Crash Landing

The fantastic dreams that were borne of a 2-0 start to Stanford's 2003 season have come crashing down to Earth with two straight losses. The UW loss hurt because it was a winnable game against an emminently beatable team. But Saturday night Stanford was thumped on both side of the ball by a clearly superior USC squad, 44-21. Read on for the lessons learned for Stanford's offense and defense in the loss.

This is not a game recap that will look to rehash the "what" in Saturday night's bloody affair in South Central. USC put up five touchdowns and 41 first half points, including a 27-0 lead early in the second quarter. They moved through the Stanford defense like Sherman through Atlanta, picking up huge chunks of yardage in the air to Mike Williams (all seven catches, three TDs and 129 yards in the first half) as well as on the ground by their dominating ground troika of Dennis, White and Bush (combined 6.3 yards per carry).

USC put together scoring drives of 77, 53 and 80 yards - all in the first quarter. They picked up an eye-popping 413 yards in the first half.

But for the first few minutes, it appeared that Stanford might have a chance to stave off the scoring onslaught. The Trojans penetrated inside Stanford's 10-yardline each of their first two possessions, but both times the Cardinal defense made redzone stands against the best redzone offense in the conference to hold USC to field goals. The defense actually forced the Trojans to punt on their third possession on a three-and-out (though it would be their only punt of the half).

The problem was that Stanford's anemic offense managed a grand total of nine yards and one first down on their combined first three possessions. On their fourth possession, redshirt freshman quarterback Trent Edwards found a little bit of a groove and picked up 50 yards to move the ball for the first time into USC territory. The key asset on that drive for the offense was tight end Alex Smith, who grabbed catches of 14 and 18 yards for a pair of first downs. But in a crushing blow Stanford could not get any points when Michael Sgroi's 37-yard field goal attempt was blocked.

The Trojans would quickly strike for touchdowns on their next two possessions, including a 25-yard drive after a horrible Edwards interception. The game was ostensibly out of reach at 27-0.

A minor miracle occured to give Stanford fans some faint hope immediately after that last USC touchdown, when Nick Sebes returned a kickoff 51 yards to the Trojan 45-yardline, racing down the sideline. Edwards would scramble for one first down, and a USC penalty would hand Stanford another. Then freshman tailback David Marrero would take a handoff to the left side, turning a 360 at the line of scrimmage and then exploding toward the pylon for a 15-yard score.

On the next play, redshirt junior Oshiomogho Atogwe met USC return man Marcell Allmond and ripped the ball from his hands. Atogwe then ran 22 yards for a score that shocked all 68,000 in attendance and closed the game to a two-score affair. Atogwe not only scored Stanford's first special teams touchdown of the year, he was also the stalwart on defense who recorded a game-high 12 tackles - many of which were the only barrier between a USC ballcarrier and paydirt.

Any hopes of a comeback were quickly dashed, though, as USC answered on their next two possessions with touchdown drives of 74 and 59 yards. Stanford would gain just three more yards in the half and had no offensive answer. The game reached a crushing 41-14 margin by the half, and the good guys just didn't have any answers for a high-powered USC team that was hitting on all cylinders.

There were numerous problems with the offense. Some throws were low. Patterns and schemes were largely aiming for small yardage outside the hash marks. And Trent Edwards was getting harrassed and pounded by USC's pass rush. Starting right tackle Mike Sullivan was quickly replaced by Drew Caylor after a very dismal start to the game, and then when starting center Brian Head was destroyed (likely torn ACL) later in the half, Caylor had to move to the center position and redshirt freshman Jon Cochran took over most of the duties at RT. This is Caylor's first year at the center position, and it showed with several missed blocks that led to big trouble in the offensive backfield.

"They didn't show us anything we hadn't prepared for," said redshirt freshman left guard Ismail Simpson afterward. "They stunted and blitzed, but the coaches prepared us well. It was exactly what we prepared for - that's what was so discouraging. We've got to play like we practice if we want to give our offense a chance."

Fortunes were little better on the other side of the ball. For the second game in a row, the opposing offensive coaching staff looked at Stanford's vaunted rushing defensive stats and laughed. The world thought that Washington, who has struggled to run the ball the last several years, would be vastly incapable of a ground game against Stanford's then-nation-best run defense. But the Huskies were markedly successful and picked up regular chunks of yardage on the ground. All USC did, to take the insult up a notch, was record their best running game of the season with 220 yards on the ground against Stanford. Read that again: USC put together its best running game of the year against Stanford's reputedly stout rushing defense.

One take-home note to that end is that the first two offenses Stanford faced this year were child's play with sub-Pac-10 quality offensive talents. Moreover those were two offenses hell-bent on throwing the ball, with neither the quantity nor quality of running plays offered. But I think the news is worse. I think USC showed a running attack that smartly probed Stanford's weakness. While other teams have largely run the ball up the middle - between the tackles - the Trojans took most of their runs outside with sweeps. Granted, they have the best speed and depth at the tailback position that Stanford will face all year, but schematically they were smart enough to keep their offense away from Amon Gordon and Babatunde Oshinowo. They challenged the Cardinal defensive ends to make plays out on the perimeter. Stanford's starting ends, Will Svitek (0) and Louis Hobson (2), managed a combined two tackles in the game. Julian Jenkins did not record any tackles; Michael Lovelady recorded a pair.

USC pulled its linemen and used extra blockers to run in front of those sweeps, then pancaking Stanford's outside linebackers to turn small runs into 8-12 yard runs for first downs. Kevin Schimmelmann in particular was brutalized. Though he performed fantastically in his first three games, particularly in open space, he was ill-suited to handle the blockers charging at him in these running schemes. That is why you saw so much Michael Craven as the game wore on, though he appeared to give little improvement.

Similarly, USC challenged Stanford outside pressure from the ends and OLBs to get to quarterback Matt Leinart with their max protection schemes. Pete Carroll and Norm Chow correctly identified that Stanford's only significant and threatening pressure to come from Gordon and Oshinowo in the interior. Protection schemes and double-teams kept both of those players at bay, with scarcely a hint of any pressure from either at any time of the game. The quick-developing passing plays of the USC offense also got rid of the ball in a hurry.

"When they take three-step drops, there isn't time to get anything done," lamented Gordon afterward.

"I was singled up twice all game," Oshinowo noted. "And both times I made tackles. They knew we were getting most of our push in the middle, and they schemed to stop us there. But the fact of the matter is that we missed a lot of tackles. We just didn't play well. The lesson learned is the same as last game - when we play well, we can beat anybody. But we will lose when we hurt ourselves with mistakes."

Those missed tackles were perhaps the most disappointing take-away from the defense in this game. USC ripped off their consistently productive runs not just because of their schemes or speed, but instead because Stanford failed to wrap up tackles on first contact. Time after time a Stanford defender got an arm on the ball carrier, and even a few times on Matt Leinart, but the Trojan would easily escape and pickup another five yards before Atogwe would end the play in the secondary.

"The tackling was atrocious," chastized linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Tom Williams afterward. "Part of that is because we were a step behind them at every point. [USC] is faster and stronger, and we had a hard time adjusting to their athleticsm. They also did a really nice job changing up their tendencies. The things they had done this season and we expected weren't all there. That's our fault as coaches, but we also learned that we have to bring our 'A' game every time out."

If there is any silver lining on this game, on either side of the ball, it would be the improvements in the second half. The defense made the biggest turnaround, allowing just 80 yards of total offense in the second half after giving up 413 offensive yards in the first stanza. It is true that the Trojans went to an 18-year old true freshman quarterback in the fourth quarter, and they played some players down their depth chart. But the starters played through the third quarter and managed just 11 yards passing on four attempts, while the running game picked up 34 yards on nine carries. USC certainly wanted to score when they went for a fourth-and-one conversion midway through the quarter on Stanford's 15-yardline. The Cardinal defense held the home team to a three-and-out the next series.

"In the second half we did play our game," Williams allows. "We competed better and tackled better."

On offense, fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Lewis made his first game appearance in five weeks, entering the game on the third drive of the third quarter. He handed off the ball the first three plays before attempting any throws. He would complete just two passes in the drive for a total of six yards, and he then fumbled the ball in USC territory to end the drive.

"It took a little while to get acclimated to the game," Lewis said after the game. "I wasn't hitting well on my first few throws. But I've been there before and I picked up. I felt pretty good. I've been there before."

Lewis did have some shaky throws and poor decisions, including an interception that ended his second possession. On another play, he roled out to his left and felt pressure before unloading a ball down field toward Mark Bradford in heavy coverage. His best moments, though, came in the fourth quarter on his third and final drive. He led the team 62 yards for a touchdown score, including 7-of-13 passing for 58 yards.

Lewis ended the day with 89 yards on 52.4% passing, while Edwards managed 67 yards on 42.1% throwing. Both threw one pick. Stanford has thrown exactly two interceptions in each of its four games this year.

"That last drive - we can do that all the time," Lewis opined. "Today we were just a little too uptight, and things got out of hand. The bye weeks are killing us, but we have seven straight from here on out and it will be good to keep up a game tempo every week."

Many players with whom I spoke after the game bemoaned the bye weeks, which have helped them stay healthy but have crippled their ability to get into a groove for the season. Even coach Tom Williams was displeased with how the bye week hurt his defense's ability to prepare themselves for this game.

"There's no question we were at a disadvantage heading into a game against a team like USC," he offered. "We can't hit and tackle in practice enough to stay sharp over two weeks for these kinds of athletes."

In the midst of all the carnage, it is very interesting to note the impact of the true freshmen in this game. Stanford's leading receiver was Evan Moore, who had no career college receptions before this game but hauled in five balls for 52 yards. Both touchdowns were recorded by true frosh, the first from David Marrero on a 15-yard scamper in the second quarter. The other score came on a deflected pass late in the fourth quarter which tight end Patrick Danahy smartly snagged in the back of the endzone. Some of the best hits and tackles came when Michael Okwo enterred the game as the weakside linebacker in the fourth quarter. Mark Bradford recorded the first start of what will be many in his Stanford career. Even in a team performance this dismal, it is remarkable these freshman contributions. I don't believe we have seen anything of that magnitude from a group of true frosh since Bill Walsh played his final recruiting class in 1994.

"It did feel good to get my first catches at Stanford," Moore said after the game. "It felt even better to get into a normal routine with the routes and catches on that last drive. I think I can help this team in all parts of the receiving game, not just the fade patterns."

Teevens said that he intended to bring his youngest players along during the bye week, and that much was accomplished. We can hope (we have to hope, for our sanity) that the frosh will continue to climb and can make the impacts that will turn and win a game sometime in these next two months.

But this team is not all about a youth movement. There are some extremely talented players with veteran starting and playing experience in their third, fourth or fifth years. And that brings us back to the ol' quarterback controversy. Lewis put together the most complete drive of the day, though he was facing USC's defensive reserves and took an incredible 18 plays to pick up 62 yards. To the Stanford fan watching this game, there is ample ammunition to fuel a controversy right now. There is some rational basis for putting Lewis in next week against Washington State. Though there is not very convincing evidence.

We will watch practices closely this week to see how the repetitions are split between Edwards and Lewis. Though in the heat of the postgame press questioning, Teevens tipped his hand that he is still leaning toward the redshirt freshman.

"I put Chris in to give him an opportunity to get on the field and get some snaps," the head man explained. "I told him to play your game and don't try to do anything special, and he did some positive things. Trent is still the number one guy right now, though."

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