The Cardinal campus is in the throes of Reunion Homecoming Weekend, with many Stanford alumni traveling from afar about to take their first step into the new Stanford Stadium and catch their first in-person glance at this year's football team. The Cardinal's 0-6 record this fall has been every bit as bad as it looks, though there is hope in the air today that transcends simple homecoming hoopla and spirit. Stanford made measurable strides its last two games, which inspires a belief that this team is improving rather than imploding.
"Just based on the way I think we have progressed over the past couple of games, we have a much more legitimate shot of winning this game than we did the previous weeks," offers fifth-year senior quarterback Trent Edwards.
What the Cardinal quarterback is also thinking, but smart enough to not say publicly, is that Stanford's opponent also inspires some hope. Across the line of scrimmage this afternoon will be a 2-4 Arizona team that is also winless in Pac-10 play. As great and horrific as Stanford's struggles have been on offense, missing its breadth of wide receivers and its star fullback, the Wildcats' woes have been equally awful.
Arizona is the only team in the conference with a worse rushing game, averaging 2.1 yards per carry and a mere 54.8 yards per game. The Wildcats alone rank beneath the Card in passing offense this fall, tossing just four touchdowns and 193.3 yards per game. Arizona's 5.6 yards per completion and 53.4% completions are both last in the Pac-10. These are the only two teams in the conference with less than two touchdowns per game and less than 300 yards of total offense per outing.
It is hard to not reflect upon last year's meeting between these two teams in Tucson. Stanford accumulated just 195 yards of total offense, punted the ball eight times and converted only one of 12 third downs. Arizona had its own struggles moving the ball, punting six times and turning it over another five times. Stanford won an unsightly game, 20-16, though the teams' defenses deserved a good deal of credit for the difficulty moving the ball and scoring. The Cardinal had five sacks and made a number of big plays. Arizona's athletes made it difficult all afternoon for the Cardinal to run (top two backs totaled 27 yards on 12 carries) or find open receivers (running backs were two of the three leading receivers; Mark Bradford caught just three balls for 26 yards).
Fast forward to today, where Stanford is having greater problems on offense and Arizona's athletic defense is a year older and more imposing. The Cardinal won that unsightly game due largely to a +5 turnover margin, but turnovers in 2006 have been one of the largest challenges for Stanford. Just because the Wildcats are woeful in many ways, that does not mean that the Cardinal don't have cut out for them a tall task this afternoon.
"We will have to play much better on all three phases to have a chance in this game because these guys are pretty good in the athletic part and the physical part," says Cardinal head coach Walt Harris.
While Mike Stoops may be a poor head coach, he is a good defensive coach and has a stable of big, strong, fast and athletic tools at his disposal. Arizona's defensive numbers have been exacerbated by a poor offense (sound familiar?), but there is obvious respect from Stanford for those athletes. Many players and coaches after last year's game in Tucson remarked how big and fast the Wildcats were on defense, and a number of those were young players who are bigger, faster and better today.
"I don't know what their situation is, but you watch their tape and watch their athletes - they are very, very athletic and very, very big. They look good. They look good in uniform and in how they run and move," Harris assesses. [That is coaching code, by the way, for honest respect of athletes and players who are not winning like they should.]
"Their defense has played with everybody they have played this year. We know that they have had some problems on offense, but the defense looks really good," echoes redshirt sophomore running back Anthony Kimble. "They have good linebackers - really big. The D-line is really big and active. They have some really good cover guys in the secondary."
How does an injury- and talent-challenged offense win against an athletically and physically superior defense? As redshirt junior cornerback Tim Sims commented this week when asked about Stanford's last win, 11 months ago at Oregon State, it takes an opportunistic offense. Stanford fell short in just about every measurable offensive statistic last October, relative to Arizona, but the Cardinal converted three turnovers for scores. Three times when they started in Arizona territory, they came up with a touchdown and two field goals. Stanford put together only one sustained drive that traveled more than 35 yards, when they opened the second half and took the ball 80 yards for a touchdown on 10 plays. The windows of opportunity will present themselves at various times in today's game, regardless of the statistics on the scoreboard, and Stanford will have to convert.
Walt Harris calls that the "sudden-change game." There are metrics and keys he discusses every week in practice with the Stanford team, several of which you have heard about repeatedly. The team that wins the turnover game wins the scoreboard, as is evidenced 80% of the time in the NFL. Harris hammers the field position game, as well. But the sudden-change game is one we first heard about this week when we asked the question of how the Cardinal can make itself an opportunistic offense.
"When you do get a turnover, that's considered a sudden change. Your offense goes out there, not after a punt and not after a kickoff, and have some momentum on your side," Edwards explains. "Being able to capitalize on that is a huge part of the game - being very opportunistic when your defense does create turnovers for you. I think a lot of the games last year were won by winning the turnover ratio and the sudden-change game."
But other players also answer the question by first dismissing the idea that there should be any particular concern or fear for the offense this week. Arizona's strength may be their defense, but they are far from superhuman. The Wildcats rank sixth in the conference in total defense and have been hit for 348.3 yards and 22.7 poins per game this year.
"We have to play to make something happen. We can't just play thinking that we are not going to be able to move the ball against these guys or not able to score against these guys," Kimble contends. "We feel like when we are doing what we know we can do, we can move the ball and score against anyone."
Part of that confidence comes for Kimble and his offensive teammates from their most recent performance in South Bend. The Stanford starting tailback ran for 4.2 yards per carry, and freshman Toby Gerhart also impressed at a 4.7 yards-per-carry clip. Against a talented Notre Dame defensive line, the Stanford offensive line blocked well, and the backs took advantage. The Cardinal top twosome only carried the ball 21 times (Stanford ran just 49 plays) but were only once stopped for a loss.
"I thought we ran the ball - way better than we have - against a physical front," Harris praises. "We were all pleased with that. I thought that Anthony ran hard, and so did Toby."
"The O-line did a great job opening up holes," Kimble credits. "Toby and I did a good job hitting the holes. We probably should have gotten more yardage - especially me on some of the holes that I had. The holes were there, so we just have to keep moving on and moving forward."
"I thought our running backs ran very well last week against a solid defensive scheme," Edwards adds. "I thought we ran the ball well early on, and that helped me out a lot in terms of creating a little more separation in the secondary. They're not knowing where we are going to throw the ball in particular downs we were throwing, and that was a lot due to our running game last week."
Unfortunately, the running game did falter when Kimble carried twice near the goalline at the end of Stanford's impressive opening drive. The Cardinal marched 70 yards in its first 10 plays, but Kimble could only pick up a total of one yard on his 1st & Goal and 2nd & Goal runs from inside the five-yardline. His first three runs of the drive of six, nine and six yards - in addition to a 10-yard gain by Gerhart - do inspire confidence.
"We have to find a way to get it in. Just force our will and find a way to get it in," Kimble says. "Just showing that we could drive the ball against them, I think really helped us out starting that game. We hadn't started any game really fast and done anything on offense, so I feel it helped our confidence."
A mystery of that offense in South Bend, however, was that the offensive line had such visible success in run blocking yet struggled to pass protect for Edwards. That was due in part to the now often-told story of Stanford's wide receivers, a hodge-podge of walk-ons and true freshmen that have uneven success getting open or simply catching the ball. Nevertheless, the pass protection fault lied justly and foremost on the heads of the same offensive linemen who were able to defeat the same Notre Dame defensive linemen in the running game. Such a clear dichotomy is somewhat surprising.
"I believe that our technique was a lot better in the run game than it was in the pass game," Harris offers in an explanation. And the Cardinal coaches made a move this week to try and help close that gap. Fifth-year senior right tackle Jeff Edwards gave way to redshirt freshman Chris Marinelli on the first team offensive line, and the 6'7" 320-pound Marinelli is expected today to make his first collegiate start. The size, athleticism and talent of Arizona's front four will make for a difficult debut, but no time is an easy time for change for an 0-6 ballclub.
"We're just trying to find the right combination," Harris says. "That doesn't mean the other guy won't play. It just means that we're trying to play more guys and see if we can find someone who can be more consistent."
"I think Chris has the right mindset. He's welcoming the opportunity. He's very coachable," Trent Edwards offers on his new right tackle. "I think he's going to do a great job for us this week. There is no reason why I should think differently or any guys on the team should think differently. He's a second-year system guy and should be able to get the job done for us."
The other hope in improving the passing game for Stanford comes at wide receiver. We continue our "Wideout Watch" as the Cardinal cling to hope for a return for any or all of their three injured non-freshman scholarship receivers. Last week there was very limited practice for redshirt junior Evan Moore, who is using a custom orthotic sleeve on his injured right foot to redirect pressure away from his third metatarsal bone, recovering from a stress reaction. Part of that equipment, for which Moore was fitted by a private practitioner in Durham (N.C.), included a flat and rigid insert in his shoe. Moore found discomfort and pain from that last week and took it out. This week he practiced Tuesday with the greatest effectiveness and with the least pain since his injury. However, he came back hobbling on Wednesday.
At first sight, one might think that Moore aggravated his stress reaction. MRI scans showed that there was no setback, however. The bone continues to heal. Moore instead felt soreness in the rest of his foot after pounding the weight of his 6'7" body for a full practice, after a relatively sedentary several weeks.
Following Wednesday's practice, Harris told us that he does not expect Moore to play today. His hungry wideout remains hopeful that lighter activity late in the week, including yesterday's gentle walk-through practice, could allow him to feel pain-free enough to run effectively this afternoon.
"He's trying harder to get in practice, but when it hurts, it hurts," Harris says. "You can't change directions. And I don't think he can protect himself."
"It's hard to come off an injury, be 100 percent healthy and try to play in a game because the speed of a game is a lot different than the speed of a practice. In those situations we take the low-key, slow-key approach for the young man's health," the coach continues. "I don't think it's going to be for a while, and hopefully I can be surprised."
"I think it takes a week coming back practicing before you're ready to play," Harris adds. "He hasn't practiced. This is a game that you have to practice, with all the adjustments and all the route reads. Plus, he hasn't played much in this offense anyway. He missed last year and he hasn't played much yet this year, obviously."
The Cardinal head coach is more optimistic about the chances of playing fifth-year senior Marcus McCutcheon today. We thought the veteran wideout would play last week in South Bend, but Harris took the "low-key, slow-key" approach and held him out. McCutcheon had just a few days of any level of practice activity under his belt after a month of complete inactivity. That was not enough to fairly put the fifth-year senior on the field last Saturday, but another week of successful work has greatly improved the odds for an appearance today.
"I think he'll feel more confident," Harris says of McCutcheon's second week of practices. "You heal quicker physically than you do mentally... The more you practice and the more you get bounced around a little bit, the more confident you are. This is a tough, brutal game. We want our guys feeling good and feeling healthy, and we do appreciate their desire coming back. Hopefully Marcus will be in the lineup somewhere."
"That's what comes back more slowly - the strength, the running ability, the acceleration and all of those kinds of things," the coach continues. "Because of our situation, we might have to play him. He's healthy enough. The good thing is that we've had him back practicing a couple of weeks. We really try not to push a guy into playing too fast. They have to heal physically before they heal mentally."
A tangential benefit felt this week in practice by the additions of McCutcheon and Moore, regardless of how much they play today, was felt in the quality and consistency of execution. Coaches all over college football will tell you that you play as well as you practice, and the Cardinal had a better week of practices on offense as a result of adding two veterans to a receiver stable stacked with inexperience.
"It's much easier on me to have some of those older guys who are more in-tune and aren't making the minor mistakes that the young guys do, and I made those same mistakes myself when I was a young quarterback," Edwards offers. "Those older guys don't make those mistakes as often, so that makes my job easier and it makes practice run a little bit smoother. That makes your confidence improve, as a result of that."
Despite his optimism and excitement in that respect, the fifth-year senior signal caller has mixed emotions about a rushed return for either wide receiver. Edwards talks of the gray area that these wide receivers, and any recovering injured player, have to consider in attempting their return to action.
"How much am I going to help the offense, how much am I going to help the team over the person playing in front of me? There is that barrier you have to cross," Edwards explains. "Do I sit out and nurse my injury a little bit more and make sure my injury is 100 percent when I come back? Or am I, not at full strength, better helping this team than some of the other guys playing in front of me?"
Evan Moore may be 6'7", and that is something no other wide receiver - healthy or otherwise - can replicate for the Cardinal. But his ability to run a few patterns pain-free may or may not necessarily mean that he is able to be effective. Moore learned his first spring with Harris of the challenges and demands that this offense brings for a wide receiver. He was healthy but ineffective at performing the breadth of his duties, at first. If his lack of repetitions or his marginalized physical condition again compromise his cuts, his blocks and beating press coverage, can he help?
Going a step further, Edwards also expresses concern that a rushed return for his friend and teammate could set him back in his injury recovery. Aggravating his foot today could hurt his ability to play for several more weeks, or the remainder of the season.
"I hope something like what happened to Tim Mattran doesn't happen to him," the quarterback cautions. "You don't know how hard to push it sometimes, and you can sometimes make the situation worse. Hopefully that won't happen."
If Stanford does not upgrade its passing game today, or if the running game cannot replicate its success of seven days ago, there is an additional weapon at the Cardinal's disposal: the trick play. Edwards told us last week when we sat down with him that the team was prepared to dig into its bag of tricks. "Why leave any clubs in the bag?"
Kimble tossed an ugly but ultimately effective halfback pass three days later for a big Stanford touchdown and momentum swing. Harris and the offense have more clubs to unsheathe and are anxious to swing away. The opportunity has to correctly present itself - Edwards actually checked out of the Kimble pass play two downs earlier - but there is a greater willingness to take a chance when you are 0-6.
"If it requires a fake punt, an on-side kick, defensive turnovers, halfback passes - whatever - why not? Why not continue to use those to our advantage?" Edwards asks rhetorically.
Stanford on paper is falling rapidly down a slippery slide to 0-12 and will be outmatched athletically today, but with improvements in field position, turnovers, the running game - plus hopeful changes in the passing game - why not grab that elusive first win this afternoon? Why not?
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