I wanted to lead with this so everyone would see it: Thanks a million to Mike Eubanks. Three years ago Mike gave a wide-eyed freshman his first shot writing women's basketball and I owe ME97 and The Bootleg everything that's come since. No matter how busy he was, he always had enough time for half-hour talks breaking down the football team position-by-position, or popping on KZSU at halftime of another blowout, or explaining, for the 50th time, that I couldn't use contractions under his watch. (Sorry, couldn't resist. Oops, and another one.) He made me a better reporter and writer and I am sure he will do the same for Stanford Athletics.
Pregame - Could Stanford have landed Michigan senior RB Michael Hart? If my hometown paper's to be believed (Detroit Free Press, August 30), that's not some crazy pipe dream, his mother wanted him to come here all along.
"His mother didn't want him going to Michigan," the Detroit Free Press writes in an article about the effect of his sister's death when Michael was six. "Hart had family in Detroit on his father's side. They hadn't been a part of his life, really… She wanted her son to go to Stanford, or some other place far away, where he could be a kid again, and leave the responsibility of his family behind."
He comes across as a bright kid, honestly better-spoken than most of the guys on our team. (I am not just saying this, most Michigan footballers I've talked to certainly aren't.) If the numbers are real (1,280 old SAT as a sophomore, 94% average, Top Five in his class, according to the Free Press), he certainly would have gotten in. I am too young to have been following it, but it makes you wonder: did Stanford recruit this guy?
And how different would the team have been with him? He doesn't have breakaway speed or strength, but you can't teach pure football instincts, and those make Hart one of the best tailbacks in the nation, right up there in recent college football with two guys named Bush and Clarett. For one thing, Stanford would have made a bowl in 2006. I guess Walt Harris would still be the coach. Just as well.
Pregame - That's what I get for going all "flauntskc" and talking about my hometown school. Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32. Hart did hit 189 yards and three scores. Michigan just lost to a school with this as their official promotional video, no joke. I'm going to go cry in the bathroom now.
12:45 p.m. – Snarky comment number one: 40,000 expected? Not unless they all dressed as bleachers. The side of the stadium under the press box is mostly full. The other two-thirds of the stadium is about half-full, with many of the upper-deck sections as populated as a Provo liquor shop. Students fill two of their four lower-bowl sections – not bad considering school doesn't start for another three weeks. I guess 29,000, my coworker guesses 28,000. Of course that means official attendance will be announced at 35,000. If they're not too busy, I'd like these people to calculate my grade point. (3:08 p.m. edit: Attendance announced at 38,860. Unless the national bipolar convention is in the stands and they all counted themselves twice – no way, no how.)
Snarky comment number two: When did our cheerleaders get hot? Yeah, I'm not in a bitter mood or anything.
12:50 – Okay, eight months of buildup, time for the actual game. Stanford dodges a major early bullet. The defense forces a three-and-out after T.C. Ostrander fumbles at Stanford's 41 and UCLA kicker Kai Forbath misses a 28-yard chip shot. That's what you get for naming your kid "Kai."
12:58 – Ostrander is 6-of-9 early, for 35 yards. Gotta stretch a defense more than that – the secondary is going to start to cheat.
1:00 – A few quick early thoughts: it's hard to tell if Stanford's defense is better or if UCLA's offense has yet to click. The Cardinal offense has been disappointing – though to be fair, sophomore tailback Toby Gerhart was a late (and undisclosed) scratch after hurting his hamstring on Wednesday. Maybe Hart wants to transfer?
1:07 – And that's why they're No. 14 and Stanford isn't. Brandon Breazell makes an incredible one-handed catch over junior corner Wopamo Osaisai – hard to fault his defense – for a 30-yard fade and UCLA's first positive pass of the day. On the next play, a Pat Maynor shoestring tackle is all that keeps tailback Chris Markey from the end zone. This is starting to look eerily like the Harris era.
1:09 – UCLA's Ben Olson launches another fade (they must have seen something from last year's tape), this one slightly underthrown to Joe Cowan. Corner Tim Sims, goat of the collapse to the Bruins here two years ago, didn't turn around quickly enough. 4:26 to go – UCLA 7, Stanford 0. The drive: four plays, 60 yards, 1:19. Too fast too easy.
1:17 – The dink-and-dunk works for Stanford. First comes a dump to tight end Ben Ladner on the right sideline, and then one to backup tailback Jason Evans on the left sideline. I guess it's the optimal strategy when you're overmatched – just play it safe, play within yourself and all that coach-speak, but it's not a winning one in the long-haul. Sure enough, the football gods assert themselves on the next play, a Stanford third-and-six with 1:44 to go at the Bruin 46. All 11 defenders are within 10 yards of the line, so when Ostrander's pass is a little behind Evan Moore at the sticks (4:00 p.m. edit: ominous foreshadowing), Trey Brown is all over it and kills any shot Moore had. That's what happens when you don't have the athletes to stretch the field.
1:19 – A punt from the 46 is downed at the 8, you can't ask for much more than that. My punt thought of the day: when a team's kicking from midfield and trying to pin an opponent deep, why don't more teams kick for the corner? If memory serves right, it was much more frequent even 10 years ago. Counting on a stationary sideline to down your kick seems a much safer bet than a gunner who has to sprint 40 yards through two blockers, locate a ball over his back shoulder and knock it backwards, all while avoiding running into the returner or stepping into the end zone.
1:21 – Two sick runs by Kahlil Bell: First, a banging run up the gut for eight, then a flash of speed to pull away from a several defenders and move into the Stanford red zone. You can see the body language change on the Stanford sidelines. The guys I talked to over the summer really felt this season really was different, and really do believe. (I wasn't writing anything remotely like this 12 months ago.) Like I said the day he was hired, the true test of Harbaugh will be how well he can pull it together at 2-7 – the optimism would be a much tougher sell at that point.
1:24 – Nine carries for 111 for UCLA at the end of the first. That's about what I expected. Congrats to Bowlsby, it's much more professional up in the press box this year. Other games' scores now lag only 30 minutes, instead of two hours. The press box announcer is continually updating top-25 and Pac-10 scores (somewhat redundant in the ESPN.com era, but still a good gesture). Why not extend the same treatment for everyone else and announce scores over the main PA and display them on the Jumbotron, as is standard in any other BCS stadium?
1:26 – Great pursuit and shoestring tackle of Markey by Pat Maynor on a second down. He covered a lot of ground real quick and, from my angle, likely saved (delayed?) a touchdown.
1:27 – And the scary thing is, many of us think the corners are a relative strength on this year's defense. Touchdown UCLA on, you guessed it, a fade, as Gavin Ketchum (who?) skies over Wopamo Osaisai, who fails to turn around quite quickly enough. 14-0 on a six-play, 92-yard 2:07 drive. Talk about wasting great field position.
1:35 – UCLA corner Michael Norris, no relation to Chuck, hops a third-and-16 crossing route and had the ball dead to rights, but dropped it. But here's what caused me to let out a big glare-inducing "Oooh": Richard Sherman ran out his route a few steps longer than he needed to, leaned with the body and absolutely blindsided Norris. Clean? Borderline. Gritty? No doubt.
1:39 – The defense holds UCLA to a three-and-out punt. Big break as UCLA crashes Chris Hobbs' punt return party before the ball does, giving Stanford the 15 yards back it lost on a chop block flag its last offensive possession.
1:42 – Looked like too much distance, not enough air on Ostrander's streak attempt to Moore in single coverage. To be fair, it's near-impossible for me to tell in real-time whether it was Moore who slowed or was jammed or Ostrander just airing it out too long, but that was ugly, missing by a good 10 yards. Looked like Moore slowed – but only after he realized the ball was already five yards past him.
1:46 – Great penetration by Erik Lorig turns a 2nd-and-2 at the Bruin 12 (again, great field position for Stanford) into a 3rd-and-5. UCLA doesn't exactly look en route to the 10-2 and BCS berth that I predicted, needing a last-second timeout to avert a delay of game, and then bounce-passing their third-down out route. Just throw the fade, Bruins. Stanford ball at midfield.
1:52 – Ostrander throws high to Anthony Kimble and Moore on six-yard routes over the middle. He has not looked good today. I think people underestimate the drop-off Stanford's going to suffer at QB after the loss of Trent Edwards. Most of my friends just took the position as a given, implicitly assuming a senior quarterback in the wings would perfectly replace the one who left. As one of the professional Stanford writers put it postgame, there were times today when he couldn't hit the backside of the barn. After a third-down misfire to Mark Bradford, Jay Ottovegio again pins UCLA back – this time at their 13.
1:55 – After first- and second-down runs between the tackles set up a 3rd-&-3, I've got to ask what the heck is UCLA doing on offense? If you've got something that's gone more often than not for touchdowns (corner fades), keep going to it and blow your opponent out of the water, instead of these runs between the tackle and swing routes with a much lower upside. Pete Carroll would be going for touchdown number five right now. Typical Dorrell.
1:57 – Of course, as I say that, UCLA slants over the middle for a first down and then busts out a double-reverse to move the chains again and reach their 43. Teams often play it conservative at the beginning of the season when they're heavily favored and feeling comfortable, not wanting to burn too much of the playbook or show too much on tape. Guess that's UCLA's train of thought.
1:58 – Clinton Synder takes what looked like a (clean) helmet-to-helmet hit from my vantage and goes down hard. He's on all fours for a minute, then walks off on his own power, with trainers on either side.
2:03 – Gotta like Alex Fletcher making the pass interference call for the officials as Richard Sherman gets jumped on a second-and-one. UCLA lost this one, but they're broken up about six passes because they're not giving Stanford's receivers any cushion. Next play is a 13-yard slant to Sherman. Soon after comes a great Bradford catch for a first down on an Ostrander slant well behind him (and likely headed for pick-six land otherwise). Points before the half would be huge. (Just as long as it's not a field goal from the four, cough, Walt Harris, cough.)
2:07 – On third down, UCLA roughing Ostrander bails out Stanford (and Doug Baldwin, who dropped one between the 8 and the 9 when he saw he was going to get popped). The next completion to Moore gives Stanford a 2nd-and-2 with 1:11 left in the half at the Bruin 14, their first red zone trip of the day.
2:08 – Speaking of the Red Zone, and maybe I shouldn't say anything about the five percent of students that do go to the games, but I hate that "We Believe in Stanford Football" banner that the Jumbotron inevitably found five times per game last season (it's back for this year). I'm all for supporting your classmates and friends, but it just seems like settling for mediocrity. If you really believed in Stanford Football, wouldn't you have a problem with your school losing by 30, because you know they can do better?
2:09 – Ostrander to tight end Jim Dray, who came across the middle, left to right on a drag route. Touchdown Stanford from nine yards out. 8 plays, 80 yards, 2:03. 14-7 UCLA. Stanford's lucky to be within striking distance at the half, but fans have to feel pretty good about 14-7. Keep it up like this and Coach Harbaugh looks mighty good.
Halftime – The press buffet shouldn't affect what professionals write about your school, but if you've seen some of these writers, you can imagine how much it does. (I love it when they chew out an NFL player for showing up to camp 15 pounds heavy.) Stanford's is a major upgrade from last year (black bean salad and individual-sized Grey Poupon mustard glass bottles… I should have brought a girl along) and is just another good sign about the direction of the department. The school I've been to that has far and away been best to the press? Notre Dame. The school I've been to that the press has far-and-away been best to? Notre Dame. Obviously, Notre Dame's a media darling for a lot of other reasons, but that's not total coincidence!
2:39 – Two big breaks for Stanford on UCLA's opening drive of the second half. First, Bell (107 yards at the half) had beat the entire coverage team and was on his way to a kick-return touchdown, but the officials called him out of bounds at the 37. I'm 85% sure his foot didn't touch the UCLA sideline after seeing the replay. Then, after a big run off a busted tackle by Bell (what's new?) for 31 yards got them in position, UCLA lined up for a 41-yard field goal that looked good (near-certain of this after the replay) but sailed over the top of the uprights and so was left in the officials' hands. The ruling? Wide left.
2:44 – Stanford is now 1-of-9 on third downs after pressure up the middle (which we haven't seen too much of today) forces Ostrander to sail a jump ball toward Ryan Whalen. Another great bounce for Ottovegio (are getting these bounces luck, skill or some combination of the two?) as his punt from his 39 hits the 5 and is downed at the 3 after bouncing straight up in the air.
2:49 – Dorrell outschemed Harbaugh on this one as freshman 'backer Taylor Skaufel's left chasing Breazell on a flea flicker. There's about a half-second difference in these guys' 40 times and it shows – a miracle, diving, shoestring tackle by Skaufel downs Breazell at Stanford's four, a 49-yard gain.
2:51 – There's the backbreaker. Osaisai gave a cushion and Olson fired in a four-yarder to #19 Dominique Johnson (who?). Only problem is that UCLA was scrimmaging from Stanford's 4. Might not want to give as much cushion next time. Bell's already at 168 yards, a career-high. UCLA 21, Stanford 7 after a drive of 97 yards, seven plays and 2:18.
2:51 – Wow, someone took my suggestion. It was an epiphany when I saw Gonzaga basketball use the song "Zombie Nation" to bring back the crowd incredibly effectively out of timeouts in the nationally-televised anointing of Adam Morrison 18 months ago (Chris, Dan and Matt's senior year). The Stanford PA did too – and what do you know, it worked.
On the field, it's not as pretty as Kimble fields (and bobbles) a kickoff that was likely heading out-of-bounds. After a nine-yard return, Stanford starts from its 19. A three-and-out here and I think UCLA's offense busts this open.
2:56 – Key third-&-four – Bradford makes (another) great adjustment on an Ostrander ball too far in front, and even though he would have had another two yards on a properly thrown ball, the catch is just enough to move the sticks. The next throw sees Ostrander badly missing Bradford (about five yards too short and too the right) over the top. It's a tough game for him. Guess that's why Stanford's been throwing it short.
2:58 – Tight end screen, Ostrander to Dray, goes for 48 yards after Dray's chased down from behind (there was no one in front of him). Great play design and a great crack-back block from a receiver (I think Bradford) set the trap for an over-aggressive UCLA defense. Great read from Harbaugh and staff, and hopefully that opens up more conventional passes, too.
3:00 – See my 2:56 comments as Ostrander overshoots an open Bradford on a post route in the end zone. The third-down pass is in the general vicinity of Kimble's feet, though Ostrander was hurried on the play. Belch is good (and a good-looking kick, too) from 37 yards for the field goal. 2:58, 9 plays, 61 yards, UCLA 21, Stanford 10. My snap judgments of the offense: Bradford's everything we'd hoped for, Moore's underwhelming. The line's been a pleasant surprise, but Ostrander has really disappointed with his inaccuracy. The playcalling has been solid – which has enabled the backs to get to the perimeter and look serviceable and the tight ends to shine.
3:04 – Screen to Joe Cowan, who then cuts across the entire Stanford defense and punks Tim Sims (three touchdowns allowed today), stiff-arming him to the ground and speeding off for six while Sims is blocked out of bounds by another UCLA player. Cowan's got two catches, both for touchdowns. UCLA 28, Stanford 10 as the bleachers begin to thin.
3:10 – The good – Evan Moore snags one between two defenders on the right sideline and breaks away from them both. The bad – Moore's lack of pull-away speed sees him shoved from behind out-of-bounds 42 yards later, at the Bruin 33. (Not to rain on the parade, but I really don't buy the NFL hype Booties have placed on his shoulders. Size alone doesn't make up for a lack of speed and durability questions.) The ugly – Ostrander's original decision to throw into double coverage. The short dinks-and-dunks of the first quarter will make his completion percentage look decent, and Dray and Moore turning 8-yard throws into 50-yard gains will make the yardage look decent, but for this game, cue the adage about lies, damn lies and statistics.
3:13 – Good distance, but Belch yanks a 47-yarder wide left. With two minutes left in the third, there goes Stanford's last real shot at a "W."
3:34 – After a lull in excitement (the teams traded two punts apiece, Stanford produced two consecutive three-and-outs), Olson hits tight end Will Snead for 27 yards (10-yard throw, 17-yard run) down the left sideline at the Stanford 24. Olson puts the next pass just over the outstretched fingertips of Breazell – who again had two steps and a touchdown with a better ball. The Bruins instead settle for a field goal, 31-10 with 11:44 to go. Drive: five plays, 29 yards, 1:13. This one's playing out almost exactly to form.
3:39 – Put him on FOX Prime Time, because Richard Sherman is "House." Sherman was five yards ahead of corner Michael Norris when Ostrander lofted one into him on the right sideline near the 30. Like the Reggie Bush play against Fresno State (not to hyperbolize or anything), Sherman stopped on a dime, let two defenders blow past him and cruised into the end zone untouched. 70 yards, one play, six seconds (but were they glorious!). UCLA 31, Stanford 17 with 11:38 to go.
3:42 –Bowing to no man, Jim Harbaugh orders up an onside kick. Alas, he does bow to the laws of physics. The ball's struck much too hard (15 yards instead of the ideal 10 yards and one inch) and UCLA easily recovers at the Cardinal's 45. Still, one turnover and this starts to get interesting again.
3:46 – Instead it's death by paper cuts as UCLA takes five plays to work down to the Cardinal 15. On third-and-four, it's Olson to Breazell over the middle – and Stanford lacked the speed in the middle to lay a hand on the receiver, a recurring theme this afternoon. Touchdown UCLA, Olson's fifth of the day. Six plays, 45 yards, 2:15 for the drive. UCLA 38, Stanford 17 with 9:10 to go. I think the Bruins keep taking their receivers over the middle in hopes of getting a matchup with a Stanford linebacker, whom they know can't keep up.
3:52 – On a 2nd-&-10 from the Stanford 41, Ladner makes a nice over-the-shoulder catch in traffic for about 20 yards, but the officials rule it incomplete. Harbaugh orders up a challenge. Looks like Ladner hung on for the catch, but is there the requisite conclusive evidence to overturn the call? Probably not. … (30-second pregnant pause.) … Sure enough, the challenge is overruled. Memory-challenged Cardinal fans may point to this post-game but conveniently forget the 10 points (field goal, kick-return touchdown) the officials robbed from UCLA.
Five minutes to go and I'm off to the field for post-game interviews. UCLA hangs on to win 45-17, but from the mood in the locker room, you'd have sworn the score was flipped. Players are upbeat – talking about how much better the mood and level of play is from last year – and optimistic, talking about how close they are to making a quantum breakthrough. Harbaugh's really set the tone here – I just hope that it's still there five weeks from now.
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