O-Line Midseason Review & ASU/USC/TCU Breakdowns:
As all good coaches do, let me start off with the positives. I have to agree with my colleague Todd Husak that the win over $CU (Spoiled Children University) was the best Stanford football moment I have had since I left school in 1995. Great pub for the program, awesome vibe for the players. And for the fans, especially you native Californians, well, I can't even imagine how much it meant to you. Truly the "delicious double-stuff" filling in between the two flat outer black Oreo cookie pieces or if you will indulge me - awful bookend losses.
The ASU contest I really don't want to go over too much because it was an ugly game to watch on tape. After watching the tape and scribbling notes, it left me dawdling on the keyboard and I finally just moved on, to be completely forthright. I just had the feeling that nothing was in synch that day up front, and with the offense in general - and that's gonna happen sometimes, you just have to put it behind you and move on.
In the $C game, I believe what the line learned is how to rise to the moment. Sure, we had a lot of trouble blocking Sedric Ellis and Tavita was running for his life quite a bit, BUT, when we absolutely had to have it - the big boys stepped it up. No one ever thinks of this way, but to be a good offensive line collectively- you have to make the "clutch" blocks, just like a QB makes clutch throws and a receiver makes the "clutch catch". Think about it logically, and without "clutch protection" that throw and catch usually doesn't happen because the QB is on his butt. For linemen it's very subtle stuff; "holding" a guy imperceptibly to give the Running Back just another inch to get by the defensive lineman, diving flat out and just nicking a linebacker on the backside of a zone play to open up a cutback lane, being the free man in pass protection and turning and sticking your facemask into a defensive lineman's ribs and opening up a throwing lane. All these little things start to come together and it can be magic. Magic that goes totally unnoticed while the "skill players" light up the stat sheet.
The other variable that really helped the line and the overall protection in the $C game was that I think the coaching staff has really found the pulse of this offense and it shows itself in the overall scheme, protection selection and playcalling. As Husak pointed out in his article, the offensive staff is really doing an excellent job of taking advantage of shifts, motions in and out of formations and protection variety. That makes for better playcalling, which ultimately helps neutralize any physical mismatches that the offensive line is faced with on a down-to-down basis. This year's line just doesn't have a consistent dominator that they can hang their hat on week-in and week-out. Alex Fletcher is a very good player, but his best position, and most likely his future pro position will be in the pivot at center. That said - at times, depending on the opponent, Fletch is the guy that can win his individual matchup consistently enough that that individual duel becomes a bankable asset for the offense.
Now that the coaches and players have had the first half of the season to feel one another out, I'm optimistic that the points will continue to come in bunches from here on out. The big boys up front are having success and that breeds confidence. When they are confident that as a group they can come up with the clutch blitz pickup or make that third & short or just make sure that they do everything in their power to make sure those chains move at the critical times - then we are really on the doorstep of having a stellar front wall.
Right now we are close to that point, but in the TCU game, to quote my old coach Denny Green, "we let 'em off the hook". The fact is, the line really had a hard time making those big blocks when they had to have them. Tavita was running for his life at times, especially in the fourth quarter, and the line just didn't do the job picking up the blitz. The backs and tight ends had some responsibility here as well, but ultimately the line was not taking care of the first five rushers. Part of the problem was dictated due to the score and dynamic of the overall ballgame, but at the end of the day that's just another excuse. Even when we picked up the blitz or didn't give up a sack, there was just too much traffic flashing in Tavita's face or stopping him from following through, setting his feet etc.
The other issue that flared up and must be corrected is first down efficiency; it simply has to become more consistent. We don't have the playmakers on the outside to create a ton of separation necessary to be running wide open on third & long to move the chains. The line must produce "second & doable" and "third & manageable" on a much more consistent basis. One final note on TCU: on the last drive we had a bad matchup with our tight end in pass blocking that resulted in a few breakdowns. I'm not exactly sure what was called, but obviously in that situation you want "big on big" as much as possible - meaning your five linemen blocking the first five rushers (or the fifth man is "hot"). If they bring six, typically you have hot reads and/or a back, ideally the fullback picking him up and then if there are seven, you still have "hots" and then a second back or a tight end as a last resort depending on the protection. Regardless, it was a tough matchup.
So, at midseason I have to say that in general I'm impressed with this line and I hope to see them continue to grow because the potential is there. Onward and upward from here in Tucson.
About the Author: Thomas Joseph "T.J." Gaynor [LSJU '96] aka "IrishGuru" is a native and current resident of Chicago, IL. A member of the 1991 SuperPrep All-Midlands team, he was a true freshman on the 1991 Aloha Bowl team and started at guard as a redshirt freshman in the 1993 Blockbuster Bowl against Penn State. A true center, T.J. went on to start a total of 33 games for the Cardinal including the 1995 Liberty Bowl, earning All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention honors as a senior.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!