Enough to Go Around

A favorite American pasttime is pointing fingers, and plenty of that has been seen in the wake of the UC Davis defeat. At face, we can lay the loss and performance on Walt Harris. But an angry Trent Edwards tells us that his teammates were not out on that field to play and win a college football game. Some blame the administration or Admissions, but this loss came from within the team.

To analyze and understand the loss to UC Davis, and what this Stanford Football team has within itself for 2005, one must not forget the previous Saturday's win at Navy.  While one game was a historic defeat, the other was a historic victory.  While the Cardinal struggled for three years to win on the road, they opened the 2005 season beating a team and coach who were coming off a 10-1 season and had the advantage of a game already under their belt.  Stanford won on the road in a time zone where they had not notched a victory since January 1, 1993, and they did it with great uncertainties surrounding their new offense.

You can point to various statistical metrics for that Stanford-Navy game to prove that the Cardinal either had or did not have offensive success.  It was a mixed bag.  I do know, however, that I saw with my eyes a vastly improved scheme and execution.  Say what you will about Navy's players, but they are certainly not inferior to what Davis put on the field seven days later.

Walt Harris commented that after the loss that Davis defensively did a good job scouting and finding the weaknesses in his offensive players and their technique, which were exploited.  That should be recognized, but the Cardinal players also should have shown improvement from Game One to Game Two as they shook off the rust and worked out the kinks.  Instead, we saw dramatic regression, something completely unexpected and hard to explain.

How could Stanford play a weaker team in more advantageous conditions (home, no heat, no humidity) and put forth a markedly weaker effort?  If the Navy game did not transpire, and the UC Davis result was the season opener, I think we would have much greater questions about the Stanford 2005 team and season.  But we have two data points and must be mindful of both in our analysis.

At this time, it is hard lay the Davis loss on the intrinsic talent of Stanford's players.  They may not be very good right now (and the Card took huge hits in losing Evan Moore and Trent Edwards), but they are not that bad.  The Navy game was too convincing of evidence to let me believe that Stanford is scraping rock bottom, below a Division I-AA opponent.

Instead, this loss has to be laid upon the coaches and players for performing below their abilities.  In college football, the buck stops with the head coach, so we will start with Walt Harris.  As much as Cardinalmaniacs™ were excited about the head coach's proven turnaround record he demonstrated at Pittsburgh, pulling a team out of the basement of college football and sending them to bowl games in six out of eight years, there are also examples of Davis-esque performances.  In his first year at Pitt, Harris lost 17-13 to Temple in the same season that he upset both Miami and Virginia Tech.  In 2001 he dropped to South Florida while upending Virginia Tech.  In 2003 Harris again beat Virginia Tech but lost to Toledo.  Just last year, he took his Panthers to the school's first ever BCS game, but he needed overtime to edge Division I-AA Furman after trailing by 17 points in the second half.  Pitt also dropped to Connecticut and had to come back from 13 down to eke out a win over Temple in 2004.

Players make plays, but coaches get them ready.  With talent and size mismatches like Stanford enjoyed against the Aggies, there should have been an easy victory for Stanford in their home opener.  Whether Harris pulled back the reins on his preparation and playcalling for an inferior opponent, or he misread the attitude and urgency of his players, he failed to have his players firing at a level commensurate with how they played in Annapolis.  Cardinalmaniacs™ hoped that the days of Stanford "playing to the level of their opponent" (e.g. three straight losses to San Jose State under Tyrone Willingham) to be history, but the early returns and empirical evidence suggest that we might endure that rollercoaster under Harris.

But when you ask Cardinal quarterback Trent Edwards about the UC Davis loss, he heaps it all on the players.  The redshirt junior should be concerned with the physical condition of his throwing (right) hand after its bloodied game-ending injury in the loss, but he is more concerned about the attitudinal condition of his teammates on offense.

"The word 'frustrating' comes to mind," Edwards offers on the Davis debacle.  "It was embarrassing.  This stacks right up there with the Arizona State game three years ago.  You walk off the field and just cannot believe what happened."

The pain felt by the quarterback in that 2002 game was emotional, but he added a physical component in the 2005 home opener as he was hit by two Aggie pass rushers on a sack in the first quarter.  Both hands were cut and bruised, forcing him out of the game.  Edwards is in his third year of playing and has tasted in each season game-ending injuries.  The theme of poor protection from his offensive line is one that he (and we) had hoped would end this year.  The Navy game suggested that might be the case, as the Cardinal pass protected reasonably well, but the Aggies were swarming into the Stanford backfield seven days later.  Stanford has given up five sacks through their first two games, and those came at the hands of the smallest defensive players that the Cardinal will face all year.  When Oregon comes to town this Saturday, 340-pound Haloti Ngata will undoubtedly be licking his chops.

"We are going to face a defensive line next week that sacked us 10 times last year," Edwards says.  "I hope that our players take that challenge seriously."

"I think it's very dangerous," says Harris of the doom that the Ducks and Ngata may bring.  "We cannot block them with the techniques and fundamentals we did against Davis."

In the apocalyptic arena that was Stanford's offense two Saturdays ago, the offensive line was ground zero.  Not only did they suffer two breakdowns on the play that knocked Edwards out of the game, but they also whiffed on repeated occasions when redshirt sophomore backup T.C. Ostrander came in under center.  Redshirt junior offensive guard Josiah Vinson flailed on a series of plays so badly late in the second quarter that he was pulled and did not return.  Fifth-year senior center Brian Head injured his shoulder, and redshirt junior offensive tackle Jeff Edwards injured his knee - both gone from the game.  Their respective replacements, redshirt junior Tim Mattran and redshirt freshman Allen Smith, struggled.  Smith blew his first play so badly that he was immediately yanked from the field and replaced by classmate Ben Muth.

These players are capable of better.  Just five days earlier, Vinson was so loaded with praise post-Navy from the Cardinal coaching staff that he was selected as one of two players to talk with the media at the weekly Monday press conference.  Vinson's performance in Annapolis was so laudable that he was chosen by the coaches as one of the team captains for the Davis game.  No position unit was as vocally and critically examined as the offensive line in this preseason, so one cannot believe that the praise coming out of Annapolis was lightly distributed.  How then does a player like Vinson turn 180º and flop one week later?  And to be fair, you can spread that blame across the entire offensive line and nearly the entire offense - Vinson is merely a visible example in contrasting from Navy to Davis.

That blame certainly extends to the skill players.  Edwards started the game on his very first pass play with a deep sideline fade pattern to Mark Bradford.  You could scarcely ask for a better throw on a more potent playcall.  The pigskin dropped right over the junior wide receiver's shoulder and hit him in the hands, but it was dropped.  In Harris' words, the throw was "perfect."  If completed, the play would have undoubtedly sent the Davis defense to DefCon One and changed the complexion of the game.

"That was a big part of what we had hoped to do in that game," says Harris of the deep ball.

"That would have set an entirely different tone for the game," Edwards agrees.

Bradford's drop was not the only immediate disappointment.  Stanford moved the chains twice after that early error, with a 10-yard completion to redshirt junior tight end Matt Traverso and a 20-yard run by redshirt freshman tailback Anthony Kimble.  But on 3rd & 9, Edwards took to the air again and hit fifth-year senior wideout Justin McCullum in the hands just past the first down marker.  Dropped.

Edwards had only one more passing play for which he dropped back in the game, and that was third down on the next series, when he was sandwich sacked and knocked out of the game.  From that point on, the offense proceeded in a downward spiral.  The best (and perhaps only) playmaker who was on his game for the offense was bloodied and bandaged on the sideline.  All things considered, that was the safest place for him.  He was one man playing against 11 on that day.  The only exception might be Traverso, but the point remains that the vast majority of the Stanford offense did not show up on September 17.

"I don't think that was the same group of players who dressed in the uniforms we saw the previous week," Harris charges.

"It was a combination of guys not preparing and not thinking that they needed to bring it," Edwards echoes.  "We got beaten, not by a better team, but because we didn't prepare."

"We need to figure out who is on board - who wants to be out on the field and do the things we need to do to win," the animated quarterback continues.  "Regardless of experience and age, we need 11 guys out there who want this."

Harris has no compunctions about shaking up this team and the players who do not match up to his winning standard, but that has been a work in progress since January.  The follow-through has to come from within the team, and the offense is lacking for senior leadership.  The best leaders are almost all concentrated on defense: Julian Jenkins, Jon Alston, T.J. Rushing, Babatunde Oshinowo - to name a few.  Of the semi-healthy players on offense, Brian Head is the most recognized leader, but he has as many viable appendages today as Stanford has wins on the season.  The best hope for a truly impactful leadership presence on the offense would come from fifth-year senior tailback J.R. Lemon, who has not played yet this year but in the last week-plus has returned to action in practices.  He will need to climb the ladder from his current spot as the #3 running back to be heard in huddles this Saturday.

There are other players who could perhaps step up, but the best chance lies with Edwards.  Teammates respect him for his work and his talent, and they know from watching the film that he brought his game to Stanford Stadium two Saturdays ago.  Thus, the prospects of this Cardinal offense and season may rest as much on Edwards' lungs as on his arm.

"Vocally, I need to get in guys' faces.  It's time for things to be said that need to be said to people," he acknowledges.  "I know that J.R. is coming back.  He and I have had a lengthy conversation.  Each of us needs to help take control of this football team, and then we had better back our talk up on the field."

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