Immediately after the conclusion of the Washington game, where Stanford won 27-13 but played their worst game of the season, Cardinal players shouted in unison their displeasure with their performance. 'It did not feel like a win.' 'This is not Stanford Football.' 'We have to treat this like a loss and play better.'
They were correct in their assertion that such sloppy football would net losses rather than wins as they faced better opponents and road challenges in subsequent weeks. It took just seven days to prove as much, when Stanford made mistake after mistake on Saturday in South Bend and handed the game on a silver platter to of all people, Tyrone Willingham and the rival Fighting Irish. What disturbs us most about the loss to Notre Dame is not the fact that they dropped an imminently winnable game that they controlled right off the bat, or even that the loss came at the hands of "that guy." The most distressing take-away from the loss is the fact that the Card talked the talk a week earlier and poignantly recognized how sloppy their play was against the Huskies, and still they made no recognizable progress in their next game.
One theory might go to the practice field. The old adage is that you play like you practice, and more often than not, that holds. Redshirt sophomore Cardinal quarterback Trent Edwards was the man in focus after the Washington loss, given this uncharacteristic gaffes in decision-making that led to three costly interceptions. He admitted immediately after the game that the preceding week of practices had been lethargic and sloppy. You play like you practice.
But this past week of workouts was a marked contrast. For Edwards in particular, it was a tight and focused week of previously unseen execution. Tuesday afternoon's practice was the one day spent in full pads, with the closest simulation to game physicality. One offensive coach said afterward that it was the best he had ever seen Edwards throw, and the most fantastic productivity from the passing game yet this fall. Over on the other side of the ball, junior defensive end Julian Jenkins vouched for the superb week of workouts across the entire roster.
"It was our best week of practice this year," Jenkins maintains. "The intensity was there; the enthusiasm was there the whole time. There was no letdown all the way through the week 'till we boarded the plane."
A lax week of practices does not appear to be the culprit for the magnified misfires in South Bend. That being said, Buddy Teevens says he is going to tweak practices a bit this week to spur his players to a higher competitive level by setting up more sessions where the top offensive and defensive units battle. Typically during the season, practices pit the first and second team units against third team "scout" units that mimic the upcoming opponent. That scout component of practices cannot be subtracted, but we supposedly will see more #1 vs #1 and #1 vs. #2 battles in both scrimmage and skeleton competitions. Teevens, however, does not want to dramatically change the game week schedule or habits in a reactionary fashion.
"The one thing you don't want to do is to create an aura of panic," the head coach contends. "I don't have concerns about our ability. We just haven't had the execution."
Teevens also says that the persons who have made critical mistakes in the last two games are not yet on the chopping block for depth chart movement... though recidivists have little slack remaining.
"If it's consistent, we'll make a switch," he declares. "If not, then it happens to the best of them."
The one most plausible theory to explain the multitude of mistakes the past two games is that gameday focus by many, or at least some, players is being measured by the quality of their opponent. When a chest-pounding BYU came into town fresh off an upset win over Notre Dame, Stanford manhandled the Cougars and (in rare fashion) dominated through the final three quarters. When #1 ranked USC visited Palo Alto, all phases of Cardinal Football reached a new gear in the near-upset. But as soon as the lowly Huskies came calling, and then a middling Irish squad the next week, there was apparently a less electric focus on Saturdays.
"The concern that a few people have voiced is that we play to the level of our opponent," explains fifth-year senior wide receiver Greg Camarillo. "Washington - they're not a very sound team, and it wasn't a sound game. We won based on our athleticism and natural ability. Against Notre Dame, we again didn't play to the level of our abilities."
One concern in particular comes in Camarillo's arena. The "big three" wide receivers (Mark Bradford, Evan Moore and Justin McCullum) have all dropped balls and/or run routes incorrectly in key spots the past two weeks. It is ironic that the wideouts have let down the team and offense when it has been their surging talents that have been the best surprise feel-good story of 2004 Stanford Football. As a group, they recognize the responsibility they carry and the importance of their play.
"After watching the film from last week, it was obvious if the wide receivers catch balls, we win that game. If our number is called, we have to make the play. The whole offense rests on us. We are the people who are going to move the ball down the field," Camarillo contends. "Coach [Ken] Margerum has said from Day One, though, that he wasn't going to yell at anyone for a dropped ball because it isn't intentional."
If Margerum doesn't want to do the yelling, perhaps teammates will. The dropped passes have been costly each of the past two weeks, and they were a focal failure at Notre Dame. As Jenkins says, it was a fine line between the grand and the grotesque in South Bend that turned a win into a loss.
"We did a lot of great things throughout the game, but I would say there were maybe 10 plays... 10 plays that made the difference in the whole game," says the disgusted defender.
He's absolutely right, though we give you here a wider list of critical errors that sank Stanford last Saturday in South Bend.
- 1st & Goal at the Notre Dame nine-yard line and Trent Edwards has good pass protection but stays back. Right tackle Jeff Edwards pushes his defender, correctly, back and away but the Stanford quarterback does not step up into the pocket. The unnecessary pressure forces a throw-away and torches a golden down inside the 10-yard line.
- 2nd & Goal on the same series, left tackle Jon Cochran whiffs on the block of Victor Abiamiri on a running play that could have had great success on his side of the field. If that block holds, there are three players out in space to block just a pair of Irish defenders, with a lot of green for operation. Instead of moving the ball closer to the goalline, the two-yard loss sets up 3rd and Long and ultimately a field goal.
- Notre Dame punts for the second straight time to start the game, with D.J. Fitzpatrick on his own 19-yard line. Timi Wusu runs through the protection and has a clear line on Fitzpatrick but astonishingly fails to make the block despite hovering over the punter.
- 3rd & Goal for Stanford on their next series, at the Notre Dame three-yard line. Edwards has time and finds McCullum just across the goalline, but the receiver has the ball bounce out of his hands as he hears footsteps. He is rocked by safety Chinedum Ndukwe, but the ball was already off his mitts by that point. He was going to take the hit either way, and he left his team with three points instead of seven on the 75-yard drive.
- Next series Notre Dame has the ball, they sit back on their own 21-yard line and face 3rd and 9. Maurice Stovall catches a short pass and is met by Leigh Torrence just across the 25, but the cornerback goes low and does not wrap up a leg, allowing the Irish player to keep moving forward for an 11-yard pickup. Notre Dame picked up a pair of first downs on the series and were able to punt Stanford back into their own 11-yard line, rather than the favorable field position they would have netted on the three-and-out. The Cardinal offense never scored again that half, and the losing field position battle stemming from that play would soon give the Irish the ball back in a position where they were able to score their first and only field goal of the half.
- 3rd & 8 for Stanford on their third series, back at their own 27-yard line. Bradford gets open and goes up for a ball out at the 40 but drops it after putting both hands on the pigskin. The ball was a little high, but that is precisely the type of play that the wideout has made throughout his high school and college careers - attacking the ball in the air. Stanford punted for the first time in the game and lost their offensive momentum for the rest of the half.
- Notre Dame takes the ball and on first down seizes the available mo' by hitting tight end Jerome Collins for a 21-yard pickup that gave their offense life for the first time in the game. On play-action, it was Cardinal inside linebacker Kevin Schimmelmann who was caught starting at the backfield as Collins ran by. By the time the Stanford defender realized his mistake, Collins was running free for confidence-establishing big play for the Irish.
- Two plays later, the inside linebackers for Stanford again ran afoul of trouble as Schimmelmann and David Bergeron twice ran into each other on a running play and were twice blocked by a single Notre Dame player. That left a gaping hole for Darius Walker to run through, and he picked up 19 yards to charge up the Irish. They managed only three more yards on the series but were able to kick a field goal after moving the ball 40 yards on two blown Stanford defensive plays.
- Stanford gets the ball back and looks like they will pick up an offensive first down on their fourth straight series when Moore catches the ball at the marker, but he then fumbles it out of bounds and loses two yards. The Card fail to pickup the needed 3rd and 1 and are forced to punt... only saved by a running into the kicker call.
- Blessed by that second chance, Stanford picks up 23 yards on the next two plays and move near field goal range in Notre Dame territory. But they march backward 13 yards the next two plays and drown their scoring chances. On 2nd and 3, the Irish send a blitzling linebacker, which Ismail Simpson opts not to pick up. The Stanford left guard instead blocks a threat on his outside shoulder, which leaves left tackle Jon Cochran with nobody to block. Derek Curry runs unmolested through Trent Edwards for a huge sack. Stanford is rattled and fails to get the next play off, resulting in a delay of game penalty. They soon punt away harmlessly.
- Stanford is moving at a rapid clip through the Irish defense once again, this time moving the ball 60 yards to the Notre Dame 20-yard line. On first down, Edwards and Moore miscommunicate on a passing play, as the quarterback throws well behind where the receiver continues to run down the sideline. That sets up long yardage on second down.
- On third down, Stanford throws out to J.R. Lemon in the flat, with loads of green around him. He has one blocker leading ahead of him in senior tight end Alex Smith. Smith whiffs on the block, and that defender makes a tackle in the open field to end the play at a meager two-yard gain. Stanford kicks a field goal for the third time in three red zone possessions.
- Notre Dame faces 3rd and 3 on their first possession of the half when Bergeron loses sight of Collins for a split-second, allowing the Irish tight end to get free for a catch past the first down marker. Bergeron then makes a weak lunge to punch the ball from behind, rather than tackle the ballcarrier. Oshiomogho Atogwe bounces straight off Collins next, and Schimmelmann whiffs in the open field. It takes a fourth defender, Brandon Harrison to wrap up the lumbering tight end after a 17-yard gain.
- The Irish manage to march backward on a holding penalty that sets back their drive with 1st and 20 near midfield. On play-action, they throw deep to Stovall, who is tightly defended by Harrison. But Harrison mistimes the jump for the ball, for the second time in two weeks on such a play, and the 43-yard play puts the Irish in fantastic position at the Stanford five-yard line.
- The defense stands tall the next two plays against the run and should have seen a third down, but Babatunde Oshinowo grabs a face mask and gives Notre Dame a fresh four downs from the one-yard line. The extra downs proved huge, as it was not until fourth down of the next set that Notre Dame was able to punch the ball in for the touchdown. It gave Notre Dame their first lead of the day at 10-9 and exponentially grew their confidence.
- Stanford strikes back and takes the lead with their first touchdown of the day. The Irish offense is still sputtering, but the Card offense cannot put Notre Dame away. On their next possession after taking a 15-10 lead, Edwards and Moore misconnect in strange fashion once again on an out pattern on 1st and 10. Stanford ends up having to punt three plays later, and disaster strikes...
- Redshirt frosh punter Jay Ottovegio seizes up on the punt and bobbles the ball on a decidedly good snap. He drops it in front of him, and even though there were no Notre Dame players threatening nearby for a block, he cannot get off the kick by the time he picks it up again. The ball is turned over on the play at the Stanford 27-yard line, handing the home team an incredible position to retake the lead.
- Notre Dame is in golden position for the score after the Ottovegio fumble, and they take to the ground every play as they inch forward. On 2nd and Goal from the three-yard line, they run wide to the strong side of the field, but Jared Newberry allows himself to get blocked by a fullback and loses contain. Ryan Grant runs almost untouched into the endzone for the go-ahead and deciding touchdown.
- Stanford trails just 16-15 and has moved the ball well all game when they have avoided drops or penalties, so there is little sense of panic or concern. But the Cardinal start to decisively lose the field position battle in the one-point game. On each of the next two drives, they commit second down penalties that keep them buried deep in their own territory and force punts. The first foul is a holding penalty on Mikal Brewer after he misses his block and grabs at his defender's legs to attempt to impede his progress. The second flag comes when Moore pushes off on a passing pattern and is called for offensive pass interference.
- But those miscues might have been overcome, if not for the hands of Stanford's receivers on subsequent plays. Moore had a ball in his hands twice on the same play, beyond the first down marker, on the first of those two possessions but could not come up with it. The worse sin came on the second series when Bradford was wide open 17 yards downfield on a 3rd and 16 and flat dropped a gimme pass. Those failures sucked the last offensive momentum out of the Cardinal, and allowed the middling Irish offense to eventually score again on a short field.
- It still took a pair of huge miscues by the Stanford defense, though, to allow Notre Dame to make that score. On first down, Stanley Wilson was down the field on a pass coverage and had the ball thrown to him with better accuracy than most receivers can ask for, right in the bread basket. The Cardinal cornerback dropped the automatic turnover and left Notre Dame with the ball. They threw his way two plays later on 3rd and 8, and he badly blew his coverage on Rhema McKnight, resulting in a 34-yard pass play down to the 11-yard line. Notre Dame scored three plays later and essentially put the game on ice.
- Despite their innumerable transgressions, Stanford is down eight points - one touchdown and two-point conversion. They have a little more than four minutes on the clock and start with decent field position at the 35-yard line. But the quickly move backward on a Brian Head false start and set up 1st and 15. It soon reaches 3rd and 6, when Alex Smith runs a pattern over the middle and makes an open catch... but he cut his route off one yard short and leaves 4th and 1. If he runs the route the correct depth, Stanford has a new set of downs near midfield. Instead, they end up turning the ball over on downs.
- To throw salt in the wound, a miscommunication in the huddle on fourth down leaves Trent Edwards scrambling to yell corrected instructions to his offensive teammates in the formation. Too much time elapses and he has to burn a time out. That time out would later have been a huge boost when Notre Dame ran clock and then handed Stanford just 15 seconds of clock left in the game.
- On the 4th and 1 play, Stanford runs a draw play from the shotgun, but Edwards and Lemon do not cleanly connect on the hand-off. That slows Lemon's momentum toward the line of scrimmage, and he is tackled inches short of the first down.
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