As troubling as the 133-yard offensive output was in Corvallis last week, a blindside shocker came in the form of the 663 yards hung on Stanford's defense by the rabid River Rats. Stanford's run defense still statistically ranks as one of the tops in the conference and country, but a season high 222 net yards allowed to Oregon State should open your eyes. The 441 passing yards (also a season high) allowed by the Stanford defense should sufficiently staple your eyelids to your forehead.
That was ugly. And when you put the offensive ugly together with the defensive ugly, you find the sum total of a horrific disaster the likes of which most Cardinalmaniacs had never before seen. And thanks to the non-televised status of the game, most of us did not actually witness the calamity.
Take your pick of words to describe the confluence of such retched offense and defense in the same game. Either "breakdown" or "meltdown" do it for me. And from talking with players, coaches and attendees of that game, it has become increasingly clear that there was indeed a complete breakdown of the team in the game. That is not something we had seen this year, even when a four-game losing skid had many fans clamoring for arsenic and sharp objects.
"What happened at Oregon State was extremely disappointing," says head coach Buddy Teevens. "We allowed ourselves to be distracted. It had happened just a little in Oregon, but nothing like this. It is something I commented to the team at the half and afterward. We can't let ourselves get out of the game like that. Some of the oldest guys handled it OK - you didn't see it phase a Luke Powell, Kirk Chambers or a Brett Pierce, but a lot of other guys didn't handle it so well."
"That game was a lack of focus on our part," laments redshirt sophomore defensive end Michael Lovelady. "There were lots of distractions. We didn't play in the game with our heads on straight."
The distractions of which Teevens and Lovelady speak came both on the field and on the sideline. For lack of a more publicly PG-rated description, there were a lot of extracurricular activities from the Oregon State players and fans (Reser Stadium puts belligerent Beaver believers about as close to the sideline as you are from your monitor - in throwing and spitting distance, in fact) that affected a number of Stanford players. The Cardinal should not have allowed the antics to get into their heads, and the coaches should have done a better job reeling the boys back into the proper frame of mind. But it happened, and it broke the focus of the team midway through the first half. If you were a fan in attendance, you surely saw the play on both sides of the ball spiral downward after the first two or three series.
I won't provide any more detail or elaboration, for fear that the Cowards of Corvallis will twist it into fiery motivation for the River Rats next year. We already saw how Mike "Baba O" Riley completely distorted David Bergeron's perfectly innocuous quote on bowl eligibility last week into a manhood-threatening manifesto.
But if suffices to say that Stanford allowed the worst possible scenario of a road game to play out.
"All of the distractions of the road hurt us on Saturday," offers linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Tom Williams. "Most of it will be taken care of at home. But as a coach, how do you guard against it the next year? We need a way to address that, but we don't want to make as big an issue right now with the last two regular season games at home. And if we play in a bowl game, that will be a neutral site and not the same deal."
"We're still a very young team," Williams continues. "A lot of guys are playing in travel situations they haven't experienced before, and they have to learn to block out distractions and play football. If you look at our record, you can see how much better we have played at home. Look at Washington State, a top 10 team, and we had a chance to beat them. We played a top 10 team on the road, USC, and didn't ever give ourselves a chance."
You saw quotes from players after the Oregon State game where they said they had practiced well all week, and were firing on execution of their plays. But that all disappeared in the game. And as coaches across all sports know, without mental focus it is nearly impossible to execute at the level of your abilities.
"It wasn't an effort issue," Williams elaborates. "It was an execution issue. We gave up four big plays that we haven't given up all year. Those are plays we have defended all year. It was not a question of what Oregon State did to us; it was more of what we didn't do. There were structural breakdowns, and we haven't done that before."
Structural breakdowns mean that linebackers failed to hit their gap. Defensive backs were not in the correct corner of the field. It was indeed a total breakdown. The offense was no better. Throws were missed and blocks were missed.
So here is the problem with this matchup against Cal. They have a pretty good (if not very good) offensive line that looks even better because of the max protection schemes they employ. When you watch the game Saturday, watch how they use extra blockers to protect their quarterback against blitzing pressure. That was very effective against Stanford in the USC game. The Card recorded zero sacks that day. And with their inability to get to Derek Anderson last week, I have no confidence that I can reasonably project that the Stanford pass rush will get home in the 106th Big Game.
"We need to continue the same things we have been doing," Tom Williams offers. "We have to keep applying pressure, but we have to be smart about when we do it. And when we do bring it, we have to win the one-on-one matchups."
That may sound contrite, but against a max protect, you do have to succeed in some individual matchups. Scheme will not win the day because the offense has numbers to absorb just about any tactical blow you attempt.
One hope we hold is that the rising star of Michael Lovelady can break out and win some of those matchups. You have seen him play increasingly the last several games, and in practices I have seen him take more repetitions. Do not look for him to start tomorrow ahead of Louis Hobson, or next week against Notre Dame for that matter, but you should expect him to see more time.
That is, unless he is bothered by the stinger he suffered in Corvallis.
"Michael Lovelady has really progressed," Teevens says. "He is playing more responsibly and more diligently, and credit goes to Pete McCarty for getting him there. His athleticism is allowing him to get a better push when he plays a better game."
"I just consistently try to improve on one thing every day," Lovelady tells us. "I'm trying to learn the position better than I did in the past. I do a better job reading my guys, and I keep an attitude of getting to the ball."
Tom Williams is certainly pleased as he has seen the Texas pass rusher grow these past couple years. "I think he has earned an opportunity to play more," Williams says. "He has fewer mental errors and a better understanding of the defense. The light bulb is starting to come on a little brighter."
One hope that has been carried throughout the season is that freshman blazer David Marrero would see more time at tailback and have ample opportunities to display his wares. He is without a doubt the top breakaway threat in Stanford's offensive backfield, yet he has touched the ball in games scarcely more than you and me. Running him three, four or seven times in a game is not enough. Marrero is the type of player who will nudge... nudge... and then break the big one. But to crack that dam you have to give him enough swings with the pix axe. I have written a couple times previously this year that "this week" would be "the week" for the 4.3 speedster to get his ample opportunities, but it has not come to be. His carries have predominately come in garbage fourth quarter situations, either in mop-up victory duty or clock-killing blowout losses.
It is hard to disaggregate his scant opportunities as related to coaching confidence and injury inability. Marrero has not been completely well since early in the season, when he banged his knee in the Washington game on the famed 60-yard run that was called back on a questionable blocking penalty. That exacerbated a problem he has carried but only recently realized in his lower thigh, where he has three muscles and tendons connected to his knee where 299 out of 300 other people have just two. And in most people it is not a problem, but in a highly developed athlete like Marrero, the outer two muscles have grown to the point that they are pushing against the middle muscle and constraining/irritating it. This is not a structural knee injury, as most have believed, but instead a day-to-day inflammatory situation that can create so much pain as to keep him from running effectively.
Even in practice situations, he goes from one healthy and explosive Tuesday to a completely prone Wednesday with poor or nonexistent work. The good news is that Marrero looked fantastic this Tuesday, breaking more big play runs than I have seen all year, and then came back with an almost equally remarkable Wednesday. Good fortune may finally be smiling on Marrero and the Stanford running game. While there are never guarantees in a condition like this, he appears probable to be in an effective physical condition on Saturday.
"I want to make as big an impact as I can," the Florida flash says. "I've heard so much about the tradition and excitement of Big Game. I just want to go out and make plays, and bring that Axe back home where it belongs."
And if the pain returns?
"We have just two games left in the regular season, and I have to bear down and play through anything. I have to get myself on the field and help this team, no matter the pain."
Over on defense, one truly bright spot this year has been the play of free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. It has been poorly publicized that he is leading the Pac-10 conference and is second in the entire nation in forced fumbles - both total number and per game. His six successful strips on the year are not an aberration, as the much less meaningful recovered fumbles may be. When a ball pops out, it is often providence that provides a defender with a chance to pounce on the loose pigskin. But people who know football know that forcing the fumble is a deliberate and difficult act.
"It's just an instinctive thing," the redshirt junior describes. "You go up to the guy, wrap him up and pull it out. It's mostly attitude - getting to the ball and wanting it more than the other guy. It's a pretty meaningful statistic to me because I am taking the ball away and giving it to our offense for a chance to score."
But as Lawrence Taylor broke ground in the 1980s with his trademark swipe at the ball, there are also tricks and techniques that deliver fumbles beyond mere desire. So what is Atogwe's secret?
"Oh, I can't give away my secrets," the safety grins. "Then everybody will know. It is something I show my teammates, but you can't just pick it up in a hurry. It takes a long time for that technique and mentality to become totally ingrained in you, so that it becomes part of how you play defense. It has to become a habit."
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