Nobody has oiled the hype machine for Stanford's 2006 passing game, and the dynamic duo of receivers unlike any the Cardinal has seen since the 1999 team that amassed over 130 receptions and 2,300 yards between Biletnikoff Award winner Troy Walters (74-1,456) and DeRonnie Pitts (58-853).
It would be hard for any two receivers, at Stanford or anywhere else, to match those numbers. We nevertheless hold fourth-year wideouts Mark Bradford and Evan Moore to the highest standard this season, and there is every expectation that they should connect with fifth-year senior Trent Edwards for big numbers in the stat sheet and on the scoreboard if they can all stay healthy this year. Moore did not make it to halftime of the 2005 opener, and Edwards could not finish nearly half of his games.
The "Big Three" came out of Eugene last weekend with good health but with an alarmingly low 10 points on the scoreboard in a 38-point conference crushing by Oregon. The numbers from Moore and Bradford did not inspire visions of the Rose Bowl titanic tandem, but even the great Troy Walters stumbled coming out of the gates in '99. Stanford played its own version that year of an ambush opener on the road, plastered by Texas by a 69-17 score that was worse than it sounds. Walters caught three passes for 51 yards and no scores that afternoon in Austin. Pitts added a paltry four catches, though he did gobble up 83 yards and a touchdown.
Believe it or not, Moore and Bradford eclipsed those combined totals last weekend with 13 receptions for 170 yards. The disappointment came in their declining returns as the game at Oregon progressed. Here are their numbers by quarter:
In a game where Stanford was tied at the end of the first quarter (3-3), and then trailed by successively larger margins the remainder of the game, you would expect even in a losing effort to see the Cardinal collect bigger numbers in the receiving game as they passed with greater frequency and urgency. Instead, the dynamic duo deadened with decreasing catch totals every quarter.
As was discussed in-depth by offensive players and coaches after the game, the problem came in the running game. Oregon after the first quarter recognized that the Cardinal could not run the ball effectively and started to increasingly dedicate their safeties to bracket Bradford and Moore. That greatly disadvantaged the passing game, which could also be measured in Edwards' declining completions and percentages. The fifth-year senior signal caller hit for 67% of his passes in the first half, but just 50% in the second half.
Before you cast stones at the Cardinal offensive line and running backs for upending the aerial attack, we again must repeat a little-appreciated lesson from the Oregon game. As much or more than any failures by those principle components of the running game, there was great fault in the blocking of the wide receivers on run plays that allowed them to be blown up before they could develop.
"We need to be able to establish a running game. It's a number of reasons why we can't run the ball," Edwards allows. "You can't put all the blame on the running backs or the offensive linemen. It's a combination of a bunch of different things."
"We had some wideouts who torpedoed a lot of our runs," Walt Harris offers more directly. "They did not block... We had some wideouts that didn't read the coverage properly and blocked the wrong guy. Someone else came in to make the play for a loss, a very small gain or no gain."
Though Harris did not point the finger, it was actually Evan Moore who made the majority of those mistakes. That is disappointing for a 6'7" athlete who could be one of the most physically dominant blocking receivers in many years on The Farm. However, this was also the first complete football game for Moore since 2004. He is probably deserving of a mulligan on misfires in his return to college football, not yet dominant in his blocking assignments.
"He was [dominant] at times," says wide receivers coach Tucker Waugh. "The mistakes that the receiver position made were partly Evan's fault and partly my fault for not preparing him as well as I should have, for a look that I did not expect to get. That's something that we'll make a correction on and move on... I'll take some of the heat on that."
You can believe that Waugh, Moore and the rest of the receiving crew worked hard on blocking this week. That was an overwhelming emphasis from Day One when the Walt Harris regime came on board at the beginning of 2005. There are going to be miscues in the season opener, and as much rust from Moore as any player after his injury and recovery time. The good news is that he has many parts of his game ahead of where we last saw him. In fact, Moore last weekend caught more balls in the first quarter than his 2005 total.
"I'm really excited about him," Waugh says of his supersized weapon. "You have to remember that he had a big injury setback, and it's been a long road back for him. Saturday at Oregon was his first game in a long time. I was pleased with what he did out there, and he is going to skyrocket and have a great year in my opinion. He's got everything in line for a great season."
Moore was our cover boy for the Football Preview issue of The Bootleg Magazine, so some fans criticized his quiet day with no receptions past the first quarter in Oregon. But keep in mind that it is Mark Bradford, by nature of the position he plays in this offense, who is the primary option on many plays in the passing game.
"We need to be a little bit more accurate on our throws and get Mark the ball," Edwards says. "That is what our offense is based on right now."
Bradford indeed collected nine receptions last week, tying his career high, despite the unraveling of the passing game as the afternoon progressed. Beyond the statistics, it was such an impressive performance because the 6'2" senior made plays almost any time the ball was thrown his way. His routes were sharp, and his cuts so precise, that he found separation in a wide variety of routes. Bradford also attacked the ball with energy and explosiveness and snared even the toughest of passes.
Last Saturday was overall such a dismal display by the Cardinal that the coaches refrained from naming their customary award winners for defensive player of the game, special teams player of the game and blocker of the game. Only Bradford on a travel roster of 65 players was deemed worthy of any recognition, earning the offensive award.
"I thought that Mark had a really solid game for us. But he had really good practices, so he prepared to play well," Harris declares. "I think there was only play in the game where I felt like he didn't play like he could have played. I was very excited. He was one of our captains and our offensive player of the game."
"We did feel like he was our player of the game, and he did a really nice job," the coach continues. "He made a great catch on a deep ball, and he made a couple other outstanding snags on out-breaking routes. And when he got drilled, he popped right back up, too."
We told you in August that Bradford was poised for a breakout year. The turnaround we saw from him after the spring in his work ethic, focus and off-the-field preparation was remarkable. Clearly to our eyes, the proverbial light came on for this Stanford senior. He started hitting the film room daily with Moore and Edwards, was was a rarity in the past. His consistency during summer workouts was the best we have ever seen from him, and that carried into every one of his weight room and conditioning sessions.
"[Tuesday] we had the toughest practice of the year. We ran 14 sprints and really worked hard in practice, and at no time since I have coached Mark have I seen him in better physical condition. He was top notch all the way to the last snap of practice. In my mind, that is the difference," Waugh says. "He has always been outstanding with strength and conditioning, and he has stepped it up even more. We put up a receiver board in our meeting room today that has all the tests that Ron Forbes measures the guys on, and he was the number one guy in every category. You can't ask much more of a guy than that. He doesn't talk much and doesn't say much to teammates. He's a leader by example, and he's doing a fantastic job of that on and off the field right now."
"To me, it's all about his preparation," Harris echoes. "He had the right mindset in the summer and worked hard as often as he was healthy, so he was programmed to have a good game. And he had a good game."
Reciprocating the compliment, Bradford gives a world of credit to the teaching tandem of Harris and Waugh in propelling him forward as a wide receiver since they arrived last year. Harris of course has the credentials, coaching three Biletnikoff Award winners. It is no surprise that he and Waugh have made such a difference for Bradford.
"They have helped me a lot - I would say, tremendously - because of the way that they have pushed me and stayed on me the whole time that they have been here," the senior says. "They have never given me a second of rest. They are always telling me, 'You're good but you can do this better.' They are always finding something to argue about and telling me something that I do wrong. I think that's been really good for me. It's been great motivation. They have made me an example for the younger players as well. I think they have also found ways to get me the ball. It's good for me to be that guy."
Additionally, we expected to see a surge for Bradford in this year - his last in a Cardinal uniform.
"Anytime a guy hears 'senior' next to his name, that puts an added emphasis on that season," Waugh grins.
"This is my last year," Bradford describes. "I'm trying to put in all the work that I can, just trying to let it all go because there is no reason to save anything. This is it. Time is up. It's time to perform."
We were not so sure this would happen, however, in the spring. Bradford looked unremarkable during the Cardinal's April practices, and certainly not like the man-on-a-mission we have seen since. Part of that was focus, but there was also a physical dimension. He started the spring with a groin injury and also battle shin splints.
"At that time, I wasn't performing well," he laments. "My body was really hurting me bad. I was trying to recuperate from some injuries, and I just wasn't performing."
After a disappointing set of spring practices, Bradford rededicated himself to overcoming those struggles and maximizing his talents in the 2006 season.
"It needs total dedication as far as being in the right condition, working out at full speed all the time," he articulates. "I have to try to go as hard as possible every rep that I get, so that I'm ready and able to play a full game, like Coach Harris has designed for me to do. I want to live up to the expectations that he has for me and that I have for myself."
"It was also focusing on some of the things in the off-season that are outside of the field, as well - in the weight room and inside the video room watching as much film as possible," Bradford adds. "Knowing what I'm doing and preparing as much as possible, so that I'm reacting instead of thinking about what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm just out there playing. It's more mental than anything."
That has been an important gap between the highs and lows we have seen the previous three years by Bradford. He has had flashes based mostly on his natural abilities but been unable to sustain top performances without all of the additional elements of preparation he has today. Now, finally, the Stanford senior is becoming a truly complete player with the advent of earnest film study.
"He would never tell anyone, but he knows everything that could possibly happen at his position on the field. He is a great student of the game, although not many people know that," Waugh shares. "I think he's really grown in that area. He has taken an ownership in the offense. Obviously the offense is great for him, and he has used that as motivation to learn every possible thing that could happen to him on the field. And he knows it."
"And he has drastically improved his blocking," the coach adds. "He made a big block in the Oregon game and got us a big first down on a Toby Gerhart run play, and I was really happy with that."
In addition to being a vastly improved mental football player, Bradford has pushed his physical training to new levels. He has always been a gifted athlete, but competing against the best athletes in the country each week in the Pac-10, the Los Angeles native has learned that it takes hard work to be at the top. As Waugh attested, this is the by far the best condition we have seen from Bradford, and that has not come by accident.
"I think that has to do with the things I did in the off-season, and as well as Coach Forbes. I want to take my hat off to him and some of the things that he has done in the off-season for us. I think that the prepared us well for this season and for camp," Bradford describes. "I was doing a lot of extra stuff, just trying to stay after it and doing anything extra that I can to get myself better. Get my chemistry right with Trent. Catching deep balls. Staying after practice. In the weight room, I'm lifting a little bit extra, trying to get my core right. I think that will benefit me for the season."
And how does he substantively feel those benefits?
"Now I'm keeping my mind and be able to respond when I'm really tired," he answers. "I think that was a problem for me last year. A lot of times I got really tired and wasn't really able to do the things that I want to do. I wasn't able to think. If I have to make an adjustment or a route change, it requires a lot of thinking to do that. I needed to be fresh because when I got tired, I didn't think as much when I played and made a few mistakes that I wouldn't have made if I wasn't tired. I'm trying to cut down the mistakes, and I think conditioning has helped that."
It also helps that Bradford is holding himself to a higher standard this year. He may have been Stanford's best wide receiver the last three years, but now he wants to be the best that he can be. And that is a high ceiling.
To wit, his nine receptions, 108 yards and beautiful touchdown generated little excitement for Bradford in the first game of his last collegiate season.
"I think that I played decent," he opines. "I don't think that I did anything out of the ordinary. I think that the scheme got me open a lot. I was able to beat my guy when it was single coverage, but then I wasn't able to do a lot extra. That's one of the things I that I wanted to do this year. I worked out really hard over the off-season and wanted to do a little extra. I think that I played decent. I don't think that I played bad, but I don't think that I played up to my ability."
"There were a couple plays that maybe I could have blocked a guy little differently," the perfectionist notes. "On maybe two plays, I could have maybe converted and made a different play if things went different on a route."
That means that Bradford expects more from himself the remainder of this season. So, too, should we. Which is a fun thought indeed when looking ahead to the next three months of Stanford Football.
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