Offensive Opportunity?

The reason Stanford fans have been uneasy about this U$C game for weeks, if not months, has been the matchup of the Cardinal offense against the Trojan defense. There are objective reasons to believe the Stanford "D" can make enough plays and stops to keep this game in reach, but only if the "O" can open up and grab chunks of yardage. That indeed has been a focus these last two weeks for the Stanford offense...

Heading into this weekend, Stanford is ranked 8th in both scoring offense (22.0 ppg) and total offense (315.0 ypg) in the Pac-10.  The rushing offense (145.7 ypg) is currently 3rd in the conference, while the passing offense (169.3 ypg) is 9th - only the lowly Mildcats of Arizona are worse, and even then by just 5.5 yards per game.  Sure, there are mitigating factors to consider.  A redshirt freshman quarterback is learning the ropes while being protected by often three redshirt frosh offensive linemen.  Stanford has also seen a pair of pretty good defenses on the road in its last two games.

But nothing about those excuses will be ameliorated this Saturday when Stanford plays longtime rival USC, who is also the only school on the West Coast with the audacity to thieve the cardinal color as one of its official colors.  The Trojans are led by Pete Carroll, whose calling card as a coach has long been his defensive prowess, and that was delivered on a national stage last year.  The defense lost some key pieces, but still boast three different players in their front seven who are on national watch lists for post-season awards.  And their front four may be the toughest seen in the Pac-10 in years.

But for some strange reason, this team who allowed just 18 points in their first two combined games sits in the middle of the Pac in team defensive stats.  They rank 7th in total defense (364.0 ypg), two spots below Stanford.  Their scoring and rushing defenses are awfully impressive however, so it must be the passing game that is hurting them.  Indeed, Cheaty Petey has frowned at his league-worst passing defense of 292.8 yards per game.

Stanford has had two weeks to tune the offense, and address any shortcomings.  Crazy though it might sound, there appears a legitimate shot here for Stanford to get the ball moving in the air in South Central tomorrow night.  But for a passing offense that is managing a ridiculous 5.03 yards per attempt, there needs to be a greater focus on moving the ball further down the field.

One thing that could help is some improvements in health at key positions for the offense.  Right tackle Mike Sullivan resumed full-time duty during the last week and a half of practices, which should help shore up protection on that side of the line.  The fullback position was a more glaring hole, with both Cooper Blackhurst and Pat Jacobs out of action in the Washington game.  Blackhurst has taken all the work in practice this week at the position, but his absence also provided the impetus for a little innovation at fullback.  We reported previously that freshman defensive tackle Nick Frank took some work at fullback, but be aware that there is yet one more wrinkle in store that may be revealed this week.  These improvements at fullback hopefully will help punch the ball through short yardage situations, but also can pick up the blitzing linebacker and give Trent Edwards another half-second to throw the ball.

Schematically and technically, there is work directed at a more efficient and productive passing game as well.

"First of all, the quarterback needs to step up and throw the ball - not wait to make the throw," offers offensive coordinator David Kelly.  "The wide receivers also need to take the exact routes and alignment we ask of them.  When they wind up just slightly out of phase, we get an incompletion.  I was very please with the job our receivers did in the first two games, but I was not as pleased with the University of Washington game.  We need the same mentality and intensity through all of our games."

As you look at the receiving corps, one great rising star who is making his mark is Mark Bradford.  "He has outstanding ability," Kelly comments.  "He does something in practice every day that makes you say 'Whoa!'  But he is still a freshman and you can't teach experience.  He was in the Washington game for 40 plays, at least.  What will help him is playing time.  Mark is now going against guys with equal ability; he cannot simply dominate based on his athleticism like in the past."

Earlier this week Trent Edwards was watching film of the most recent Monday Night Football game with head coach Buddy Teevens, to study what Peyton Manning does well at the quarterback position.  But during their session, Teevens remarked to his redshirt frosh QB that Mark Bradford reminds him of Marvin Harrison.  That's heavy stuff to pile on a true freshman's shoulders.  Bradford hopefully care bare the yoke this weekend when he returns to his hometown of Los Angeles, against the program that recruited him harder than any other in the country.

"He's a very, very good athlete," Carroll says of the one great receiver he failed to haul in last February.  "We thought he was a heck of a football player and it's great to see him make special plays early in his career."

The other frosh receiver finding his role increase is Evan Moore.  The two-sport star has not received the number of snaps in games of his classmate, but these past two weeks were a big push forward in his role on the team.  More than just the trademark corner fade to the endzone, Moore has been running out patterns and crossing routes this week in practice.  Much in the same way that the talented tight ends on this team provide big targets for the quarterback, Moore can pull in the high balls in the middle of the defense.

Edwards, Bradford and Moore in fact were the last players to leave Thursday's practice held in Stanford Stadium.  They stayed an extra 15 minutes to work on throws and routes in the redzone.

"Mark Bradford and Evan Moore really stepped forward these two weeks," Teevens proclaims.  "They have a better understanding of the offense and what they have to do.  We really wanted to give more work to the younger players, who need it the most right now.  T.J. Rushing is practicing with a lot of confidence right now.  Michael Okwo is really making an impact on special teams."

The other frosh who Cardinalmaniacs™ are screaming for is tailback David Marrero.  He opened people's eyes with the long end-around he broke in Seattle, though it was tragically called back on a phantom penalty.  One reason you didn't see more of Marrero after that play is that he came off the field gimpy and had his knee examined.  The good news is that there was no tear or damage.  Instead, there was a strain on a part of the body which few of us can relate to - physiologically.

Most humans have two tendons that attach a calf muscle in your lower leg to your knee.  Marrero has three, however, and one of them was bothering him after that play.  Having three does not physically limit or impair Marrero as a runner, but he currently has some pain he has to play through.

Though right now the speedy back says his focus is on pass protection in the offense.  "That's one of the little things I've really tried to improve upon the last two weeks," the Florida phenom says.  "That isn't something I had to do much of in high school."

If you were able to watch the Washington game, you may have noticed that Marrero spent more time when he was in the game split out as a receiver, rather than in the offensive backfield.  "I love it actually," he professes of the receiving role.  "That is a place where I can show my skills better because it's just you and the linebacker."

Marrero, Teevens and Kelly all say that his usage in the offense this weekend will depend on situations, and there are a few things geared especially for him.  When I asked Kelly how much would be running the ball versus receiving, he looked back with his trademark grin.  "Now that much I can't tell you," he replied.  "But I can say that as David Marrero gets more experience, he will continue to play more."

One receiver who has been somewhat mysterious by his absence in games through this young season is redshirt junior Nick Sebes.  He is one of the true veterans in the young receiving corps, and he has had some very strong practices dating back to the August training camp.  Kelly explains that it is not entirely Sebes' fault that he has spent some time on the sidelines.

"Nick had some nagging injuries and went through a time where he could not perform up to his abilities," the OC explains.  "But he has had a good last couple weeks, and you will see him play more and more prominently soon."

Of course the centerpiece of a passing offense is the quarterback, and there has been no shortage of attention to improvement for Trent Edwards.

"It's been like a camp," the Los Gatos product says of the extra bye week.  "There were some minor things we worked on, like where my elbow is when I throw, and not taking an extra step.  We're also tweaking some depth on routes and blocking schemes.  For example we have a play underneath we run that hasn't produced as much yardage as we'd like, so we're working on going through that pattern faster.  We'd like to open the play faster and take some pressure of the O-line."

Both Edwards and Marrero say that the throws in this offense are opening up, and they expect a continued progression of what they will be allowed to do this weekend.  "This weekend will bring out everything," Marrero opines.  "We can't hold anything back.  We're going to use all the weapons we have."

Teevens says one reason they will try to do so is the improvement he sees with his quarterback.  "Trent seems much more comfortable, and he really had a good week," the coach offers.  However, he also notes that the number two, Chris Lewis, has performed very well.  "Chris has been practicing very well, and it's hard to not be impressed with his attitude and concentration.  He is obviously frustrated to not play, but his focus has not suffered.  I told him this week that he can step in and play at any time.  There is no pre-determined rotation, but the quarterback play will be based on production."

Speaking of production, a theme in practices this week has been that Edwards and the first team offense have struggled mightily in moving the chains in the two-minute offense, while Lewis and the second team offense have been quite successful.  It is worth cautioning that only one series is given to each QB in each practice, so we don't have a lot of data points.  Furthermore, there are some distinct drop-offs at the cornerback position when you go to the second team defense, which Lewis has exploited.  But those successful drives by Lewis make both fans and coaches confident that this fifth-year senior could pick up the offense if it stalls.

Running Into Trouble - Though this article was intended to explore the passing offense, I do want to make a note on the Stanford running game and its prospects this weekend.  Teevens has said that he would like to control the ball with the running game.  Carroll has also said that his defense's first focus is stopping the run.  If you take both coaches at face value, that might be the real battle in this game as Stanford tries to move the ball down the field.  My opinion is that the Cardinal would lose that battle, and probably the war (game), if they use the run to setup the pass.  I think the front seven is USC's strength, and they can stuff Stanford's backs.  This is a game where Stanford has to stretch the field and keep the Trojan linebackers on their heels.  If it's ball control you want, then release your tight ends and Cooper Blackhurst off blocks and dump the ball to them.  But if Stanford wants to run all day, I imagine too many three-and-out situations.  And with how good USC's kicking and punting appears, that presents a losing game of field position.  The ball has to go to the air early and often to set the tone for this game...


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