Stanford finished the 2003 season with a 4-7 record.
Unsatisfied with that outcome, the players and coaches went back to the drawing board. The players' commitment to the 2004 season was evident from the start, as almost all of the kids spent the offseason busting their humps and getting ready for what would be a crucial year. Everyone was determined to prevent a repeat of the 2003 season.
So, after all that hard work and all that anticipation, Stanford finished the 2004 season with a 4-7 record.
Different year, different team, same result. Or is it? Looking at the way the 2003 season went, and the way Stanford performed in those games, their 4-7 mark was no fluke. That record accurately represents how the Cardinal played that season.
But they didn't finish 9-2. They finished 4-7. So what happened? What was the difference in those five critical games? Did Stanford just not have the talent? Were the players not executing? Or did the coaches make the wrong decisions?
That debate has been raging among Cardinalmaniacs all season long. I don't think talent is the issue, because this team proved it had the talent to be playing somewhere in late December. As for the "execution-or-coaching" question, I think strong arguments can be made either way. Let's break it down game-by-game:
U$C 31, Stanford 28. Of all the close losses the Card suffered this year, this really was the one that got away. A 28-17 halftime lead didn't hold up, and what would have been one of the great wins in Stanford Football history instead became another bitter defeat. Of course, most of the postgame talk centered around the opinions that Stanford's offense went too conservative in the second half. As that second half unfolded, I didn't think that the Card went conservative. Stanford called the same plays that had given them first-half success. The difference here was that Stanford failed to execute their first-down passes in the second half, something they had done with ease in the first half. I chalk this loss up to execution.
Notre Dame 23, Stanford 15. If you recall, I devoted a whole Corner to all the little things that went against the Card in this game. Perhaps the game's key play occurred on a 4th & 1 situation for Stanford with two minutes to go. The Card coaches dipped into the "fan-favorite" part of the playbook and called for a shotgun draw. J.R. Lemon was hit just as he crossed the line of scrimmage, went straight down, and was spotted just short of the marker.
Say what you want about the shotgun draw (and many of you have!), but if Lemon reaches out and tries to extend the ball, he would have made the first down. Do I question the playcall on that situation? Yes, I do. But I don't think there's any question that better execution on that play would have given Stanford a legitimate shot at tying the game. Add the dropped passes, dropped interceptions, and dropped snaps, and I think execution cost Stanford this game more than coaching did.
Oregon 16, Stanford 13. The Ducks won this game largely due to their ten-sack assault on Cardinal quarterbacks. The offensive line bore the brunt of the postgame criticism, although T.C. Ostrander didn't do them many favors by holding on to the ball too long at times. Brandon Harrison didn't help Stanley Wilson cover a streaking Oregon receiver on a critical fourth down conversion. Those things would dictate problems on execution. But I think coaching shares the blame here. I'm not a pass-blocking guru by any stretch, but I do know that a scheme that has Kenneth Tolon trying to block Haloti Ngata one-on-one isn't going to have a high success rate.
Still, Stanford came within a yard or two of going to overtime in a game that they probably had no real business competing in. They almost tied this game in spite of both the coaching and the execution. I call this a draw.
Arizona State 34, Stanford 31. The Card's handling of their defensive personnel left some things to be desired here. Of course, the most damning decision was to go with a base defense when everyone knew the Sun Devils were going to try a Hail Mary at the first-half buzzer. But A-State exploited another personnel mismatch on the game-winning play, when LB David Bergeron found himself isolated on Sun Devil WR Matt Miller in single coverage.
Stanford probably should not have gone for a meaningless two-point conversion after a touchdown cut the Sun Devils' lead to six points; only Greg Camarillo's sensational diving grab saved the coaches from being blamed for that. I also think Stanford should have declined a holding penalty and forced the Sun Devils into 3rd & 19 on A-State's game-winning drive. There is a big difference between 3rd & 19 and 2nd & 29, especially when time is a factor.
Considering where the Card found themselves at the end of the third quarter in this game, it's amazing that they had a chance to win it. But there were some decisions made down the stretch that ended up costing Stanford the win.
Oregon State 24, Stanford 19. Everyone knows about the controversial fourth-down decisions from this game, but I think the tone was set right from the start. After Oshiomogho Atogwe's interception on the very first play presented Stanford the ball at the Beaver ten-yard line. The Cardinal also had a chance to put the Beavers in a quick 7-0 hole. Instead, on first down, Stanford handed the ball to Kenneth Tolon up the middle. The Card gained three yards, but they lost a great opportunity to go for the jugular quickly.
I realize Stanford entered that game wanting to establish ball control, but ball control doesn't do much good when a team starts a drive with first-and-goal. Stanford had to get points in that situation. I think they would have been far better off taking a shot at the endzone rather than trying to run for ten yards through that stiff OSU defense. As it was, Stanford's first down miscall eventually forced the Card to settle for three, and it set the tone for Stanford's shocking goal-to-go failures that day. I don't think the coaching decisions gave Stanford the best chance to beat the Beavers.
Pinning Stanford's disappointing 4-7 record this year solely on coaching or solely on the players isn't accurate. Coaches don't drop passes, miss blocks, and blow assignments, but the kids often have to play the hand they've been dealt by the coaches. In turn, coaches need to make all the right decisions that give their players their best chance to win.
If the coaches don't coach well enough, and the players don't execute well enough, then the team is often left with an unsatisfying outcome that has them going back to the drawing board yet again.
RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS
And, for his next trick, Marshawn Lynch will dance underwater and not get wet…
While they're still not my favorite fan base to deal with by any stretch, I had to admit I was glad to see the Weenies act cool at the game last week. The postgame field-storming didn't degenerate into the riots we've seen in the past. When I got back to my car after the game, it was still in one piece (all the more amazing when you consider that the media have to park on a street somewhere in Frat Row). Granted, there are idiots at every sporting event, and I'd be naïve to think that the Big Game was conducted completely without incident (as my homie dbf98 can attest), but on the whole, BearFan acted better than I thought they would. For a change. They actually acted like they had bigger fish to fry…
Heck, the fans acted better than the players did!
The Huskies have a keeper at receiver in Craig Chambers, who came from out of nowhere to give Washington some big plays down the stretch. Now if they could just figure out how will be throwing the ball to him…
After watching Hass do his thing and remembering that he's only a junior, I know for a fact that former UCLA QB Matt Moore has to be chomping at the bit to get started with his Beaver career…
Oh, that wacky BCS! So U$C, Boise State, and Texas could ruin the Bears' Pasadena plans? Even though the Bears clearly deserve to go? Even though they haven't been since dinosaurs roamed the earth? As a Stanford fan, I don't know whether to get upset or laugh myself silly…
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… Stanford has had some goal-to-go failures lately, but the Washington Redskins had a goal-to-go sequence for the ages early in the fourth quarter against the Eagles on Sunday. First-and-goal from the 10: Redskins false start. First-and-goal from the 15: Patrick Ramsey's pass is incomplete, but it doesn't matter because the Redskins are called for holding. First-and-goal from the 25: Clinton Portis drops a pass. Second-and-goal from the 25: Portis drops a screen pass. Third-and-goal from the 25: Redskins false start. Third-and-goal from the 30: Ramsey's pass is incomplete. Fourth-and-goal from the 30 (and you should know how this is going to end by now): Ola Kimrin's 48-yard field goal attempt sails wide right. So just so you know, Stanford doesn't have the market cornered on red-zone trips that are governed by Murphy's Law…
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… a couple months ago, Purdue was a darkhorse Orange Bowl pick and Kyle Orton was arguably the hottest player in the nation. Now they're settling for the Sun Bowl. They might be the Roy Jones, Jr. of college football this year…
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… have a safe and happy Thanksgiving weekend! This will be my last regular Corner of the season, but since my understanding is that Ted Leland is expected to make his decision public sometime after Thanksgiving, I'll have at least one more Corner for you, and that will come your way after the announcement!
By going 2-0 straight-up last week, I've clinched my goal of winning 24 games this year! And even though I'm under .500 ATS, I'm certainly not complaining after what I did in that department in 2003…
Arizona State @ Arizona. If any of the Pac-10's upper division teams are susceptible to an upset, it's the Sun Devils. I sense this is going to be a real battle for Andrew Walter and the crew. While it wouldn't surprise me to see Mike Stoops get his first big win for the Wildcats, I like Arizona State by 6.
Last week: 2-0 (straight up), 0-2 (ATS).
This year: 24-6 (straight up), 14-16 (ATS).
-- Got a thought on this column or on Stanford sports? E-mail me at email@example.com! The ones I like best will end up in next week's E-Mailbag.
Troy Clardy is a reporter for the Stanford Cardinal Farm Report, which airs Saturday mornings on Fox Sports Net Bay Area. Clardy hosts "Stanford Sports Weekly", which airs Wednesday evenings at 8:00 PM on KNTS (1220 AM) in San Francisco. He also hosts Cardinal men's basketball pregame shows on Stanford radio network flagship station KNEW in San Francisco, and "College Football Today" on KNBR 1050 in San Francisco.
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