What Will Changes Bring?

Today's game against Oregon is big for the fortunes of Stanford this fall, so we offer a super-sized survey of all the happenings and story lines on offense, defense and special teams leading up to this Pac-10 opener. Read on for personnel news at several offensive positions, plus kicking confidence, defensive keys... and much more.

With an offense that could not find answers, Stanford's defense finally broke down on their home turf in the fourth quarter and yielded the game-winning score.  The Cardinal offensive line could not protect their quarterbacks, allowing Trent Edwards to be knocked out of the game and backup T.C. Ostrander to get knocked around silly in relief.  The sting felt deeper in a three-point loss, with the knowledge that kicker Michael Sgroi missed a pair of field goals that would have ostensibly been the difference in the game.

You may think that to be a rehashing of the infamous 20-17 UC Davis defeat from two weeks ago, but that summary instead was a description of last October's 16-13 loss to Oregon at Stanford Stadium.  The parallels are presented not for mere coincidence, but instead to accentuate the fact that problems in that loss of a year ago are alive and kicking on The Farm in 2005.  At least, so said the Davis debacle.  If that version of the '05 Cardinal shows up today, they could stand to be skewered ceremoniously by a potent Oregon offense that could surpass last year's 16 points in the first quarter alone.

The risk, and the fear that comes with it, is unavoidable for Cardinalmaniacs™ today.  But new Stanford head coach Walt Harris says that he chooses to remain optimistic that his team can be the one that scored 41 points in their opener at Navy - averaging 5.2 yards per carry on the ground, throwing for 64% in the air with no interceptions, and dominating on special teams.  Harris is hopeful that the Davis identity - completing just eight passes, running for only 74 yards, turning the ball over four times, and melting down at almost every special teams opportunity - is a distant memory.

"I'm hoping that was an aberration of their not being emotionally ready to go, not thinking that the opponent was going to be challenging to them, and not being able to change midstream," he says.

While offense is the obvious purview for Harris, as both the team's offensive coordinator and head coach, his faith extends all the way to his placekicker.  Sgroi might be in another coach's doghouse after missing two field goals in his last game, but Harris is standing by his fifth-year senior.  That confidence is key for a kicker in any game, but maybe more so for Sgroi against the Ducks.  His missed 38-yard field goal in the first half of last year's game allowed Oregon to take the lead in the fourth quarter, and his 49-yard attempt as the clock hit 0:00 at the end of regulation came two feet short of the crossbar.  Afterward, Sgroi was fighting a losing battle against tears in the locker room.

"I think this is a new year, and Mike came up big in the Navy game...  I choose to remember his performance in the opener," Harris declares.  "I'm going to try and ignore what I saw by him, and many other guys, in this last game.  I'll try to focus on what I saw in the opening game and on the practice field.  Mike is good enough to be a really fine kicker.  He obviously wants to be; he obviously works to be.  He just needs to relax, trust it and do it."

Coaching has to shoulder part of the blame for the special teams turmoil of two weeks ago, however.  Sgroi opened the game booting his first two kickoffs deep and out of the end zone, respectively, without any chance of a return.  Special teams began to go askew when he tried to put his third and fourth kickoffs toward one sideline for a designed coverage.  The kicks traveled out of bounds, handing the Aggies their best field position of the day.  On that second of the advantageous 35-yard line starting positions, Davis managed their first touchdown drive of the game and began a 20-0 scoring run.

Harris afterward publicly lambasted the special teams coaching decision for those kickoff calls.  It has been a self-effacing two weeks all-around for Stanford Football since they dropped their home opener.  But it has also been two weeks of progress and good news in practices.

The most celebrated event was the return of redshirt junior quarterback Trent Edwards to practice on Sunday.  He was unable to grip the football during the bye week enough to throw more than a 10-yard wounded duck, but come Sunday Edwards was tossing the pigskin on deep fade patterns with height, distance and accuracy.  That positive sign was followed up by Tuesday's return for the signal caller under center.  With a bone bruise on his right hand, Edwards had difficulty not only throwing the previous week but also taking snaps - as the ball is thrust back and hits his hands.  From Tuesday through the remainder of this week, Edwards not only took snaps but took control of the entire first team offensive snaps.  We have been left with little mystery as to whether Stanford's number one quarterback would be able to start today for the Cardinal in their Pac-10 opener.

But the Davis game brought a painful reminder that a porous offensive line can greatly limit the chances for Edwards to finish the game, regardless of his ability to start.  Just as was the case last year against Oregon, Stanford faces the possibility (some would say 'probability') of Ostrander action under center today.  The Ducks devoured the Cardinal's offensive line last year to the tune of 10 sacks, and they could eclipse that number in this 2005 affair if the front five are as bad as they showed against the Aggies.  Oregon's defensive line averages 50 pounds more per starter than Davis'.  Ostrander might be wise to take warm-up snaps as soon as the opening kickoff leaves the tee.

The good news is that if and when the redshirt sophomore slinger is called from sideline duty, he should be better prepared.  Ostrander shoulders some of the blame for his disastrous performance, but some is also rightfully placed on the rest of the offense - with poor protection and an inability to make plays for advantageous down and distance situations.  Harris also put Ostrander in a position to fail, to some extent, by the way he handled the #1/#2 quarterbacks in the preceding weeks.  Harris declared his intention to play his backup quarterback in the opener at Navy but never put him on the field, which made Ostrander's appearance in relief in Game Two his debut in this offense.  Harris also heavily slanted the work in practices toward Edwards.  By design, that paid off with how well Edwards played at Navy and started against Davis, but once Stanford's number one guy was gone, an ill-prepared number two was thrown to the wolves.

"Offensively, when we lost Trent, it looked like the wheels fell off," Harris comments.

I said that Ostrander should be better prepared today if he has to play - why?  Because he took the first team snaps last week during the practices when Edwards could not.  Ostrander suffered in Stanford's last game in numerous ways due to his overall experience and maturity deficiencies relative to Edwards, but one of the most tangible failures was his inability to go through his progression.  When Edwards ran the offense in Annapolis, a good deal of his success came throwing to his running backs.  Some plays were by design, but more often they were the final read in his progression - his safety valve.  Throws to backs accounted for 11 of Stanford's 21 completions in their opener.  Against Davis, the Cardinal completed one pass to a back all day.

Last week when Ostrander received a flurry of work, in both first team offensive experience and overall number of snaps, he showed significant progress in the speed and consistency of his progression.  During those practices, there were undoubtedly a myriad of areas addressed, but no single one was as obvious to these eyes as this.  Harris looked pleased with the success of that work, as well, given the hand-clapping and pats on the behind that followed several Ostrander repetitions.

Other positions on offense also received good news recently in practice:

  • Fifth-year senior running back J.R. Lemon started taking some repetitions in practice just before the Davis game, but with limited action and at the fourth spot on the running back depth chart.  He now is third (see below for why) and has been a 100% participant the last two weeks of practice.  While there has been no hint in practice repetitions or in coaches' comments that Lemon has eked his way into the two-deep at tailback, his work this week looked good enough to these eyes that he could reasonably be put on the field.  Anthony Kimble and Jason Evans amassed enough success over the last month-plus of practices, as well as what they showed in the Navy game, that they rightfully deserve to hold onto their spots.  But if injury should befall one, or if one struggles today, Lemon now looks like a viable third runner to whom the coaching staff could turn.
  • Another veteran who missed training camp and the start of regular season practices is junior tight end Patrick Danahy.  He suffered an injury shortly before the start of camp and for the entire three weeks stood on the sideline in a yellow jersey.  We were surprised when he started taking repetitions in tight end drills these past two weeks, first with the injury-indicative yellow jersey and then without.  Danahy is now not only participating in the full breadth of tight end work in practice, including blocking, but he is also moving up the depth chart.  For somebody who has been out so long, it was remarkable this week to see him get some work among the offense's top three tight ends.  Starter Matt Traverso and number two Michael Horgan ought to see most or all of today's action, but Danahy could conceivably appear in a "Jumbo" formation of three tight ends.  Whether he returns today or later this month, Danahy's return - at any time this season - is something to celebrate.  His injury recently looked like one that would have him take a medical redshirt.  His addition to the offense could be critical, if the junior can come close to replicating the performances he delivered throughout the spring and summer, which had locked down the starting tight end job before his injury.  To keep our enthusiasm in check, Harris delivers this caution on the timeframe for Danahy's contributions on the field: "In time, but he hasn't been playing and hasn't been practicing.  It's amazing - no matter how dedicated, how much a guy is into it, how much he pays attention and how hard he works off the field, unless you are practicing every day, you lose.  You don't get better.  In football, you either get better or get worse.  You don't say the same.  Unfortunately because he hasn't been practicing, he hasn't stayed the same.  He is back practicing, and it looks like he has a chance to practice consistently.  Hopefully he will build himself back up to the player he was before he got hurt."
  • The wide receiver position has taken some injury hits, including the most horrific to 6'7" junior Evan Moore, so it made sense when junior running back David Marrero moved Friday of the bye week to the wideout corps.  Marrero ended the spring riding high as Harris' number one tailback on the depth chart, but an injury during preseason camp left the 5'10" speedster trailing Kimble and Evans by the season opener.  Marreo's frustration multiplied when he fumbled during a punt return at Navy and then dropped a punt he tried to field running toward his goalline against Davis.  The junior has been removed from punt return duty, which was his only avenue onto the field while he ran third at tailback.  The return of Lemon to practices diminished his running back prospects further, so a switch to wide receiver became a light at the end of a long and dark tunnel.  Marrero has spent just one week at the position in Harris' offense, though he was a wideout his sophomore season, but he is already in the second triad of receivers.  Harris is optimistic about Marrero's future at the position, though would like more practice for his new receiver.  "We're trying to find a spot for a good athlete that we think will best suit his style of play.  He's elusive.  He can be a third receiver type of guy who can do things.  He has good hands," Harris offers.  "I think he just needs more time, not because I don't think he can play.  I think he has a chance to play for us.  He just needs to know what to do better.  It's a matter of thinking instead of reacting, and that takes time."

The offense is only have of Stanford's concern in this Oregon game, however.  The defense has given up an average of 410 yards per game thus far in 2005, and that has come against putatively the weakest teams on the Cardinal's schedule.  Oregon is putting up 430 yards per game.  The math looks unkind for the Card.

Some fans have taken solace in the news out of Eugene this week that the Ducks may be without senior running back Terrence Whitehead.  The 5'10" dynamo exploded on the Cardinal in 2003 for a career-high 172 yards rushing, and then in 2004 notched 92 yards receiving on a career-high eight catches to go with a cool 131 yards.  Injuries reportedly are deep enough that Oregon may burn a freshman's redshirt today at Stanford Stadium, which would appear to be a primary storyline for both fans and the Cardinal defense.  Walt Harris was not only indifferent to the question of what Whitehead's absence could mean for Stanford, but also surprised.

"He's not out there?" the first-year Cardinal head coach reacted.

As a man who does not disclose much if any injury information about his team to the media, Harris is naturally wary - if not outright distrustful - of what the Oregon newspapers have been writing this week on the Ducks' running back situation.

"I never base much of a gameplan based on what we are given in the press - not to be too disrespectful to you guys," Harris explains.  "I don't know for coaches in this league, how straight up or how up front they are.  I don't know.  We'll just see.  This is part of our first tour in this league."

What Harris does believe, and admittedly brings him concern, is the proficiency that Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens has displayed through four games.  The fifth-year senior has thrown for more than 1,100 yards on 63% completions, scoring nine touchdowns and no interceptions.  Zero interceptions.

Stanford's entire coaching staff is impressed by Clemens' decision-making and accuracy.  By almost any measure, he is a superior throwing threat to the two quarterbacks the Cardinal have faced previously, and those slingers saddled Stanford with trouble in the secondary.  But that is only one-third of today's concern.  Clemens is a nice runner with the ball, as well, ranking second only to Whitehead in rushing for Oregon.  You might remember that it was a key Clemens scramble that kept the Ducks alive on their game-winning drive last October at Stanford Stadium.  A big key in this game is for Stanford's linebackers to keep track of Clemens when he leaves the pocket.  A good pass rush and sound coverage in the secondary can all go for naught when the quarterback tucks the ball away and darts for an easy 10-15 yards.

"Anytime you have a guy who can move around back there - stay alive and also hurt you when he runs - I think that makes it very challenging for your defense," Harris admits.

We expect Clemens to have room to run, and whoever lines up with him in the backfield to also find lanes, given the spread offense that Oregon runs.  The Ducks will cover as much green as you can imagine with their formations and routes, which will put a good deal of pressure on Stanford's defenders in their assignments and reaction time.  Big holes can quickly be available for Oregon running with the ball - out of the backfield or after a reception.

The spread offense also means that Stanford will have to depart from their base defense and at a minimum play a good deal out of nickel and dime formations.  The Cardinal's nickel back is redshirt sophomore Tim Sims, who is still learning the cornerback position after playing only offense in high school.  He saw the field for just seven defensive plays at Navy, and last week his work increased to 25 of Stanford's 91 defensive plays.  That count should climb once again today, and you can expect Clemens to test Sims early and often.

In all likelihood, Stanford's best chance on defense to thwart these enumerated Oregon advantages will come in their pass rush.  The Ducks have a tremendous talent in Clemens and lethal speed in their wide receivers; when healthy, their running game is potent.  However, their offensive line is a relative weakness which the Cardinal would like to attack.  Again, if the linebackers can contain Clemens' scrambling, they could turn this ballgame with their advantages up front.

Of Stanford's starting front three on the defensive line, the man who has easily played the most this year is senior Julian Jenkins.  He played 80 of 82 snaps on defense at Navy and 81 of 91 against Davis.  The 275-pound defensive end is logging a heroic effort for the Cardinal defense, and he is poised for his biggest year on The Farm, though he will be the first to decry his three-tackle performance two weeks ago at home.

"I say that I played poorly," he states.  "I feel like I should definitely get to the quarterback a lot - not even sacks, just touching him.  Getting real close to him and knocking him on the ground."

Jenkins is confident that his off-season work and preparation in practices will produce big things, and soon, though he has one area in particular he wants to improve to enable some quarterback crushes.  He had the opportunity to watch film of Louisville's Elvis Dumervil, who in his first two games this year recorded a combined NCAA record nine sacks.

"I watched him, and his get-off was the biggest deal," Jenkins describes.  "Getting off, staying low, using your hands and hips - exploding off the line of scrimmage.  That's what I want to work on.  I'm a fast guy, and not too many people can stop me once I beat them off the line and beat them to the punch."

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