Weathering the Big Blows

From the Xs and Os perspective, Stanford has their hands full tonight with their NCAA-worst rushing defense against Navy's #4-ranked ground game. But the bigger challenge may come on offense for the Cardinal, where they had the team's strength until a pair of devastating losses this week to senior starters. The emotional and tactical disadvantages will be difficult today and throughout the season.

The core of hope for this year of Stanford Football was found in the seniors on the offense.  The Cardinal possessed a rare combination of experience and talent at a number of positions, and years of watching not only football on The Farm but also throughout the Pac-10 has taught us that this is the number one predictor of offensive success.

Stanford however took two giant blows this week, losing two of their most talented offensive skill players in a number of years.  Wide receiver Mark Bradford and fullback Nick Frank are done for the season.  Bradford might return next season for a fifth-year, though that is a questionable proposition we will save for another day, and Frank has medically retired from football.  Both projected for monster years for Stanford and high draft positions in April.

In the blink of an eye, the Cardinal are now a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of offensive experience and proven playmaking talent.  Bradford gives way to a wide receiver core that includes two true freshmen and a handful of walk-ons.  Frank is replaced by a fourth-year player who only a month ago awakened from a long slumber of ineffectiveness in college, and behind him a handful of players with no playing experience.

Before considering the impact of talent on the field, we are struck by the emotional devastation that has been apparent this week with the Stanford Football team and the offense in particular.  Two hard-working and universally revered players were cruelly and unexpectedly struck from the face of the offense, and their friends and teammates are devastated.

"I just couldn't believe it," says wide receiver Evan Moore.  "Nobody really deserved to have a better season and to have more fun playing this game than Mark did this year.  He approached his game so differently this year, mentally and physically.  He was primed for a great year.  I looked forward to playing with him this year.  We had high expectations for each other, and being on the field together because we came in together.  Just seeing him on crutches right now kills me."

"What made Saturday's loss even harder was seeing Mark on Sunday in a cast," echoes quarterback Trent Edwards.  "Part of it was shock.  Part of it was sadness and frustration.  The amount of time we put in together this winter, this spring and this summer.  And just the fact that he is a receiver who you can throw the ball anywhere for Mark, and he can go up and get it for you.  He is one of the top receivers in the country.  We have grown up together in this program, and to not have him these next 10 games is devastating."

"Personally to have Mark be a good friend of mine and to see him go down like that is very difficult to swallow, but it's something you have to do," Edwards adds.  "I'm still in a denial mode right now.  I'm still thinking that I can go over there and cut his cast off, and he'll be able to play this weekend.  It won't really settle in until probably Saturday's game, at kickoff, when he is not there at the 'Z' position.  It's a difficult thing to even talk about.  He's a guy who worked so hard, and he's in my senior class.  To see him go down is very, very difficult.  I'm still kind of in denial mode right now."

Just as the team was starting to come to grips with Bradford's loss, the Frank news struck like a thunderbolt on Thursday.  Players were unavailable for interviews at that point in the week, but the shock and horror was widespread.  In some ways, it was even more terrifying to hear because it came with no warning.  The senior fullback had practiced the breadth of the team's Wednesday two-hour workout, and the next time teammates saw him on Thursday he was delivering the news that he had to stop playing football.

There is no time to grieve for this 0-2 football team with a Navy squad in town that possesses the fourth-best rushing offense in the nation, which is an apocalyptic match-up against Stanford's Division I-A worst rushing defense.  While we are stupefied by the loss of these two starters, Stanford has to quickly usher in the age of their replacements.

Redshirt junior Emeka Nnoli was already rotating a healthy amount of time with Frank the last two games, and Nnoli enjoyed a rousing revival of his college football career with a surge in preseason training camp.  He has the athleticism and power to do many of the things we hoped Frank could bring to the position, while also a stout blocker.  Nnoli also has shown us a nice playmaking ability catching balls out of the backfield.

"I think Emeka is going to do a great job this year," Frank offers.  "I think everybody got to see a bit of his ability throughout training camp.  I think he is going to help this team out tremendously."

Behind Nnoli appears to be redshirt freshman Josh Catron, from what we saw this week in practices.  He was a switch to offense after playing last year at linebacker, and he is totally untested.  Should Nnoli enjoy health, further fullback depth might appear to be an afterthought.  However, Stanford embraced a "heavy" backfield formation this year that pitted Frank at tailback behind Nnoli, specializing in short-yardage power running situations.  Whether the Cardinal coaches have faith in running that sans Frank remains to be seen.  Our guess is that those plays might perhaps be called with a tight end in the fullback position.  Patrick Danahy and Matt Traverso have both lined up in backfield situations during their Cardinal careers, and Erik Lorig is also a gifted run blocker.

We also wonder what will be unveiled on special teams.  Frank's heralded contribution last week at San Jose State was a one-yard rushing touchdown, but he also recovered a fumble on special teams kickoff coverage.  that sparked Stanford in the first half and immediately was converted for a touchdown.  Frank is also wedge blocker alongside Nnoli on kickoff returns.  Frank is a deep protector in the kicking game as well.

Bradford was poised for what I am sure would have been a 1,000-yard season for Stanford.  In the fog of the opening loss at Oregon, fans may not have appreciated the show Bradford put on and how unstoppable he was in catching the ball.  In his place starting today is true freshman Richard Sherman, who already tasted heavy action last Saturday - Bradford left the game after being injured on Stanford's second offensive play.  Sherman caught six passes for 71 yards, plus a big first-half touchdown.

There was hope already in place for Sherman, from the time he was recruited as a high school senior last fall at Compton (Calif.) Dominguez High School.  It is also fitting that he replaces Bradford from this point, given that the Stanford senior took the youngster under his wing as a mentor this summer while they trained on campus.  The torch was expected to be handed off several months from now, but the early exchange may not be too clumsy.

"I was very pleasantly surprised," says Edwards of Sherman's ascension last Saturday.  "He is a guy who is really going to need to help us out.  He is a guy I worked hard with in the off-season.  I sat down Monday with him and watched a lot of Navy film, talking coverages, talking about what their DBs like to do and watching last year's tape with how they covered Mark.  Getting on the same page with him is something I'm trying to do all week.  I was pleasantly surprised, and I'm going to be pleasantly surprised on Saturday, too."

Sherman has speed that can stretch the field, which we expected from his big-play receiving numbers in high school and then his MVP performance at the California high school track & field championships this past spring.

"His speed and his endurance - he can run a lot of routes at a very high speed for a long time.  That's what you want.  That's a guy you want to throw to," Edwards applauds.  "Maybe on first and second down he is blocking really hard in the run game, and on a critical third down he can break open and create some separation.  That's what Richard is able to do."

That being said, there is a structural change that needs to take place with the Stanford offense.  As we have written previously, most of Walt Harris' offense have employed a progression that looks first at the 'Z' receiver (a.ka. the 'flanker') in the offense.  That was Bradford's position.  That was the position where Harris' award-winning receivers played at Pittsburgh.

Evan Moore plays the 'X' wide receiver (a.k.a the 'split end') position, which often is found on the short side of the field and has to play in crowded conditions.  He is the second look in Edwards' progression on many plays, but you would obviously like to see him better leveraged now that Bradford is gone from the field.  What things should we look for changed tonight in the Cardinal passing offense?

"Maybe the progressions," Edwards answers. " Maybe don't look to the 'Z' quite as long because of the personnel change.  Maybe put the 'X' as the primary in the progression more than we have in the last two years.  There are just some minor changes that we're going to make, but Richard can do an incredible job and I know that he will.  He will still be able to beat those DBs."

"The 'Z' is a lot of times the first look in the offense," Moore admits.  "Just naturally, I'm going to have to play a bigger role than I usually have - not that my role before was small.  Richard [Sherman] is a freshman, and I don't have a lack of confidence at all.  Richard played very well on Saturday.  But I'm going to have to shoulder the load a little bit more.

Emotionally and tactically, there will be serious challenges for the Cardinal tonight.  This game is tougher than it looks on paper because of Stanford's two big blows they took this week, but it also sets up the chance for an emotional and uplifting inflection point to the season if they can come away with a win.  Vegas calls this game about even, but if feels like a sink-or-swim game that could swing either way.  We will see soon enough.

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