The Meaning of the Meltdown

USC deserves every utterance of praise delivered by Staford players, coaches and fans since Saturday's 51-21 drubbing of the Cardinal. But there was more at play in Los Angeles than a talent gap. Stanford imploded its chances at competitiveness with mistakes, flying in the face of improvements made in earlier weeks. The Card turned the corner once this fall, but are they now headed back?

In the darkest recesses of your Cardinal conscience, you had some notion of the "worst case scenario" football game for Stanford when they traveled to USC on Saturday.  If that nightmare centered around injuries rather than the on-field outcome of plays and scores, then you are wise and one of the choice few Cardinalmaniacs™ on the planet who breathed easily at the end of the 51-21 drubbing.  If you instead were focused on the competitive balance between the Card and Trojans, then you probably had to pick your jaw up off the floor somewhere in the first half or first quarter of the nationally televised trouncing.

  • In the first four minutes of the game, USC led 14-0 while moving the ball 127 yards.  Stanford recorded minus-six yards and a turnover.
  • USC led 21-0 within the first nine minutes of the game, and 24-0 at the end of the first quarter.
  • USC averaged 10.6 yards per play in their first three drives, all ending in touchdowns.  Stanford averaged 1.4 yards per play in its first three drives, ending in two turnovers and a punt.
  • Stanford did not record a first down until the second quarter.  They punted three plays later.  By the time they netted their next first down, the Cardinal trailed 37-0.  USC had mounted 310 yards of offense by that point.

We in the media are prone to hyperbole when discussing the events we cover.  Many displays are "incredible" or "staggering," but those descriptors should be saved for a game like this.  The magnitude of USC's dominance, as compared to Stanford's utter futility, was indescribable.  Coming into the game, I thought the Cardinal had a chance for a fleecing, but nothing as murderous as what unfolded in the opening 30 minutes of play in the Coliseum.

For Stanford to have played competitively, particularly given the disparate talent on the two rosters, the Cardinal needed near-flawless execution.  They prepared during the preceding week a gameplan on offense that controlled the ball, with a strong dose of passing to the tight ends.  Stanford was the number one team in the Pac-10 in turnover margin and would likely need a plus-three in that statistic, alongside a favorable penalty margin, to play close to the only professional football team in Los Angeles.

Instead, Stanford's offense turned the ball over to USC a season-high five times, while the Cardinal defense and special teams for the first time all year forced zero turnovers.  Nobody could have imagined a worse performance.

Trent Edwards had thrown two interceptions all year, only to toss three picks in one Saturday evening.  Stanford's offensive tackles had made great strides in pass protection in recent weeks, but Allen Smith botched badly on the Cardinal's first two attempted passing plays of the night.  Jeff Edwards joined the misery with woeful whiffs a little later.

"Yes, it was awful," you say.  "What's the point of all this?"

After taking steps forward in the middle of the season, it has felt like the Cardinal have taken steps backward for a meaningful portion of each of their last three games.  After racing out to a 45-7 lead against Arizona State, Stanford gave up 28 straight points in a little over a quarter.  I chalked that up to a poor running game.  A decent football team should be able to run clock and move the chains a few times to avoid that kind of collapse.

One week later, Stanford failed in eerily similar fashion, though this time it cost them the football game.  UCLA had been held to three points through three and a half quarters, while Stanford had built a 21-point lead.  Running the ball for an extra first down, or maybe two, would have won the game.  But an added specter greatly concerned me in the 27-24 overtime loss: penalties.  After standing out in front of the conference as the least penalized team in the Pac-10, Stanford was hit for 87 yards on nine penalties.  That was completely uncharacteristic and unexpected.

In this unraveling against USC, the Cardinal again regressed in areas where they had made strides in the first two months of the season.  Turnovers, poor pass protection, poor tackling - and while watching the game, it felt like the Card killed themselves again on penalties.  In the final box score, Stanford is stung with only six penalties for 33 yards.  I am not sure why it seemed worse live - perhaps because those penalties were felt more acutely in a game where the margin for error was so thin and all else was going so badly.  Perhaps because several of them were so senseless: false starts, off-sides, holding on a kickoff return touchback...

It is one thing to be overmatched, which Stanford surely was on Saturday night.  At full health, with the same defensive line, offensive line and receiving corps they possessed at the start of preseason camp, the Cardinal could have played an interesting game against USC.  Nine times out of 10, they would have been outclassed by some point in the second half and lost by a margin of two scores or more.  But Stanford loses this game 99 times of 100 when they play like this.

Maybe you do not care about the final margin in a loss to one of the great teams in the modern history of college football, but you should care about the fact that Stanford tanked as fast as USC took off.  Being outclassed is no fun; imploding is just plain unacceptable.  Play that poor will not only get your backside blistered by USC, but it will also lose most or all of the rest of your games on the schedule.  Stanford established on September 17 just how low it can sink when it plays to its lowest depth.

A worthy question is why Stanford came out with such an epileptic effort in such a big game.  Why does a team make such great strides in clean execution and then regress into turnovers, penalties and mistakes?

Asking that question of Walt Harris and his players, I have received a mixture of responses.  Several shrug their shoulders and say they do not know.  A few admit that nerves came into play.  I am not sure which answer is better.  Is it better to hope that this mini-trend is an anomaly, or to admit that Stanford played well below its abilities because they were tense and/or fearful of their environment and opponent?  I will say this: playing in Corvallis is not the same matter as playing in front of 90,000 fans in the Coliseum, and the atmosphere surrounding a 5-4 Oregon State Beavers program cannot even sniff that which currently envelops the juggernaut USC Trojans... but the last time Stanford played in Reser Stadium, they were intimidated and played horrifically pathetic football.

Solace can be found from Saturday's spanking, however.  After a 37-0 slide in the first 22 minutes of the game, Stanford steadied the ship and finished the last 38 minutes with a 21-14 advantage.  USC may or may not have called off the dogs, depending on your perspective.  They indeed dipped to second team players in the latter stages of the second half (quarterback John David Booty entered the game with 22 seconds to go in the third quarter), but the Trojans' second string of Parade All-Americans lacked neither for talent nor desire.  They gunned for the endzone on offense and took every shot on defense they could at hammering Trent Edwards.

Stanford deserves some credit for (eventually) moving the ball against supremely talented players and coaching.  The accuracy and poise of Edwards was, in stretches, as stellar as any we have seen this year from him.  Fifth-year senior wideout Justin McCullum stood tall in the finest game of his career, notching new highs with nine catches and 138 yards.  The offense completed a total of 13 passes to tight ends and backs, which was key to the Cardinal's best drives and proved that they could (eventually) execute the plan they had practiced that week.

The question Stanford faces going forward is which team they choose to be.  Are they the team that caved in from the get-go in Los Angeles, and in stretches against Arizona State and UCLA, enabling their opponent an easy road to victory?  Or are they the team that can play above their talent level and injury woes to a winning record and bowl-worthiness?

This is not a rhetorical question.  I ask it sincerely because it is the one dominating thought in my mind regarding Stanford Football since the second quarter Saturday night.  This team took two steps forward but now one step back.  I cannot be sure which direction they are headed.  Time will tell us, with an indicative test this weekend at Oregon State.

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