What We Know So Far

On gameday, no matter the season and no matter the opponent, there are always an abundance of questions in the meandering minds of fans. Today is no exception, with a surging BYU squad coming to town. Their defense did a number of the Stanford passing game last year, and we additionally have a few concerns about the offense in the wake of Stanford's opener. Read on for what we best know today about the Cardinal, before tonight's clash with the Cougars.

  • The question on everybody's mind all week has been why the offense struggled to block and execute in the first half of the San Jose State game - for both the passing and running games.  It is a misconception that Stanford "wore down" the Spartans, and that was the explanation for the second half surge where the Cardinal outscored their opponents 28-3.  Instead, here is a better look at how the four quarters played out that warm Saturday evening.  San Jose State brought a new defensive coordinator to their team this year: Keith Burns.  Burns was out of coaching in 2003 after a three-year stint as head coach at Tulsa.  You have to go back to 1999 to find his last season as a DC (at Arkansas), and college football has evolved considerably since then.  There was a great unknown in how he would revamp the Spartan defense before the 2004 season opener at Stanford Stadium.  Stanford spent their time leading up to the game scouting four different defensive looks they anticipated as possible or likely that Burns would present: an eight-man front, a 46 Bear (the famed Buddy Ryan defense), a 4-3 and a 3-4 (which Stanford's defense runs).  Only in the first half did the Cardinal get a good look at what the Spartans were running, and it turned out to be primarily a 4-4 eight-man front.  That meant the offensive blockers were consistently overloaded at various spots where SJSU chose to attack.  If you watched the game and wondered why the offensive line could not block on several plays, it is because they were most often outnumbered.  One play that stuck out in my mind had left tackle Jon Cochran attempting to take on two defensive rushers coming at him on a pass play.  Cochran first engaged the inside rusher but then peeled off quickly to take on the edge rusher.  Admittedly, Cochran did make a mistake - he should have stuck longer with the inside man who had a quicker line to the quarterback.  Trent Edwards felt the brunt of that mistake with a big stick he took from the abandoned inside rusher.
  • At halftime the Stanford offensive staff made the adjustment to start using two tight ends as their base offense to increase their numbers against the eight-man rush.  Not coincidentally, the passing game started ripping up the gambling Spartan defense, and the running game mowed down the field.  That being said, there were still missed blocks on some plays by the offensive line, and you cannot pin them on any one player.  All five starters graded out in a very narrow range for this game - around the "B-" range.  Offensive line coach Steve Morton gave his group a subjective "C+" grade.  One position, though, where there has been some mistaken interpretation is at right guard.  Starter Josiah Vinson was the starter and did miss a couple blocks, so observers his movement to the sideline in favor of David Beall as a performance-induced substitution.  The truth is that Vinson had a bad stomach flu and was questionable close to kickoff as to his ability to play at all.  He gave all he could but was pulled out of the game when he could go no more.  The silver lining is that Beall played an excellent game, further strengthening his position as the top reserve on the offensive line.
  • Despite all of the above explanations, there still remains some real concern about the play of Trent Edwards.  He admitted afterward that he had "happy feet" and held on to the ball too long on too many plays, earning himself more hits than he rightfully should have taken.  Edwards will get himself killed if he repeats that performance when he faces more lethal defensive players in the next three months, and tonight may be a body-bag evening in particular.  Remember that Edwards set new futility marks last year against this deceptive and unpredictable 3-3-5 Cougar defense.  Playing at home and playing with another year of maturity should help him, but be prepared to see redshirt freshman T.C. Ostrander if Edwards takes too much of a beating tonight.  Edwards was hurting some in practices this week with a particular injury from the San Jose State game, and you can only wonder how long before BYU reinjures him tonight.  Should Ostrander have to take the field, it may be deja vu all over again.  Edwards as a redshirt frosh last year was wide-eyed and confounded by the unorthodox and unfamiliar looks that 3-3-5 gave him last year; Ostrander will be in the same position if he goes under center tonight.  One factor in Ostrander's favor, though, is playing at home.  The altitude and fan noise at LaVell Edwards Stadium last year were significant.
  • A couple more quick notes on the offense.  The most important aspect of the breakout games by Evan Moore and Justin McCullum last week is the breadth of preparation they now force defensive coordinators to take.  Coming into this season, very few observers believed that Stanford possessed any receiving threats beyond Mark Bradford.  But when Bradford catches just three balls for 25 yards in a game where the Cardinal romp to 43 offensive points, you realize the receiving corps has a much underappreciated depth.  If Stanford can line up three wide with Moore, McCullum and Bradford and get one or two of those players in single coverage, there should be some problems for opponents...  On the running game, I expect J.R. Lemon to get the start again tonight.  While the stats point to a superior performance by Kenneth Tolon, there is the added wrinkle of how they ran with or without the two-TE sets.  Tolon had some benefit running in the second half with those adjustments, while Lemon was out there during the most blind sets of series for the offense.  That all being said, I still think Tolon was indeed superior in his running.  Even when plays broke down, he had the quickness and shake to make yardage.  I think that the defense BYU will bring tonight will make it hard to open big holes for the Stanford running game, and you may be better equipped with Tolon's shiftiness and improvisation.  I expect the staff will run both backs and again go with the hot hand, but my bet is that Tolon will be the one doing the most damage tonight.
  • Over on defense, a key position to watch is the "rush" OLB spot that has been created in the new 3-4 Stanford scheme.  Jon Alston is the starter, and he logged the team's only quarterback sack on a backside pursuit.  But much more encouraging was the play of Timi Wusu in the game, largely on special teams.  He racked up a total of five tackles (four solo), which ranked third on the team.  He looked quick to the ball and wrapped up ballcarriers much better than the average Stanford player that evening.  Special teams play is a fast way for a defensive reserve to move himself up the depth chart and earn more playing time, and I think Wusu helped himself tremendously with his game.  Alston is a player who likely will need to be spelled often on the field this fall, and you have to take greater comfort in Wusu as a playmaker in that role.  Udeme Udofia also had a solid showing in his first ever college game, and you can expect OLB coach Tom Quinn to employ Udofia and Wusu in different situations when Alston comes to the sideline.  The two players have very different bodies and different strengths in pass coverage, run stopping and pass rushing.
  • On the defensive line we saw a tight rotation with senior defensive end Will Svitek out of action, following his knee infection that week.  There was primarily a three-man rotation at the two DE positions, and I saw Julian Jenkins on the field logging a heavy load of snaps.  Svitek is out again tonight, and it will be interesting to watch the effectiveness and stamina of the pass rushers.  But one interesting surprise was the play of Scott Scharff, who received the starting nod in Svitek's place.  Scharff did not show up in the stat sheet, even though he blocked a field goal that was erroneously credited to a teammate, but he was often in the backfield and provided a number of quarterback pressures.
  • One big disappointment on defense, though that is hard to say with a straight face after three shutout corners and just three total points allowed, was the lack of forced turnovers.  Several times the Cardinal defense had opportunities for interceptions or to recover a loose ball, but they came up empty - no INTs, no fumble recoveries.  These are two areas where this defense needs to excel this year.  The scheme positions players well to force turnovers - better than the defense employed the last two years.  When the cover personnel play zone schemes, they should be able to react to the ball and make plays.  You have better vision of the ball and should be able to react faster.  It will be surprising if this defense can look so solid the remainder of the season if they are not forcing turnovers.  This is a key to watch.
  • Finally, special teams looked pretty special in the opener, but keep in mind how little they were tested.  It is true and it is commendable that redshirt freshman Jay Ottovegio was so efficient with his "pooch" placement punts, but you also had to notice the stark absence of a formidable rush for him to face.  It is hard to tell whether Stanford's protection was that good or if San Jose's rush was that poor.  You may also note that Ottovegio only once had to punt for distance, and that boot had a disappointing trajectory - low with a short hangtime.  The field position will be tougher to come by the rest of this season, and Ottovegio will be better tested.  Still, his placement on those punts was better in one game than anything we saw in Eric Johnson's entire career.  Kudos also to long snapper Brent Newhouse, who was controlled and precise in his placements.  We have very little with which to judge the return game, given that San Jose kicked off only twice and only once was the ball returnable.  On punts, David Marrero spent half his time chasing after poor punts that were short and rolled.  For the record, special teams coach Tom Quinn gave his units just a "C" grade for the SJSU game.
  • Off topic, but speaking of Marrero, this BYU game tonight is a contest where Marrero really needs to, and should, shine.  The Cougar defense comes at you from unpredictable angles and can force your quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly.  Trent Edwards most certainly should be operating on a lot of three-step quick releases tonight.  It is harder to throw the ball down the field for big plays if they are forced to develop so quickly, but Marrero has that special burst and quickness to take short slants, screens or swing passes and break them for huge plays.  Marrero had a great week in practice - Tuesday was his best workout all fall thus far.  Look for him as a key to success in tonight's game, though he still is somewhat of a specialty/situational receiver.  He does not make sense on all passing patterns - not at all.  But he should have his chances tonight.
  • Finally, I caution against taking great hope from the lopsided score or statistics from the San Jose State game.  The one great strength we have seen over the last eight to 10 years from the Spartans has been their speed at the offensive skill positions, as well as their special teams playmaking ability.  On this night, it was painfully obvious how disarmed SJSU was in the game.  Their quarterback play was flaccid and their supposed all-world JC transfer running back looked quite human.  The speed at the wide receiver position was absent as well.  As a team, they piled up penalties and injuries, plus a rash of bone-headed plays - take the punt fair catch on the San Jose four-yardline, for example.  The only reason Stanford didn't spank the Spartans by 60 points was the inability to scout and better attack the new defense in the first half.  But make no mistake that this was a pitiful opponent that most solid Division I programs should have beaten up like Stanford did.  The Card rolled to a 40-point win, but head coach Buddy Teevens gave the team afterward just a "C+" grade.

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