View From The Press Box: ASU

The Bootleg's omnipresent Daniel Novinson was up in the press box once again, blogging away on the Cardinal's decidedly uninspired effort against the now 5-0 Sun Devils. Despite a surprisingly impressive defensive effort, the Cardinal experienced a "regression" on offense and special teams, posing a number of questions for Stanford fans to consider as the team prepares to take on #2-ranked USC…

Editor's Note: The following commentary offers views of the on-field performances of some of our exceptional student-athletes. In no way should constructively-intended criticism be deemed as a lack of respect or admiration for our players' obvious desire and commitment. 

"View From The Press Box": Arizona State

Pregame: After being considered "questionable", senior wide receiver Mark Bradford is dressed and ready to play. Stanford's Derek Belch kicks off. ASU will move right to left. Estimated attendance: 21,000. (9:01pm: Attendance announced as 32,125. The ASU reporters near me in the booth are literally laughing in disbelief.) 

7:08pm: After a 15-yard facemask penalty, ASU starts at their own 48. Quickly, they run a short out and then a screen on Sims' side of the field. The out goes for 21 to the Cardinal 27, the screen goes inside the 10 as Sims cannot shed his block, but the play is happily called back for illegal procedure. The next three plays are also run left - the Devils are really picking on the absence of Sanchez at the corner. After a Rudy Carpenter misfire on third down to an open Chris McGaha, the Devils settle for a 46-yard field goal. 12:36 left in the first. 3-0 Arizona State. 

7:15pm: Stanford starts with two Kimble handoffs that combine for five yards. Ostrander steps up and buys time in the pocket on third down, but looked to eat an open flare route on the left sideline. Instead, Dexter Davis strips Ostrander and the Devils recover at the 21. A Stanford hold here would be really impressive for the defense. 

7:19pm: Sure enough, Stanford pressure on first and third downs stalls the Sun Devil drive and the 31-yard field goal has to be considered a big moral victory. ASU 6, Stanford 0. 9:25 to go in the first. 

7:20pm: Three student sections are full, the rest are a bit sparser than in the previous couple of weeks. From the Box, the few ASU fans in the house sound about as loud the Stanford folk - wake up Cardinal fans! Stanford runs again on first down for a yard. Might be the time to go to the air. But Ostrander's a little wide to Sherman, who had a step, on a second-down fly on the left sideline. Third down, Ostrander finds senior Evan Moore wide-open for 37 yards deep down the middle of the Sun Devils' zone. "Cover two", maybe? Didn't work well. 

7:22pm: Dray drops a first down route in the right flat. A bootleg right on second down goes for just one and third down is again right, a dump-off, but goes for just two. Stanford emphasized attacking left against Oregon because of formation, so maybe they're seeing something with the Devils that makes them go right. Or, of course, the loss of Allen Smith at left tackle is playing a role. Ottovegio helps out the D - dropping a terrific punt that is downed by Osaisai at the Devil three. 

7:29pm: The Devils are out to the 39 now, gashing some runs up the middle, but more notable to me is who's still in (banged-up SLB Clinton Snyder). Has to be a good sign... 

7:32pm: The Devils are still driving, in large part because Stanford's "front seven" seems particularly susceptible to misdirection - Emmanuel Awofadeju and Nick Macaluso are faked on separate plays. But Pat Maynor and Nick Macaluso come up with a big ASU sack on second down at the Cardinal 41, then Maynor just explodes through his fullback blocker and Udeme Udofia finishes off Carpenter on third down. Great playcall to bring the house on third and long - a lot of coaches would have just sat back - and great individual effort by Maynor. The defense is doing its part through one quarter, now it's on the offense to move the chains. Other than the deep ball to Moore, Stanford hasn't done jack thus far. 

7:38pm: After Jeremy Stewart picks up a first down, Ostrander finds freshman wide receiver Doug Baldwin on the left sideline, who shows some nice moves for six more. Speaking of "six", Arizona State nearly had a pick-six, but dropped an ill-advised Ostrander throwaway after the Cardinal front couldn't hold the third down rush. 

7:43pm: After a Stanford punt, McGaha makes an incredible one-handed catch on first down, reeling in the ball with a right arm stretched perfectly vertical, all while dragging the left foot. Too incredible of a catch, it turns out, and it's reversed after a delay. On third down, the Sun Devils picked on Tim Sims one too many times. He shows great awareness to jump the route and makes a huge momentum-shifting pick, easily one of the premier individual plays of the young season. It will be interesting to see if ASU goes back at Sims quite so frequently now. The "O" really needs to do something, anything. 

7:48pm: Instead, the offense starts at the Sun Devil 36 and goes nowhere. A nice Kimble run (good speed) goes for 10 and a first down, but Ostrander's sacked on second down two plays later, effectively killing the drive. Belch misses from 47 - the third-down call of a dump-off to Dray suggests they weren't all that comfortable with Belch lining up a 52-yarder. 

7:55pm: MLB Nick Macaluso stops a Sun Devil drive in its tracks with a 12-yard sack of Carpenter on a first down at the Devil 33. Clinton Snyder gets credit for the third-down sack, but really, it was a coverage sack as Carpenter had time, but couldn't find anyone open and ended up eating it. Great downfield coverage by the Cardinal secondary. 

7:57pm: Poor, low punt from Jonathan Johnson allows Chris Hobbs a return up the middle. He takes it on the run and bolts from the 25 to the 40, but then fumbles on a light hit and ASU recovers. The special teams woes continue.  

7:59pm: The Card defense bails out the offense once again, stopping ASU after 11 yards and just one first down. This is by far the best half of football I've seen the defense play in my years here. If it goes like the other Pac-10 games and things fall apart for the home team in the second half, don't overlook the solid gameplanning and the excellent effort of a unit that's starting six underclassmen and just two seniors (Chris Horn, Tim Sims). The Sun Devils' punt is downed at Stanford's 10. Hard to feel bad for the Stanford offense for its poor field position, however. They need to start moving the chains. 

8:03pm: It's Mark Bradford with a catch for eight. The next play, it's Bradford again for 12 more. This has to be a difficult, emotional game for Bradford, who suffered a death in the family this past week) - Stanford might be able to lean on him to get this offense started. 

8:09pm: Instead, Bradford's not in on a third & two and Ostrander again throws it away after pressure. Our offensive line is struggling with pass protection a lot more this week than the first three weeks. It's not as bad as it looks though - receivers are not getting open and so we're taking a lot of coverage sacks. 

8:11pm: ASU again moves the chains with their speed - Ryan Torian outside left for 12 to the Devil 36 for a first down. But Stanford's kept the big play bottled up, and after another sack, this one on second down, the "D" is doing everything of which one could possibly ask of them. 

8:12pm: I typed too soon. Rudy Burgess for six on a crossing route. The covering linebacker couldn't keep up, and then Sims couldn't catch in pursuit (though Osaisai almost did, from all the way across the field). 14-0 Arizona State with 2:31 left in the half. 

8:16pm: What a difference nine seconds can make. Ostrander's behind Sherman on a slant, ball's tipped up in the air and that's a "pick-six" for athletic and score-seeking reserve corner Omar Bolden. 21-0 Arizona State with just 2:22 left in the half. Stanford must get on the board! 

8:17pm: Yet another kick return disaster. ASU kicks it low, apparently by design, as Jeremy Stewart can't handle it and is lucky to make it out to the 10. Hopefully Stanford will go to a hurry-up offense, Arizona State will sit back in vanilla coverage and Ostrander and company can get something positive out of this half. 

8:20pm: Sure enough, Stanford's moving in the two-minute offense. A 12-yarder to Doug Baldwin, then a six-yarder to Evan Moore for firsts, but then Ostrander gets rocked by Devil Linebacker Robert James, and rolls on the ground before popping back up. But, hey, that's 15-yards for "roughing the passer"  Stanford is now down to the Devil 41. This is becoming Ostrander's best drive of the season - he hits Baldwin for 18 to the 23 on a bullet of an out, and then a good fade that hits Sherman in both hands at the five. But, in a microcosm of the first half, right when something was finally going well, Stanford's consistent inconsistency killed it. In this case, normally sure-handed Sherman dropped that pass, Ostrander is then sacked, and the Cardinal is forced to settle for a 42-yard Belch field goal. 21-3 after the best defensive and worst offensive half of the year. Over the last four quarters, the offense has scored a grand total of three points. Maybe opponents have seen enough of Harbaugh's new offense on tape to slow it down, and Harbaugh needs to readjust? 

8:36pm: The Sears Cup, or whatever it is called, is awarded at halftime. Sputnik/USSR-themed show from the band. Both receive a "meh" response up in the press box. 

8:48pm: Second half starts with another ASU squib kick, and another mishandle - this time from diminutive redshirt freshman Ty McGraw. The strategy appears to be working really well. Stanford will start from its 16. 

8:50pm: A Kimble run right for six on the first snap of the second is called back for a hold on Jim Dray. Stanford can't climb out of the "First & 18" hole, Ostrander's again sacked on third down, this time by Dexter Davis, and Stanford punts. What's the last time a Dennis Erickson team was making fewer inexcusable mistakes than a Stanford team? 

8:53pm: Who is Mike Jones? He gains eight on a pass on ASU's first offensive snap of the half, but give Tim Sims credit for a nice tackle. With the pick and now this wrap up, he's bouncing back after a tough first quarter. Notable: True freshman safety Taylor Skaufel is in for Austin Yancy. Another good "hold" for Stanford, and Arizona State kicks through a 38-yarder. 24-3 Arizona State. 10:02 to go in the third. Again, give the defense credit, but what many might not realize is that ASU has stopped themselves with an incredibly conservative game plan (only 10 passes in the first half - just three in the second quarter). Either a strategic risk-reduction strategy, which is looking pretty smart right now, a conscious effort to emphasize the run game, or Erickson has money on the "under". 

9:01pm: After a clean Anthony Kimble kickoff return (good call getting him back in there) and a nice Stewart run for a first, Ostrander pulls it down and tries to run, but is sacked for a loss of five at his 35. I'm sure message board posters are going to have plenty to say on this, but T.C. appears to be trying to do much too much with his legs. The combination of ASU running it 80 percent of the time and Stanford's offense stagnating 90 percent of the time is making this a really tough game to sit through. Give the fans that have stayed (about two-thirds right now) a lot of credit for hanging with the local team. 

9:07pm: Ostrander's again dropped on a third down, bringing up a 4th & 32, which has to be some sort of record. The ASU defense is not world-beating (allowing Oregon State 514 yards and 32 points last week, including 19 in the first quarter), but the Cardinal offensive ineffectiveness is making the Devils look like the '85 Bears right now. Good coverage on the punt return, an area where Stanford has struggled this year. A 40-yard Ottovegio punt plus a 10-yard holding penalty has the Devils start from their own 25. 

9:11pm: ASU finally goes to the pass, and it looks like a good decision. A third down Carpenter scramble buys time for him to find Burgess open in the middle for 20. Next play, Osaisai and McNally trail ASU's "X" receiver Mike Jones by a solid five yards on a deep fade, but Jones drops the over-the-shoulder touchdown. Third down, Carpenter finds McGaha for 13 and another first at the Stanford 37. Carpenter's on pace to finish the game with something like five incompletions, with several of those incomplete passes clear "drops". That's why he led the NCAA in passing efficiency as a true freshman. He might just be the best pure passer in the Pac-10 (Dixon's legs make him a better overall quarterback right now, I would argue.) 

9:14pm: Guess this is the drive Erickson says 'enough is enough'. He calls another deep fade, this one against Sims. Here Kyle Williams catches it, but just out of bounds. Second down is an eight-yard pass, then Torain takes it 28 yards on third down, all the way  to the Cardinal one. My co-writers at the Daily are saying the "D" is tiring. Maybe, but defensive players have said after past games specifically how that was not the case (edit: and said the same this game), and while that's the PC and macho thing to say, I don't see too many hands on hips. I think my colleagues are missing a real shift in ASU's offensive strategy, from "eat up clock" to "score points". 

9:16pm: Great heart by the defense to stuff runs up the middle on first and second. Stanford buys the third-down play action, but an ASU tight end drops a would-be touchdown. Talk about a bad decision from a game-theoretic standpoint, but Erickson kicks the field goal from the one. (I figure an 80 percent chance of converting on fourth down, plus an additional 25 yards of field position on average even if you miss - it's easily worthwhile), but the "D" has to be proud (and should be) after two solid goal-line stuffs. 27-3 Arizona State with 1:57 to go in the third. Three great quarters from the Stanford defense. 

9:20pm: Good call putting Kimble back on the return, but he takes a vicious helmet-to-helmet shot at the 20. On the evening the Cardinal have a net of minus-one yard rushing  Ostrander's wide to Moore on first down, who is having a quiet day [He finished with 50 receiving yards]. This stadium is 2006-style dead. So is this offense. I think a big question is going to be the difference between this week and the previous three on the offensive end. Bradford has played, so the only loss from last week was Allen Smith, who was only in for one series against Oregon There is no way the drop-off to Benny Muth begins to explain the stunning regression of the O-Line. ASU's defense is generally considered worse than UCLA's and no better than that of Oregon. 

9:23pm: There we go! Richard Sherman "ice-cream-cones" a beautiful 43-yard Ostrander lob and after a nine-yard Stewart run left, Stanford's down to the Sun Devil 22. Down 24 as the third quarter rolls to an end, an outright "W" is probably too much to ask for at this point, but a touchdown would mean a lot for an offense that has to be questioning itself. As I'm starting to think about how to lead my Daily recap, Stanford plain and simply hasn't been able to run the ball. I'm leading with that - everything else is secondary. [Edit: my editors really toned it down, here was the original lead: Stanford could not run the ball. Sure, plenty happened in the Cardinal's 41-3 loss to Arizona State Saturday night. Coaches yelled. Players played. Fans cheered. But it was all window dressing. The end result was identical to every Pac-10 game this year: the Cardinal hung tough for a quarter or two before fading badly. And the bottom line from four hours and 139 snaps of football was simpler yet. Stanford could not carry out the most fundamental task in all football. They could not run.) Anyhow, the special teams mistakes are obvious and frustrating, but correctable, and the defense was good enough, but the previously promise-showing run game reverted back a year. I'm really looking forward to T.J. Gaynor's piece this week [Editor: which we are sad to report won't be happening due to Gaynor's work travel this week] , because I think that explains the entire game, and I don't have the required expertise (or the discipline not to follow the ball, but instead to focus on the line, real-time) to evaluate line play live. 

9:35pm: On the field, Stanford false starts on 4th & 1. Belch misses another field goal, this one pulled left from 44. Special teams have suddenly reverted a year too. 

9:37pm: Gotta hand it to your opponent sometimes, and Rudy Burgess is something special. On 3rd & 16, he skied for a hard Carpenter ball on the right seam, brought it down, and pinballed off three Stanford defenders before finally going down. I don't know what his draft prospects are, but some NFL team is going to have to take a flier on him for his ability to break it. That's a highlight we're going to be seeing for awhile from "Reggie Bush-Light." 

9:42pm: After ASU drives down the field again, backup tailback Dmitri Nance punches in a 17-yarder against the grain, hardly touched. It feels like last year all over again, right down to miserable remaining diehards (perhaps 5,000 are left in the stands) and the 34-3 on the scoreboard with 7:38 to play. 

9:51pm: After another Stanford punt (ironically, by keeping Ostrander in at QB, Harbaugh would appear implicitly admitting a lack of faith in his starter - he realizes things are to a point where bringing in a backup at this point, down 40 in garbage time. could kindle a controversy), Devil back Keegan Herring takes a handoff left and goes 72 yards untouched down the left sideline for six more. Arizona State 41, Stanford 3 with 5:58 to go. I'm out for post-game interviews, but I want to reemphasize what I wrote when Harbaugh was hired back in the winter: we all knew the team was going to have some rough stretches, and the question would be how well Harbaugh's enthusiasm would play when the team was 2-7 (or 1-5, on the heels of three straight whoopin's at the hands of Oregon, ASU and USC), or whatever. The exact numbers are unimportant. My point is, that time is fast approaching. Next week won't tell us so much, but homecoming and subsequent weeks will shape Harbaugh's and Stanford's season. Either the team's going to quit like it looked to at times last year, or, as we all hope and expect, it is going to stick together and still believe in the new coach and in each other.

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