More Post-Provo Notes & Quotes

You may have just finished the detailed recap of Saturday's game, which took you through all the highs and lows of that dramatic affair. Well, buckle up for an even deeper dive into Game Two of this 2003 Stanford season with more quotes and notes about the contest, as well as the state of this football team. Included are discussions of the wavering passing offense, the rising defense and the shut-down special teams...

The coach with which I most wanted to speak after the game was linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Tom Williams.  The defensive plan and execution was marvelous, and probably the best seen by any Stanford team in the last decade (any further back and you encounter the stout defenses Williams captained when he was a player, not coincidentally).  I wanted to fish some sound bites out of him about how glib he was with his LBs and defense, but before I could pry the gleeful quotes from his lips, he turned to me and said with a stern visage: "The first thing I want to set straight is the story of the offense.  For an offense to score 18 points against that defense today, that was absolutely huge," he proclaimed...

Many Stanford fans are fretfully concerned over Stanford's passing offense right now, and that is not unexpected after a 56-yard day where your 5'8" starting receiver had the best passing numbers.  By the way, Luke Powell's 2003 passing rating right now is 360.4.  We knew there was a Heisman campaign waiting for the favorite son of Smyrna, but who knew it would come as a QB?  But on a serious note, I think you have to give some credit to the offensive coaching staff for their halftime adjustments.  The decision was made to give the ball more to Kenneth Tolon, and for Trent Edwards to take shorter drops.  The run/pass ratio indeed increased by 68%, and the resultant offensive yardage increased by 53%.  Edwards even enjoyed some improvement, with a passing completion percentage of 50% in the second half.  Two turnovers in the first half; zero in the second stanza.  Stanford also outscored BYU 12-7 in the second half.  Last year the Cardinal was outscored in the second half by an average of 15.4-7.6.  A pet peeve of Cardinalmaniacs in the 2002 season was that Stanford actually held leads at halftime in six games last year (would have been bowling in a world of 30-minute games!) and into the fourth quarter in five games last year.  Yet they won just twice.  There was never an example of a second half comeback win, while there were instead four dire examples of being beaten and losing second half leads.  Well, this BYU game was a late comeback win and the first in the Buddy Teevens era.  That was a benchmark standard applied by Teevens critics in the off-season, though critics seem largely unfazed by the new data...

I have seen many Stanford fans refer to the 3-3-5 BYU runs as a "gimmick" defense, and I have a hard time swallowing that after watching 60 minutes of Cougar Hell live in LaVell Edwards Stadium.  That defense is for real, and it is very good.  Through both scheme and execution, they manage to pull off a blitzing attack that harasses a quarterback, without giving up easy long balls in the air.  It was deceptive; it was fast; and it was punishing.  In talking with Stanford's defensive coaches and people outside the program I trust, there was an incredible amount of respect for the BYU defense both before and after the game.  I would encourage Stanford fans to give some credit as well and do away with the "gimmick" label...

While we search for an appropriate moniker for Stanford's own defense, we are left to revel in Saturday's dominant performance.  "We feel we are good enough with our single coverage in the back end that we can be a pressure team," Tom Williams commented after the game.  "We saw a young, untested quarterback who wasn't very tall.  He had mobility that allowed him to make some plays, but we did our job.  You always feel good as a coach when you can put your players in a position to succeed, and we feel our strength right now is our speed.  When we go to an extra-backer, we can be even faster.  That makes the quarterback make even faster decisions and hurry his throws.  We featured the extra-backer more in this game because we knew they liked to throw the ball.  But that doesn't mean it will make as much sense in other games.  Though there will be a time and a place when it will make sense for this to be our base defense.  It all depends on what we see in our opponent..."

Jon Alston was that extra-backer Saturday who made such an impact, recording two sacks for a loss of 18 yards.  He may be the second team "Sam" linebacker on this defense, but the rotation employed by this staff puts him on the field plenty.  And he is an effective "starter" on the first team when Stanford switches to a four-LB formation (sometimes 3-4-4, others 4-4-3).  "Jon has been great for us this year," Williams praised Saturday.  "The only thing that hindered him last year was his comfort level.  But he put in the time and he has learned.  Now he plays faster because he has to spend less time thinking and can just react to plays.  He's just reaching part of his potential at this point, too..."

The "other great defense" that BYU has seen this year came two weeks ago when they played at U$C in Compton.  It is interesting to note that BYU held the ball for exactly 31:15 in both games.  The Cougars took 72 plays from scrimmage on offense in that $C game and put up 359 yards.  They averaged 1.77 yards per carry on the ground and 6.80 yards per attempt in the air.  When BYU hosted Stanford this past Saturday, they conducted 71 offensive plays and managed 305 yards.  The Cougs averaged minus-0.2 yards per running attempt, while achieving 6.74 yards per passing attempt.  When you further consider that $C had a home advantage while Stanford was playing at LaVell Edwards Stadium, those are rather striking comparisons...

OK, so Stanford has delivered two knockout punches against San Jose State and BYU in its opening defensive efforts.  The talk about a return to the defensive dominance that was displayed back in 1992 is unavoidable for fans.  And that 10-3 team is still regarded as one of the best in the last 30 years for Cardinal Football.  But as the hype and hoopla around this Kamikaze Card defense builds, I want to offer a strong bit of caution.  Just as I said after the San Jose State game, I think we can objectively and absolutely judge the speed of pursuit of Stanford's defense.  It is an incredible uptick and the fastest I have ever seen at Stanford.  I doubt that any longtime observer of Stanford Football would challenge that notion.  But their efficacy remains untested in my mind.  San Jose State is not a talented offense by almost any measure, and BYU has some problems with both talent and scheme themselves.  Most importantly, this defense has faced the likes of Scott Rislov and Matt Beck to date; to be frank, I think the best QB they have encountered is actually UC Davis' Ryan Flanigan in the August preseason scrimmage.  Cody Pickett this coming week will be an otherworldly test, and I don't think we truthfully know what we can get away with against such a potent passing combination as Pickett to Reggie Williams.  Whatever Washington's woes might be, Pickett smashed the Pac-10 passing record last year with some 4,500+ yards in the air.  And for each of the times you saw Rislov or Beck miss a receiver deep who had a two-step cushion, be prepared that the precision passing of Pickett could pick the Card apart.  You can only get away with sending your front seven if the guys in the backend are nearly flawless in their single coverage.  We'll find out this Saturday if Leigh Torrence, T.J. Rushing, Stanley Wilson and Oshiomogho Atogwe can pull that off... 

As much as we were enamored by the defensive performances delivered by both teams in Provo two days ago, the offenses were concomitantly nauseating.  Stanford couldn't pass the ball, and BYU couldn't run to save its life.  Just 505 combined yards of offense.  It was like watching two suburbanites meeting in some urban alley for a knife fight, but they were instead carrying spoons.  But as bad as the offensive yardage numbers were, it was the inability to move the chains that defined this game.  The two teams combined for just 6 of 34 on third downs.  A decided edge for the Cougars, though, was their success on fourth down situations with an admirable 2 of 3 conversions.  Nevertheless, defensive football doesn't sell so well these days, and you have to wonder if ESPN is going to put either of these teams willingly on their pay-per-view GamePlan package again this fall if they can avoid it...

Both quarterbacks were freshmen making their first starts.  And though Trent Edwards had a putative edge as a redshirt frosh (versus Matt Beck as a true frosh), there is a qualifying note.  Beck graduated high school three years ago and spent last spring as an early arrival for football in Provo.  He actually has a year of age and maturity on Edwards.  As a reference point, Beck is the same class/age as Babatunde Oshinowo, Jon Alston, Brian Head and Kevin Schimmelmann.  But that is just a trivial aside...  I think the important difference between the two Saturday is that Beck is much more comfortable throwing on the run than his Stanford counterpart.  Edwards does his best when he takes a predicted drop and sets up in the pocket.  When he was forced to move around in the pocket or (gasp) scramble, his accuracy went to pot.  Beck on the other hand made a couple of his most brilliant tosses on the run.  And that is an important distinguishing characteristic in a game where both defenses put horrific pressure on the signal callers...

While San Jose State did not present a very menacing pass rush, the fangs of the Cougar defense provided a gnarly baptism for a young offensive line Saturday.  I have not yet watched the tape of the game, but there were many missed assignment and whiffed blocks up front.  It was no surprise that more came on the right side, where Stanford has two redshirt frosh including one tackle who made his first college start.  I also noticed a redshirt junior who should be more stout in his blocking by now, who whiffed a couple times on blitzing defenders.  It is true that Trent Edwards did not do even a decent job of feeling the pressure or getting rid of the ball quickly, but he as well as any Stanford quarterback is in a difficult environment with the protection available to them right now.  That was precisely why I predicted a loss in this game (also factoring the home field advantage and elevation for BYU), and why I remain very cautious about optimism for the remainder of the season.  I said it back in the summer in my season preview in The Bootleg Magazine and I say it again: this team needs the rapid maturation of the offensive line for success.  I admit that I was hoping for more experience to be in the starting lineup right now, with Drew Caylor hopefully seizing the reigns at center and moving Brian Head over to right guard.  Those two plus Kirk Chambers and Mike Sullivan would have given four players in their third year or older in the starting lineup.  Instead there were three redshirt frosh Saturday.  Those three, plus the other two in their class who rotate at the guard positions, should improve by November.  From a 10,000-foot view, though, I don't believe that the redshirt freshmen on the OL or at QB are as bad as they looked at BYU.  Nor are they as good as they looked against SJSU.  Most defenses they will see this year will be somewhere between, and I won't be surprised if the passing numbers are in the middle ground as well...

Speaking of blockers, true freshman tailback David Marrero told me after the game that as the game preparation evolved for this game, the staff became concerned that they would have to have a solid blocking running back in the game.  Marrero was not hesitant to admit that this is not a strength of his at this time and added with a smile that he understood why he didn't get on the field.  That coupled with the hot hand Kenneth Tolon was showing, which nobody wanted to pull from the game.  While other defenses this fall will similarly want to pressure Stanford's young QB and OL, it is doubtful that they will be as lethal as what BYU brought.  David Marrero will have his time.  His is not a redshirt I am worried about having burned...

Mark Bradford has made a key catch in each of his first two games, so his redshirt would appear fully justified in burning.  Nick Frank played several snaps Saturday to help give depth to a defensive interior that was wreaking tremendous havoc in the BYU backfield.  Brandon Harrison spent meaningful time at safety, and Michael Okwo was consistently on the field for special teams.  I did not see much (if any) of Patrick Danahy, though I still maintain that Stanford needs four tight ends given the prevalence of injuries at the position and the frequency of three-TE formations in this offense.  The redshirt I am concerned about having been torched is wide receiver Evan Moore.  He took four snaps in the first game and did not touch the ball; he never saw the field against BYU.  That was surprising, and though time will tell as we get into this season, I am uneasy about where he stands today.  His decision to play this fall was already wrapped in public controversy because of his role with the Stanford Basketball team, so you would figure his role in the football offense must be a prominent one for him to have made such a decision.  This is one to watch...

Returning to the theme of blockers, I notice that tight ends are being used more for blocking than receiving thus far.  Perhaps that is necessary given the uneven play and expectations of the offensive line.  But it sure makes me look a little off-kilter at The Bootleg Magazine for the pronouncement of this as the "Year of the Tight End."  Seven out of the team's 35 catches isn't bad, but I was expecting a bigger statement for these big bodies to move the chains on crucial third down situations.  Let's hope this gets turned around, because regardless of the blocking up front and accuracy from the QB, these TEs should be open and easy targets whenever they want...

I'd like to give some prop's to fifth-year senior Drew Caylor.  His 40+ relatives in the stands might have been more excited had he started Saturday, but I thought he played a huge role.  How many guys played three positions, as Caylor did in this game?  The Maryland man played at center, right tackle and long snapper in key situations in the game.  And that is a remarkable versatility.  He deserves far more credit than he receives...

The unheralded hero on the Stanford defense for me was Brian Gaffney.  Like Alston he misses the spotlight because he comes into the game as a second team defender, with Gaffney playing in the middle at the "Mike" linebacker.  But Gaffney had the best game I have witnessed in his Stanford career.  The fifth-year senior was a dominant presence of the field, showing great closing speed to the ball and wrapping up every tackle opportunity available to him.  It is remarkable that a "second string" defender could amass six tackles (four solo) in such a tight game, including one pivotal nine-yard sack in the fourth quarter that would force BYU to punt.  Stanford scored the field goal on the ensuing series that brought the game to 12-14.  I sought out Gaffney after the game to get his cheery reaction to his own spectacular play, but he could only talk about the success of the team.  "It felt wonderful, just to see how far we have come as a team," he offered.  "We lost the tight games last year but delivered in the clutch this time.  The job of the linebackers was easy because of the job the defensive line was doing blowing up holes for us..."

Gaffney was also a fireplug on special teams, which showed for a second straight game a decidedly superior performance.  There is increased athleticism, speed and experience on the special teams units, but Gaffney says it is about attitude and discipline.  "Guys were playing like their hair was on fire out there," he quipped.  "But at the same time we're playing so much smarter.  We aren't making the mistakes like last year and guys are staying in their lanes."  BYU managed just 9.3 yards per return on punts and just 8.3 yards per return on kickoffs against Stanford's stalwart coverage units.  Stanford leads the Pac-10 by a large margin in kickoff returns, allowing 10.0 yards per return.  Washington is second with a 17.2-yard average.  The NCAA does not keep kickoff coverage stats, but they do list Stanford as #1 in the nation currently in kickoff returns with a 38.0-yard average.  Of course, the Card have only had three returns thus far and present a very small sample size...

The 52-yard kickoff return by Nick Sebes was not just the longest of the year; it was longer than any kick return Stanford produced all of 2002.  I think great credit goes to the textbook wedge that blew up a path for him, but Sebes was the man who brought the ball back through the BYU coverage.  And I had written here during preseason camp that I did not want Sebes on kickoff returns.  I thought he was too ginger in his running, as opposed to the reckless speed employed by most of Stanford's great returners through the years.  Well, I'm holding up my hand and calling myself out.  Sebes has the high watermark of the last two years of kickoff returns.  I was wrong... 

The advantageous field position that Stanford is enjoying thus far this year is simply amazing.  In the San Jose State game, the Cardinal started on average on their own 45-yardline, while the Spartans had to start back on their own 21.  In Provo Stanford averaged a starting position at their own 43-yardline while BYU had to get their motor started at their own 22-yardline.  It is remarkable that despite the drop in Stanford's offensive effectiveness from SJSU to BYU, the field position gap showed no noticeable change.  Just goes to show that the Cardinal defense special teams stepped it up another notch in this Provo prizefight... 

I (along with the rest of the media) made a big deal about the altitude Stanford would encounter in a game played at 4,500 feet.  After all, wasn't the late collapse by Cal at Utah (also 4,500 feet) blamed on endurance in that thin air?  Well, you couldn't possibly tell that there were any ill-effects of the elevation for the Cardinal in this game.  Maybe the only player on any play who looked winded at any time was Luke Powell during his 68-yard punt return.  Maybe he takes that the distance at sea level, but I'm not actually sure of that.  Contrary to expectations, Stanford was the more physically dominant team in the fourth quarter, when they looked their strongest.  "I'm extremely pleased with how our team played at the end of the game," Tom Williams said afterward.  "There were zero effects of the altitude whatsoever.  I think a huge credit needs to be given to [strength and conditioning coach] Ron Forbes and [assistant s&c coach] Nate Peoples.  We are in great shape because of those guys.  They allowed us to play stronger in the fourth quarter, when I feel we beat BYU down at the end of the game..."

The last time Stanford a season 2-0 was 2001, when the team finished 9-3 including a Seattle Bowl berth.  In fact, the last three times Stanford has started the year 2-0, they have finished the year in bowl games.  1995 ended 7-4-1 in the Liberty Bowl; 1986 ended 8-4 in the Gator Bowl.  One disappointing note in this trend, though, is that all of those bowl games were losses.  But any historical trend that might forecast this 2003 team with a post-season appearance would be plenty welcome  news for Cardinalmaniacs™...

The last time Stanford beat somebody other than San Jose State out of the conference and on the road was the thriller in Salt Lake in 1995.  Hmm.  We've failed to win in North Carolina, Texas, Massachusetts and Indiana in the interim.  Anybody else think Stanford needs to hit the Beehive State with a little more regularity on this schedule?  If Ted Leland is looking for a replacement when Sannizay goes belly up and gets booted from Division I-A football in the next couple years, look no further than Utah.  The Card have some serious mo-jo working in the Land of Mormon.  Weber State, anyone?...

Washington has put a serious scare into Husky fans in the first halves of games this year.  Witness their two wins thus far this year: trailing 13-10 in the 3rd quarter versus Indiana and leading just 17-14 in the 3rd quarter against Idaho.  Those are two sorry teams, and both games were in Husky Stadium.  But the hometown Huskies prevailed mightily in both cases, with a combined winning score of 83-27.  Stanford has finished its two games strongly thus far, but this game sounds like a serious second-half test... especially for a team that has failed to win any football game in Seattle since 1975.  If the Card can't come out strong to start this game, it could be one of those uphill-both-ways-through-five-feet-of-snow stories...

Speaking of Yoo-Dub, their fans are rather frenzied these days.  In fact, it seems improbable that these two teams are a combined 4-1 when you take a 10-minute visit to each of their message boards today.  Word is that the security staff in Seattle will be checking and confiscating shoelaces Saturday, rather than the more conventional contraband of concern.  If the Huskies should come out of this game 2-2 or Stanford 2-1, we could see a massive suicide watch put into effect.  Of course the flip side is that one of these teams will necessarily finish September with three wins.  You couldn't tell that by checking with either fan base this week, though...

Anybody else remarkably taken aback by the offensive imbalance that Stanford opponents have employed through the first two games?  San Jose State and BYU combined ran the ball 41 times (including QB "rushes" on sacks) while passing the ball 113 times (not including pass plays that ended in sacks).  And it is not as if these are teams that have not tasted success running the ball.  San Jose's true freshman dynamo Yonus Davis looked very threatening in their Grambling State opener.  BYU's Reynaldo Brathwaite belted out 169 yards on just 19 carries the previous week in a defensive struggle at New Mexico.  Given that Stanford has the #1 rush defense in the country, perhaps these offensive gameplans are justified.  But perhaps they are also self-fulfilling prophecies.  They surely do indicate that offensive coordinators are looking at this Stanford defense and deciding that going after the Cardinal corners in single coverage is the answer... 


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