This has been an interesting week thus far for Stanford. Coming off a surprising shellacking in Eugene, where the Cardinal played poorly on offense, defense and special teams, work started anew on Sunday with what Walt Harris describes as a "humbling" film review of the game. On the one hand, it was appalling and embarrassing for both the players and coaches to watch the "Keystone Kops" remake. However, players have told us that it was heartening to see play-by-play what should have happened had they executed and/or been in position. This is hard for fans to appreciate, but the film of the Oregon game actually inspired hope.
When the team took the field for the first practice of the week on Tuesday, hearts and hopes gave way to an excruciatingly hard practice. I have not seen the team worked that hard on a game week Tuesday in a long time. The conditioning runs were the longest we will see all season, and the coaching from every direction was hard-nosed and unrelenting. Bodies and minds were reminded on that day of the work needed by this team to be much better than what they showed in their opener. It was a hard, hard practice, and there was no denying that when looking at the faces of players as they left the practice field.
Then a funny thing happened on Wednesday. The Cardinal had an outstanding practice. There was a palpable explosion of energy and spirit from the players. They were hooting and hollering throughout drills, and particularly during "team" sessions for the offense and defense playing against each other or the scout units. Several positions coaches were yelping with excitement after plays, with high-five celebrations between players and coaches. The mood of the afternoon could not have been more divergent from that we watched only 24 hours earlier.
"We're just trying to help them understand that this is an important thing, and you need to be ready for every practice," says Harris about the hard day delivered Tuesday. "I think they learned from Tuesday and came out with a great attitude on Wednesday."
"I thought that we had a good practice yesterday," the coach continues. "I thought that we practiced like we had a goal in mind. That was one of the best practices since we've been here... I think some of the older players had a hand in that, which is exciting because this is their team."
Another dimension which has been at play this week is the specter of overlooking Stanford's next opponent. We have seen too often in the last decade how the Card can come out flat against an underwhelming Bay Area foe. Stanford dropped three straight games against San Jose State under Tyrone Willingham (1998-2000) - all games played in Stanford Stadium. Last year marked another infamous upset, this time dropping at home to Division I-AA upstart UC Davis.
Harris was not a part of the losses to San Jose State, but he saw a mind-numbingly horrific display under his watch in Game Two last September. He said afterward that he was shocked that Stanford players could have so little pride as to allow themselves to approach and play in a game like they did against the Aggies. Harris also learned about how he and the coaching staff have to handle the players this go-around. Tuesday's practice may have been an aspect of his different approach this week, but there is more to it.
"I'm learning about Stanford and Stanford Football players," Harris explains. "We've done a lot less talking about how we are going to be. My concern is that we just play."
"I would hope that our players realize that this is a big game for us," he adds. "If they don't, then we as a coaching staff will remind them."
One interesting dimensions of this Saturday's game at San Jose State is the location at Spartan Stadium. The game was long scheduled for Stanford Stadium, but it was moved to San Jose earlier this year as the stadium construction project management opted to give themselves another week to work on tests and finishings. While the debate was still ongoing in the winter on whether or not to move the game to San Jose, where this series has only been played three times in its history of 60 meetings: 1900, 1995 and 2001.
There was unease in the Stanford Football program about giving up home field advantage in this game, which is a must-win for the Cardinal's season and bowl hopes. However, Saturday will not feel like a typical away environment for the Cardinal.
Of course, Spartan Stadium is the smallest venue where Stanford will play all year - if not all decade. With a capacity of approximately 30,456 and an average attendance in 2005 of 12,506, there are sparse few Spartan fans to make home games anything special. Thrice last year in five home contests, tiny little Spartan Stadium was less than 40% full. Twice there were 8k or fewer in the stands.
Stanford brings a rivalry, with history and local relevance, to Spartan Stadium and should see the house packed in rare fashion. But we did not see Stanford practicing with loudspeakers on the field this week to simulate disruptive and eardrum shattering noise, as they did last week before heading to Autzen Stadium. Why? When Stanford gave this game to host at San Jose State, which is a huge help for their attendance woes and efforts to stay in Division I-A football, the Cardinal mandated that they hold onto a majority of the seats. Stanford has 18,000 tickets for Saturday's game, versus the 12,000 for the home team in gold and blue.
We spend most of the season talking about Stanford's players on offense and defense who see the field on Saturdays, which leaves the silent workers of the scout team units out of the limelight. From time to time, we like to highlight those players. They play an unsung yet crucial role in preparing the Stanford offense and defense for the coming contest's opposing personnel and schemes. It is thankless task as each week they discard their Stanford identity, donning a new jersey and emulating a new opponent.
We were looking to see what might be shaken up on offense this week in practices, after the Cardinal collected just 10 points last week. On Tuesday, there was a free-wheeling rotation at three positions. Left tackle was up for grabs between Allen Smith (Oregon starter) and Ben Muth. Left guard was back-and-forth between Josiah Vinson and Ismail Simpson (Oregon starter). Tight end was again the battle we had seen at the end of fall camp between Matt Traverso (Oregon starter) and James Dray.
Who will start at those positions on Saturday at San Jose State is a guess, but on Wednesday we watched during the final "team" period when the first team offense took the field with Smith, Simpson and Traverso at the respective positions. Could there be no changes in the offensive starting lineup this Saturday?
"We don't have many options," Harris answers. "We're just trying to get them one week better and hope that helps."
The center position for Stanford is starting to become healthy again. Two big steps forward this week saw fifth-year senior and putative starter Tim Mattran out of a boot and on the exercise bike during practice. He appears to be on the road to a return, though he did not practice Wednesday. The stated team rule we have heard previously from Walt Harris is that a player has to practice on Wednesday to start that Saturday, and at a minimum practice on Thursday to play that weekend.
More immediately positive news saw redshirt junior Preston Clover practice in full pads Wednesday. This is the first appearance for him since the very first week of training camp, when he injured his knee. Just shy of one month later, the reserve center is right away manning the second team spot on the offensive line. That, incidentally, frees up classmate Mikal Brewer to practice more at right guard with the second string O-line. How soon Clover can take the field, if injury should strike the interior of the Cardinal line - we don't know. But this is a welcome upgrade, in addition to the prospect of return by Mattran, to a frightfully think Stanford offensive line interior.
There was some shake-up in the offensive backfield this week. The rotation we saw in practices leading up to, and then during, the Oregon game at tailback had Anthony Kimble #1, Jason Evans #2 and Toby Gerhart #3. Right out of the gate on Tuesday it was Kimble, Gerhart and then Evans - about what we expected, with the possibility that Gerhart might move into the starting slot. On Wednesday, when the first team offense finished practice against the first team defense, Gerhart was the starting running back. He stayed on the field for the first three plays before substituting to the sideline and giving way to Kimble.
Futile though it may be, we had to ask Walt Harris today if he would give us his starting tailback for the San Jose State game. Will it be Gerhart or Kimble?
"I expect to play them both," the coach quips.
Over on defense, starting jobs are not as obviously up for grabs. Instead, injuries are the talk of this week. Stanford finished without inside linebacker Mike Silva, cornerback Nick Sanchez and cornerback Brandon Harrison in their season opener. Harris on Tuesday cautioned against expectations for Silva, who has battled migraine problems the last year. For what it is worth, Silva did practice extensively both Tuesday and Wednesday. We would not be surprised to see him start on Saturday. The question is can he finish?
More questionable in the starting line-up are those two cornerbacks. Neither practiced on Tuesday and both were relegated to restricted conditioning work, with Harrison not even dressing out in pads. On Wednesday, however, it was Harrison who made it onto the practice field with the defense, albeit with a green jersey to indicate his unwell status. Walt Harris gave no hint today on either player's status for Saturday, but if we had to guess, we'd expect Harrison and not Sanchez on the field.
When neither could practice this week, who were the next two defensive backs onto the field in their place? Cornerback Wopamo Osaisai looks to be the first in line, receiving heavy work this week with the first team defense. Safety Carlos McFall appears to be the next man. McFall was moved to safety in August, but he spent his first two years (when healthy) in college at cornerback and can flip back outside in a pinch. Also keep in mind that Osaisai's appearance in the second half last week at Oregon was his first time on the field as a defensive player in college. He was strictly held last year to special teams by departed defensive coordinator Tom Hayes.
One other effect that will be felt if Harrison cannot play? He was Stanford's punt return at Oregon. In anticipation that he might not be able to play at San Jose State (or might be ready only for a defensive role), the Cardinal worked their next punt returner hard this week. 5'9" redshirt freshman Chris Hobbs spent the most dedicated time on Tuesday fielding punts from a ball machine than I can ever remember in a single practice. He had specialists coach Nate Nelson working individually with him for at least half of the practice.
That change on Saturday could be made due to injury, but there are some other areas to watch on special teams. Kickoff returns were terrible, particularly in light of the new NCAA rule that makes kickers use a shorter one-inch tee. The ball should travel at a lower trajectory under the new rule, putting it in the hands of the returner sooner and giving more room to run before the coverage team can reach him. Anthony Kimble was Stanford's returner and mustered just a 17.0-yard average in his kickoff debut.
Fans quickly cast criticism toward Kimble, many calling for his replacement on kickoff return. That may indeed be justified down the road, but Kimble has not yet proven himself unable at the position. Instead, the kickoff return blockers were entirely at fault at Oregon. It was shocking to see the number of green jerseys in his face before he could make any headway upfield. While T.J. Rushing was an explosive return threat with his speed last year, he had the holes through which to burst, thanks to his wedge and frontline blockers.
Our observations were confirmed by several players and coaches this week, who echoed the kickoff return blocking failure. In particular, Stanford's front five looked like a sieve. The Cardinal coaches have substituted this week with bigger, stronger players in place of last week's turnstile unit.
"We will probably make some personnel changes," Harris allows. "In our kickoff return team, some of those guys need to be back there returning kicks because the way they blocked was atrocious. I don't know of anybody who would like to 'hit it up in there,' as they say, with some of the blocking we got on the kickoff return - especially by the up-front guys. But we're going to change the personnel in some areas and get the rest better."
That is a positive change and gives hope for improvement. One area where we cannot find such optimism is in the field goal unit. Aaron Zagory had three attempts in his college debut, all inside of 40 yards. One was blocked, one was missed, and he made one. The block was not his fault - there was a breakdown by a single player in the protection. But the miss was bad. Walt Harris said on Tuesday that the team would give Zagory more game-like field goal kicking environments this week, which we witnessed both of the last two days. He missed two field goals on Tuesday before hitting his third - all from the same spot and snap. Yesterday, Zagory missed one field goal wide left before hitting the second.
Stanford's field goal kicking this year may have problems with distance and/or accuracy. As a result, Walt Harris is changing the calculus he employs for the Cardinal's fourth downs.
"I'm going to be a little more aggressive this year in terms of that - going for it on fourth down at times," the coach comments.
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