Ten Takeaways - Washington
1) The Initial Atmosphere: Simply put, it was a great day for football. The way the shadows crept across the field through the first half, the way the stadium looked and sounded, that they actually scrolled top-25 scores across the Jumbotron, it felt like a game I'd be watching on ABC. It didn't hurt either that to me, the stands seemed to be the fullest (guess: 26,000, announced: 36,570) I've seen them all season at kickoff. Plus, I do appreciate great defense, but like 95 per cent of fans, entertaining offense has a special place in my heart. And the way these two teams were moving the ball and, more to the point, running the ball (which I have seen far too little during my four years at Stanford Stadium), it just "felt" right. All told, physical football. Autumn Saturday afternoons. Falling leaves. America. Apple pie. You get the idea. Had never felt that way for me at Stanford before today.
2) Some Run, No Pass: For all the hand-wringing over the tailbacks, Stanford pounded the ball well enough (26 carries for 116 yards). The bigger worry was the passing game: in the first half, the quarterbacks were a combined five of 14 passing for 47 yards! The Stanford line afforded its QBs adequate time too - they were just not hitting their targets. Ostrander or Pritchard - they both have their strengths and weaknesses - but the argument's almost besides the point. If whoever was under center were performing to their potential, we wouldn't have a quarterback controversy - and that we don't have that consistent productivity at QB, a position supposedly one of our strongest entering this season, is the issue.
3) Bad Reception: To be fair, I pin the passing struggles as much on the Cardinal receivers as on the QBs. The excuses have been there for two years now: sure, there is little depth at receiver, and so once one of the top guys gets dinged, the drop-off is huge (and so the top guys often have to play injured and with limited efficacy). Sure, our offensive line could pass protect better, but it's lightyears better than last year - and we were even running to keep UW's defense off-balance. The statistics don't lie, and after yet another poor offensive showing - this time against one of the worst defenses in the country - I'm just sick of the excuses. Receiver is supposed to be the strongest position on our team, bar none, and we were told coming into this season that the group would be one of the Pac-10's best. This season, Sherman has been shining the brightest, and Bradford and Moore have had their games and catches too - but no one is consistently playing at a Pac-10 level, and that certainly contributed in a big way to the "L" Stanford suffered on Saturday.
4) Ugly. Both teams missed so many opportunities and simply couldn't capitalize on their opponents' mistakes. Reminded me a lot of last year's win up in Seattle -- the ugliest football game I've borne witness too in my life. Stanford drives down the field its first possession, only to stall in the red zone and have Derek Belch miss a chip shot. In the second, another red zone stall turned a potential touchdown into a Belch field goal. Then, after forcing and recovering a fumble (great awareness by Levirt Griffin to fall on it for the sure recovery, instead of trying to scoop and be the hero) at the Washington one, for Corey Gatewood to fumble (and yes, it looked like he broke the plane of the goal line first, but UW lost a TD minutes later on a similarly close call) is just crushing. Then, after a solid first half from the "D", the secondary blows a coverage with 27 seconds left, but is rescued when the play is ruled a drop. (Trend continued in the second half as well, with a blown XP hold and two dropped INTs in the third quarter alone.) Of course, Washington showed why they entered 0-for-Pac-10, missing a field goal, dropping that touchdown pass, throwing a pick, and fumbling on their own one, all in a single half! Conservatively, that's 17 points the Huskies left on the field, and 18 points Stanford could have had. So, given the magnitude of the Husky mistakes and despite being outgained by 200 yards on the period, Stanford really could have/should have gone into halftime tied or with the lead, instead of down 13-3. Of course, by the same logic, Washington could have been up by 20. I am really hoping Stanford isn't a team that plays to the level of its opponent. It's great against the USCs or Oregons (well, for a half at least) of this world, but as this program moves in the right direction, Stanford is going to play plenty of games it "should" win. It needs to do so. Harbaugh has shown the fire against the big dogs, but does he have the consistency and attention to detail when facing the pups?
5. Personnel Management. Yeah, we're playing teams that are physically superior, and they're going to shut us down at times, but any time folks on the field are not producing, it's partially on the coaches to put in players better able to do so. Gatewood looks like a possible answer at running back, showing some impressive raw skills. Why the delay in switching him over and why not give him the rock last week, when there was so much guardedness about his stealth conversion to offense? And why not give it to him more this week? He played the position in high school and running back is arguably the position on the field that requires the least preparation. Should we have brought back Pritchard at 80 per cent in the third or fourth quarter when Ostrander again took his time in the pocket? Then again, to be fair to Ostrander, the past couple of weeks have seen the offense flatline under Pritchard. Losing raises these darned-if-you do, darned-if-you-don't quandaries. We could ask similar questions about the receivers. If some of them aren't at 100 per cent due to injuries, isn't there someone else among the 85+ roster spots who could have given us a spark? The coaches tried screens, and on the day seven different receivers (including Kelton Lynn) caught balls, but nothing seemed to work. We give coaches credit when their substitutions work, it's only fair to mention days when they don't work.
6) Wearing Down. I'm on the field for the final stages of the game, and the apparent size difference between Stanford and the other Pac-10 teams is just striking. Just as striking is seeing a Washington offense that certainly doesn't look as fresh as in the first quarter, but looks in control, just feet away from 11 guys in red with their hands on their hips and their jerseys soaked in sweat. It's obvious how hard the players are pushing and I can't possibly blame them for being their size (especially when it's "only" 6'5", 250 instead of 6'8", 300). Still, it bears mentioning that the gritty underdog train often gets derailed in the fourth quarter because of simple, inviolable laws of physics: when a man runs into you 80 times, it takes more of a toll when he's bigger and faster. Until we change the inputs (size and speed), I think we're going to keep wearing down before opponents, and I think that's a major ceiling to our potential success.
7. The Offense. I hope the Cardinal "O" looks good in red and white stripes, because best I can tell it seems to be off hiding with Waldo . The last seven games, Washington has allowed 33, 44, 27, 44, 55, 48 and now 9. No need to belabor the futility, especially after Terry2 pointed it out in his last column, so perhaps the more pertinent question is why. The offense went south as Tavita was inserted? (But having TC in much of today didn't help, I don't think that's the factor.) The offense went south as the top two tailbacks and tackle Allen Smith went down? (Okay, tough break, nothing you can do here, but the difference between Anthony Kimble and Ty McGraw is nothing compared to the gap between Washington's defense and Oregon's, UCLA's and USC's - a much easier schedule should be enough to override this effect.) I think the biggest factor is just that the season is wearing on. Harbaugh and Shafer started September with the element of surprise on their side, but the rest of the Pac-10 has gotten their schemes on tape since. We've seen it with a lot of coaches at new schools: Weis was 9-3 his first year at Notre Dame. He's 1-8 now. Willingham started 8-0 there. He was fired two seasons later. Erickson started 8-0 this year at ASU - anyone care to bet they match that mark next year (or the rest of this one)? What I'm saying is perhaps, unfortunately, these last few weeks are more indicative of the offense's true level than the first few. Time will tell.
8. Inconsistency. Obviously this overlaps with the previous three points (and the truth likely includes a combination of all these things), but it's probably the most maddening. Richard Sherman: All Pac-10, or two catches for 11 yards? (Truth, again, is in the middle. He's good, but if he were that good, he wouldn't have many days like today.) How does the defense hold USC under 100 yards on the ground, but allow Washington to run for 388? Field-goal kicking is a tough, tough job with a mighty small sample size, but Belch missed a chip shot in the first quarter before nailing one in the second. Kind of a microcosm for the day.
9. Heart. We have players on either side of the ball who likely will be playing on Sundays, but on the whole, the defense is just too small, too thin, too young, and the offense too slow and small to compensate, as discussed above. There is no shame in losing a game like this. For all the miscues of the first half, Washington was bigger between the trenches and faster on the edges, and those were the differences they exploited to wear down the Cardinal in the second half. Nothing you can do about that. No blame lays on the coaches or the players for losing to better athletes -- and that shouldn't be the case as often in three years if Stanford's recruiting continues its upward trajectory -- and the players have plenty of reason to hold up their heads after fighting tooth and nail for much of the game. It was another great game plan, as evidenced by the fact that we were again right in a game where we were nearly doubled in yardage. Call it luck over the small sample size of eight games, but at some point, give the team credit.
10. Harbaugh. From a plucky quarterback in his mold to a young, energized staff, to a defense that sparked the most incredible comeback win of Captain Comeback's career, this is Jim Harbaugh's team. It's obvious there has been "buy-in" this season in a way that there never has been during in my four years here. Exhibit A: Want to know how well a football team is coached? Look at how interested the third-stringers on the bench are in the game. This year versus last - night and day. My biggest worry about Harbaugh was how his optimism and enthusiasm "unknown to mankind" would play when the team was 2-7. Put another way, I questioned whether there was any substance behind the enthusiasm. Ironically, it turns out the established coaches could learn a thing or two (or seven) from Harbaugh. From his game management to his recruiting to his staff hires to his player development, he's doing just about as well as he possibly could - it's obvious he knows his stuff. And don't let the youth or the enthusiasm fool you, I've yet to meet a coach better with the media and, by extension, the public. Coaches look bad after a loss for a) criticizing their players (Charlie Weis), b). not seeming forthright and resorting to coach-speak (Trent Johnson), or, if you're exceptionally lucky, both of the above (Walt Harris). Walking that tightrope is harder than it seems, because coaches are asked what went wrong, and not to channel my inner John Madden, but you usually lose because your players didn't play well enough. So reread the transcript of his postgame comments - his ability to be as honest and open as possible without saying a harsh word about a player is impressive. No one's ever accused me of being too positive, and I never thought I'd be typing this after nine games, but it is obvious from my perspective. Jim Harbaugh gets the big picture. Jim Harbaugh gets Stanford Football. Things will get better.
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