Clardy's Corner - 9/6

After watching Stanford, and most of the other pertinent Pac-10 programs, play their respective 2006 season openers this past weekend, you know that Troy has a lot to talk about. He takes us this week inside his thoughts on the Cardinal's crumble at Autzen, one team whose new quarterback sparkled, another team who laid a costly egg (again), and more. Plus, Troy answers your emails.

Pardon the pun, but nothing quite "makes my day" like a good Clint Eastwood flick.  There's nothing like flipping through the channels on a rainy day, somehow stumbling on Dirty Harry or For A Few Dollars More, or even Heartbreak Ridge (very underrated movie), and blocking off the next couple of hours of your time.

Why bring up Eastwood at a time like this?  Because it's no secret that Oregon turned Stanford every which way but loose last week.  And as I see it, all that's left from that game is the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Let's go in reverse order and start with the ugly.  And I'm not just talking about Oregon's uniforms.  I mean, those are hideous.  Just when you think their gear can't get any more heinous, they cross the line, draw a new line, then cross that one too.  Say want you want about Stanford going with the black trim (and many of you have), but Oregon has the ugliest gear in the history of sport.  By far.  Pro or college.

Anyway, any time your team loses by 38 points, there's plenty of ugly to go around.  That was certainly the case here.  Nick Frank's ill-fated option pass from the goal line.  Duck QB Dennis Dixon side-stepping two Cardinal defenders and walking into the end zone for a third-quarter score.  A scrambling Trent Edwards getting blasted on a hit that was so hard, poor Trent was looking through the hole in his chinstrap.  Ugly, ugly, and… ugly.

But most of the ugliness seemed to be concentrated on the special teams.  They allowed some sizable punt returns, but the blocked field goal that the Ducks scooped up and took back for a fourth-quarter score was the exclamation point.

Earlier, the special teams had been responsible for what I thought proved to be the turning point in the game.  Aaron Zagory's first-quarter field goal finished an effective drive, tied the game at 3-3, and placed momentum in the Card's hands.  That momentum lasted exactly 13 seconds, which was enough time for Jonathan Stewart to take the ensuing kickoff, bring it out from five yards deep in the end zone, cut right, speed by two Cardinal defenders, tightrope down the sideline, and finish with a 54-yard kick return.  Moments later, Oregon took a 10-3 lead, and Stanford was in "catch-up" mode the rest of the way.

Now, on to the bad.  The running game was nearly nonexistent, just like last year.  There were few holes for Stanford backs to run through.  If it wasn't for Toby Gerhart, Trent Edwards would have been the leading rusher.  For Stanford, that's never a good thing.

Sadly, most of the bad things happened on defense.  Oregon's offensive line all but erased Stanford's defensive front.  Jonathan Stewart ran untouched into the secondary early and often.  But the defense's worst problem, by far:  tackling.  Or, in this case, the lack thereof.

Stanford defenders seemed to consistently take bad angles to the ballcarrier.  And when they got to the ballcarrier, they often pinballed off of them.  Oregon's big gains were made even bigger thanks to Stanford's inability to tackle.  Outside of a couple nice ones by linebacker Fred Campbell, I can't remember any open-field tackles by any Cardinal defenders.  If your team can't tackle, your team won't win.

It might be hard to believe, but there actually was some good on the defensive side of the ball.  When Dixon ran option plays from the spread, Stanford bottled them up  The only sizable gain the Ducks got from their option plays was when they had to resort to a wrinkle, in this case a shovel pass.  That was it.  When it came to Oregon's spread-option attack, it was the spread that killed Stanford, not the option.

(Quick tangent: while Utah's offense runs some plays from a conventional set, they also throw in a healthy dose of the spread-option.  Given this, I was very interested to see how UCLA chose to defend the Utes' attack.  The Bruins go with four down lineman in their base package, but against Utah, they brought up one or two linebackers, giving them five or six defenders on the line.  Stanford goes with three defensive linemen in their base package, and against the Ducks they generally stayed there, bringing a linebacker up only occasionally.  UCLA was active.  Stanford was reactive.  UCLA struggled against the option, but succeeded just about everywhere else, especially on third down.  Stanford succeeded against the option, but struggled everywhere else.  I don't know if there's a point to any of this… just found it interesting how two different teams defended similar schemes.  Sorry.  Back to the column.)

Most of the good things happened on offense, though.  Toby Gerhart made a good first impression in his first collegiate contest.  The offensive line and the running backs did well in pass protection and blitz pickups.  When Trent Edwards was forced to run, it was because of good coverage by Duck defenders.  And while Evan Moore looked good in the first half, Mark Bradford shined for the entire game.

I also liked the playcalling through most of the first half.  Trent was able to get Bradford and Moore involved early, allowing all three guys to get into a good rhythm.  Walt Harris varied his formations and his personnel.  He even had Anthony Kimble line up as a receiver, go in motion, and take the handoff on a counter play.  Stanford was at its most efficient when they were being creative.

That said, this is exactly why it is vital that Stanford's defense and their running game improve.  If those two units can't keep Stanford ahead, or at the very least keep it close, Stanford's offense won't be at its best.  It's hard to be imaginative when your offense is forced into being one-dimensional.

And both sides of the ball certainly need to finish drives better.  On Oregon's first possession, the defense let interceptions slip through their fingers twice.  Stanford's offense couldn't get the job done in short yardage, and they failed to convert a fourth-down play when Trent Edwards and Evan Moore appeared to miscommunicate on an audible.  In football, opportunities are always precious, but with the new timing rules shortening games, capitalizing on opportunities is now at an absolute premium.

All of this places Stanford in the line of fire for the next few weeks, especially with the opening of their $90 million baby coming up just around the corner.


RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS

The Bears were handed the Pac-10 torch this past weekend, and they dropped it.  Again.  Two seasons ago, when cal got sent to the Holiday Bowl instead of the Rose Bowl, the Bears still had a chance to carry the Pac-10 torch, silence the critics, and prove the BCS wrong by handling Texas Tech.  They didn't.  And that's when everyone started howling about the Pac-10.  The same thing is happening all over again right now, with many folks looking at cal's performance against Tennessee and questioning the Pac-10's validity.  Heck, Washington State looked better in defeat to an SEC opponent than cal did…

U$C fans e-mail me all the time and ask me if I realize that when the Trojans look good, the Pac-10 looks good.  I would realize that… if that were the truth!  One of my Corners addressed this after U$C killed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and nothing has changed since.  The Pac-10 doesn't look good if U$C is doing all the dominating.  The Pac-10 looks good when U$C and cal and Oregon and other programs are dominating and winning big games too.  Until that happens, U$C's dominance only looks good for U$C, not the Pac-10 as a whole…

That said, U$C looked dominant.  Again.  Wow…

My man Syd'Quan Thompson struggled big-time against the Vols.  Based on what I said about him last week, it looks like I might have to call him Larry until he gets better…

Reportedly, cal quarterback Nate Longshore tried to simulate the crowd noise at Neyland Stadium by playing video games and cranking his TV volume up all the way.  Something tells me there's a slight difference between facing the Vols in your living room and facing them for real, with over 106,000 orange-clad fans watching…

After watching a tape of their 31-10 win over Utah, I may have to re-think my assessment of the Bruins' chances this year.  Quarterback Ben Olson was so good, it was jaw-dropping.  He made all the throws.  He made all the right audibles.  He put it where only his receiver could catch it, whether his guy was covered or not.  He looked like a lefty Dan Marino.  Of Olson's 33 passes, only eight were incomplete.  Three of them were drops (two would have been touchdowns).  Two were due to good coverage, one was called complete but reversed by replay, and one was a throw-away.  His other incompletion was the only bad throw he made all day… and even then, his intended receiver still got a hand on the ball.  Yes, he put the ball on the ground three times (twice on snaps, and once during a scramble), but Ben Olson put on a passing clinic.  Maybe one of the best debuts I've ever seen by a quarterback…

When you're playing the Arizona Wildcats this year, you're gonna have to look out for #1… on both sides of the ball!  Wide receiver Syndric Steptoe and defensive end Louis Holmes both wear #1 for the Wildcats, and they both made some very, very big plays against BYU

I'm a big fan of FSN's "X-Mo".  A big, big fan…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… a few weeks ago I saw a replay of last year's Louisville-West Virginia game.  It was the first time I had taken a good look at Louisville running back Michael Bush.  What an impressive runner… explosive, powerful, speedy, and a great finisher.  After watching what he was able to do against the Mountaineers, I was really looking forward to watching him this year.  Tough break for that kid and for college football fans everywhere…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… special shout-out to Kris Atteberry, Stanford Class of '96, and the voice of Montana State football.  Nice work by your Bobcats there, knocking off the Buffs in Boulder…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… Florida State linebacker Buster Davis is a beast.  Oh my…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… the New England Patriots stole Doug Gabriel from the Raiders.  Tom Brady will be very, very happy throwing to that guy…


CLARDY'S CORNER INBOX

It's not the E-Mailbag anymore… we're stepping into the 21st century and calling it the Clardy's Corner Inbox. Seriously, who deals with bags of mail anymore?

Always great to hear from the one, the only MizzouCard, who had a teeny, tiny issue with me referring to "good U$C-hating Cardinalmaniacs™": "I would certainly hope that the phrase 'good _._._.-hating Cardinalmaniacs™' is what we who try to teach writing refer to as ‘repetitively redundant.'  Is there any other kind of Cardinalmaniac™?  I certainly hope not."

I'd like to think that phrase comes from the Department of Redundancy Department!

Inbox regular Derek from San Francisco is in mid-season form already: "I'd like to address the most commonly predicted finishing order of the Pac-10. In particular, the fact that Stanford yet again, was picked to finish 9th.

So many people ask me, at least those that know I'm a Cardinal Football psycho since '77, "What's up with that?"  All I can tell them is that, it's total guesswork, by people that don't really know much about Stanford football, and care even less.  It's a typical, predictable situation, [one] that seems to be all too common.  But the bottom line is, nobody knows what's gonna happen.  Nobody knows if Trent will stay healthy, if the offensive line with gel, if the running game gets on track, or if a few redshirt freshmen just happen to be the missing ingredient."

A wise man once said the following: "You think you know, but you just don't know.  And you never will."  I mean, we all knew that cal was going to handle Tennessee, right?  Right?  Oops…

Got a thought on this column, on Stanford sports, or anything else in general?  Drop me a line at troyc@thebootleg.com and the best e-mails will be answered in next week's Clardy's Corner Inbox!


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