebound in the second quarter of the first game, rather than between the first and second games, because of the Davis scrimmage nine days earlier.  That took several jitters away that normally could last an entire game, and it helped the young players on this team to have that experience under the belts.  Keep in mind that Stanford started eight players in their first career starts, and another three players who were making starts at new positions.  Three redshirt freshman started; another eight redshirt frosh played in the game.  Five true freshman played in the game.  There were a lot of first-time appearances that felt like second experiences because of that scrimmage.


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