The USC loss was demonstrative but not unexpected. The Oregon loss was a wake-up call. The Oregon State loss was one of historically horrific proportions. The Big Game letdown last week was like an IMAX presentation of a train wreck. But this 57-7 meltdown against a completely unremarkable Notre Dame team puts this Stanford Football program at rock bottom. The point differential clearly outstrips the other losses this year, but it was the completely ineffective manner in which all three aspects of the team played in this game that is so striking.
On the first play from scrimmage for the Irish, it became immediately clear that something was missing from the Stanford squad. Julius Jones ripped a 25-yard run through the Cardinal defense like Sherman marching through Atlanta. Then Jones raced to an 18-yard pickup on the next play. And he would add 15-yard and 10-yard runs in the drive that finished with an easy touchdown. His runs were so successful because a beleaguered Irish offensive line was blowing Stanford's front four off the ball, and Jones was running through multiple tackles on each play. Both were signs that the team two teams were playing with different energy levels. The Card looked like they came out flat in this game, and they would not wake up anytime soon.
The Stanford offense could muster only two first downs in the first quarter - with one coming on a pair of short receptions to Alex Smith and Luke Powell; the second on a 12-yard scamper by David Marrero. And here they were also losing the battle at the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame's pass rush put heavy pressure on Cardinal quarterback Chris Lewis, forcing him to scramble often and hurry his throws. He suffered three sacks in the first quarter alone, and on the plays when he did have some protection Lewis' throws were mostly off the mark.
To make matters worse, punter Eric Johnson was having an uncharacteristically weak day punting the ball. Four of his first five punts were under 40 yards and averaged 33 yards. A 30-yarder was returned 44 yards to Stanford's 14-yardline, setting up a quick two-play score on a pair of runs.
The passing defense was not torched as badly as the rush defense, as measured by total yardage (192 vs. 320), but big plays were too easy for the Irish in the air. Their second touchdown came on a long toss by freshman Brady Quinn to Matt Shelton for a 65-yard score. Later in the game a 45-yard strike from Quinn to Maurice Stovall notched Notre Dame's sixth touchdown in a 41-0 shutout effort.
To put the lopsided outcome in perspective, the Irish defense scored more points (12) than Stanford's offense (six). Those two scores came on a pair of fumble returns: the first when Mark Bradford was dubiously "stripped" of the ball as he was tackled to the ground at the end of a 13-yard reception; the second was a Chris Lewis fumble as he scrambled for his life out of the pocket. The 113 fumble return yards for Notre Dame almost matched Stanford's entire rushing offense on the day, which gained 121 yards on the ground (though gave back 101 in losses and sacks).
Even the Irish special teams outscored Stanford's offense. Their kicker put seven points through the uprights, and their punt coverage oversaw another two points on a high long snap that Eric Johnson recovered at the goalline and ran back out of the endzone for a safety.
Rehashing the remaining ND scores is neither instructive nor enjoyable, but some there were interesting plays for Stanford the rest of the way...
- Down 21-0 but not out of the game, Stanford put together the beginning of a drive when Lewis scrambled for a first down and then hit Justin McCullum for a five-yard sideline pattern to set up 2nd and 5 at Stanford's 37-yardline. The O-line gave Lewis nice protection against a weak four-man ND rush and took a five-step drop. Gerren Crochet was sprinting down the left sideline and had a couple steps on cornerback Dwight Ellick. The ball was three yards ahead of Crochet and an incompletion instead of a touchdown.
- The very next play, on third down, McCullum runs a square to the sideline but cuts off his route a yard too early. Lewis completes the pass and McCullum runs out of bounds a yard short of the marker.
- The defense holds the Domers to a three-and-out and gives Lewis and the offense the ball back, but on first down center Drew Caylor steps on his quarterback's left foot and sends him flat on his back for a three-yard loss.
- Punter Eric Johnson is arm tackled as he boots a punt by Matt Shelton but no flag comes out as the official signals for a deflection by the defense. There was nothing remotely resembling a piece of the ball on that play, which would have been a roughing call and moved the ball for the first time into Notre Dame territory. It was just that type of day...
- On Notre Dame's next series Quinn throws an errant long pass into the endzone that is picked off easily by strong safety Trevor Hooper. It was Hooper's team-leading third interception on the season, all of which came in November.
- The Irish score their fourth TD but T.J. Rushing comes around the corner for a diving block of the extra point. That was the third block by a Stanford player this season.
- In the final minutes of the half, Stanford puts together its best drive including two fourth down conversions. The first was a QB keeper by Lewis for two yards while the second was an ugly pass that Alex Smith hauled in for three yards. The Card cross midfield and on 2nd and 14 Greg Camarillo gets past two defenders down the field but is overthrown at the 10-yardline, erasing yet another golden longball touchdown opportunity.
- The next play Bradford catches a pass on the sideline just short of the first down marker and pushes against four defenders for a final yard, only to have the ball stripped as he hit the ground. A Notre Dame defender picks it up and runs the other way while bewildered officials follow and signal a touchdown. Replays showed that Bradford was down, but once again it was a day where everything went south for the good guys. Now 34-0, all the wind was completely sucked out of Stanford's sails.
- Bradford had a chance for some small measure of revenge when on the first play of the second drive of the second half he scored a 65-yard touchdown. Lewis gave a play-action fake to J.R. Lemon, and the defense bit while Bradford raced down the field. Lewis underthrew the ball enough that his target had to turn all the way around to face Lewis to catch the ball, but after the catch he made a nifty move against a defender and took an angle into the endzone.
- The defense gives Stanford fans a little more hope with a three-and-out, and then freshman Michael Okwo blocks the punt to give Stanford the ball in enemy territory (block #4 on the year). But Chris Lewis snuffed out any whimper of momentum with two straight one-play "drives." He threw an interception at the goalline in an inexplicable double-team against 5'8" Luke Powell on the first; he fumbled the ball on a scramble the next play/series, which was returned for a score.
- Lewis finally got the hook when Stanford had the ball early in the fourth quarter, when Kyle Matter took over. Matter threw 8-for-10 for 63 yards in a series of short completions, and in both drives he moved the ball. The first drive was undone by a sack and fumble that put Stanford in a 2nd and 34 hole from which they could not emerge. The second ended at the Notre Dame eight-yardline on a failed fourth down run by David Marrero.
It was in toto, a comedy of errors. If only it were funny.
It is noteworthy that on this day two other college football programs took decisive action at their head coaching positions. Conference foe Arizona made an inspiring hire in Mike Stoops, the co-defensive coordinator from Oklahoma. Nebraska sent shockwaves through the country by firing Frank Solich, despite a 9-3 record this year and a 58-19 record over his six years as the head man in Lincoln. Two years ago Solich's Cornhuskers played Miami in the National Championship. Today he is cruising the coaching want ads.
In the context of just those two events on this Saturday, Stanford fans will understandably be up in arms. Four of the Cardinal's seven losses this year were humiliating blowouts, and only one of them came at the hands of a team with clearly superior talent (USC). But this one stings the most. This loss came at home. This loss was the worst point-differential for a losing Stanford team in the history of Stanford Stadium. This loss came at the hands of a pathetic Notre Dame team that has struggled the last two years to do anything even remotely explosive on offense. And this loss came at the hands of the most despised head coach in America on Cardinalmaniacs' hit list.
The tone was set early for the return of the Evil One, as he led his team racing onto the field during Stanford's pre-game senior introductions. And in a moment of timing dripping with irony, the 'Rone did so during the recognition of senior offensive tackle Kirk Chambers. The head coach who left the Cardinal with the most ridiculously empty cupboard of offensive line recruiting in Division I football chose to send his troops trumpeting during the send-off of the one standout senior OL talent he recruited.
It was a 'let them eat cake' move that was every bit as disreputable a return for Willingham as was his manner of departure 23 months ago. How nauseatingly fitting.
Then when his Irish were up a cool fifty points (for the entirety of the fourth quarter), long bombs were thrown 40 and 50 yards down the field. But the coldest cut of all came with four minutes left in the game when Notre Dame called a fake punt and threw on 4th and 17. Irish punter D.J. Fitzpatrick took the long snap and threw to true freshman (and one-time Stanford recruit) Chinedum Ndukwe, though T.J. Rushing was right on his hip and tackled the receiver before he could gain even a yard after the catch. Ndukwe was a full four yards short of the first down marker, turning the ball over on downs to Stanford, though the underhanded attempt by the Irish was further punctuated by a personal foul on Ndukwe. He was tackled by Rushing and fell out of bounds, and in frustration he kicked Rushing from the ground with his cleats and drew an immediate flag.
Notre Dame and Willingham defenders will charge that the fake was an audible, justified in any football situation where a gunner is left uncovered as Ndukwe appeared to be. But Rushing was in fact backpedaling before the ball was snapped, which is precisely why he made such a quick tackle on the play and prevented a first down. Regardless of formations and movements, it was a sinister playcall that is completely inexcusable when leading 57-7. It was a play that should live in the minds of both Stanford players and fans for as long as Public Enemy #1 remains in South Bend, and it should extinguish any lingering feelings of warmth or fondness for the man who was a head coach seven years on The Farm.
He crossed over all ethical boundaries last year when David Marrero and Mark Bradford were both told during their recruitment that they could not gain admission to Stanford. You could possibly excuse those actions because Willingham was such an ignorant and lazy recruiter while at Stanford that it is par for the course that he would incorrectly predict admissions outcomes, twice. But he has now delivered a direct insult to the entire Stanford program and fanbase with his actions. It is time to publicly label him as the enemy of Stanford Football that he is. No more invitations to the Legends Luncheon. No display of his visage in the media guide or during the introduction of the Athletic Department's self-produced weekly television show. We have seen the enemy, so let us no longer pretend he is anything else.
Switching gears completely, there are some verifiable reasons to smile about this ignominious 2003 finale. We said farewell to a good and noble group of seniors, who deserve fond remembrances at this time. Kirk Chambers played with talent, composure and strength during his 45 games on The Farm, all of which were starts. And not once this year did you hear him complain about the tweaks and bruises that left him limping more often than walking. Brett Pierce did not log the lofty number of receptions this year for which he had hoped, but he quietly was a dominating blocker throughout the season. Right tackle Mike Sullivan was Tyrone's whipping boy his first three years at Stanford, but the lineman worked hard at his craft and made some contributions as a blocking tight end last year, and a solid starter this year. And if you ask the offensive coaches, they will tell you he may have been the biggest surprise story of the year.
The passing connection from Chris Lewis to Luke Powell has seen its final day for the Cardinal, and both provided electric moments in their Stanford careers. Powell stretched the field both in the receiving and return games, while Lewis was on the passing end of some of the most fantastic comebacks in the program's history in 2000 and 2001. The two earned national acclaim at times during their careers, and justifiably so, but an offensive teammate who never earned an inch of print was walk-on fullback Pat Jacobs. He saw rare action on the field late in the fourth quarter, but he toiled anonymously in practices for the bulk of his contributions. Fellow fullback Cooper Blackhurst saw none of the glory that position mate Casey Moore enjoyed the last several years, and he was even knocked off the depth chart in 2003, but he played and practiced hard through injuries and never complained about his role.
Mr. Utility the last several years as been Drew Caylor, who played six positions in the last 12 months. It is hard to not wonder what could have been, if only Caylor had been groomed on the offensive line rather than defense during his formative Stanford years, but he played a crucial role in holding together this thin OL, with time at tackle and a half-season of starts at center. His long snapping this year was also a strong improvement over 2002, and that helped classmate Eric Johnson have a stellar year punting the ball. Punters are most often noticed for their gaffes and shanks, but think about how many times this year you marveled instead at Johnson's monster boots, which were a weapon in the uphill battles for field position.
On the defensive side of the ball, a pair of warrior linebackers played in their final game. Brian Gaffney has not topped the depth chart this year as a starter, but he has played regular and critical roles in every game. When other younger 'backers had lapses of lax tackling, Gaffney was a sure-armed answer who was quick to the point of attack and always wrapped up. The senior from Arizona also was a leader of the special teams turnaround, which was one of the true bright spots on the year. Jake Covault was a middle linebacker and classmate of Gaffney's, but Covault started his career limited by injuries and this year was relegated to a scout team role. I offer a salute to a talent who could have played regularly on other teams, but managed to keep his spirits high and effort strong as a senior in a scout capacity.
Up front Louis Hobson never lived up to his billing as the "next Charles Haley," but after hampered development in his early years with concussions and pulls, he rallied in a starting role this year. Though the defensive end did not deliver much on the stat sheets, he worked toward a lot of physical development the past two years and never lacked for effort on the field. Inside another Canadian senior bids farewell, though nose tackle Ian Shelswell came to Stanford in a much less ballyhooed fashion. The 320-pounder learned the sport of football from scratch after he was asked to walk-on, and he made incredible progress. Shelswell only made the field for a handful of defensive snaps this year, but he was a key part of the practice rotation and was a member of the field goal protection team before ending his season with a broken ankle.
The fifth-year seniors saw the Cardinal go to the Rose Bowl in their redshirt first year, and the enjoyed numerous team and individual glories. The three-game skid that concluded their careers is an unjust ending to their Stanford tenure, but they played with dignity and tenacity. Once you lift the angst of a horrific loss and the fury at Willingham's infantile return to The Farm, a dominating emotion on this day is the farewell to the seniors. May you all enjoy the sweetest of personal and professional successes in your post-Stanford years, and please come back for frequent returns to your college stomping grounds.
- Also in the "feel good" column, WR/QB David Lofton played in spread formations late in the game and recorded his first two receptions of his college career. He has suffered a tumultuous personal year as he has struggled with his offensive identity - receiver or quarterback? But on this day he snagged two tough balls on the sideline, including a nine-yarder for a first down in the opening moments of the fourth quarter.
- For the second straight game, we saw frosh tailback David Marrero in the game in the first quarter. That does not reach the threshold of utility we needed for his burned redshirt, but it was encouraging to see him open with a 12-yard run, the longest on the day for a Stanford running back. He finished with a solid 25 yards on five carries, as well as a nine-yard reception.
- Offensive tackle Jon Cochran has seen scarce little playing since Mike Sullivan returned from an early season foot injury and has held down the right side. But today he saw some fourth quarter action at right guard. Every bit of playing time helps toward next year, when I would expect Cochran to take the lead at right tackle.
- David Beall saw the bulk of action on the day at left guard, after starter Ismail Simpson limped off the field with a leg injury in the first half.
- It surely did not help Stanford's pass rush to go without star defensive tackle Babatunde Oshinowo. With the heart of a lion, he tried to go in this game but had to leave after the first few plays. His ankle simply could not hold up.
- Another ankle problem surfaced in the first quarter, when free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe rolled his left ankle early. True freshman Brandon Harrison came in for a couple series at free safety, and then later Harrison interestingly took over for redshirt freshman Trevor Hooper at the strong safety spot. Hooper did not appear to sustain injury, and he in fact snagged an INT midway through the second quarter. It appeared to be a coach's decision, but I will have to look into that...
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