Football News, Notes and Analysis

There are a lot of questions to be answered when you sit 2-5 and struggling in most major offensive statistics, so to take a comprehensive view of this football team, here is a hodge-podge of notes from this week of practice. Also some bigger picture views of this team and its up-and-down components...

The problems with this team lie squarely with the offense, and so that is where I will start things off...

  • At the helm of the offensive woes is the quarterback play.  Kyle Matter has been maligned for his arm strength, which granted is the weakest of the five quarterbacks on Stanford's roster today.  But he showed in the Boston College game that he can put the ball down the field, on the money, and he is showing it this week in practice.  His two issues are bad decisions, which are likely unavoidable for a redshirt freshman, and the failure to throw the ball away.  To work on the latter, drills this week in practice have specifically directed Kyle to drop back, look down his options and then throw the ball away.  As Buddy Teevens mentioned earlier this week, of the six sacks Matter took at UCLA, three were sacks where he just held the ball too long and sat in the pocket.  On the flip side, when he does break out of the pocket to scramble, he has shown the fearlessness and scrambling instincts to pick up chunks of yardage.  The challenge for Teevens and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford is to get Kyle to know when to run and when to throw away...
  • Chris Lewis did not throw this week in the three practices that I saw, so it would take a very late improvement in his bruised shoulder for him to be ready for Saturday.  But over the course of the season, the problem with many of his errant throws have been too much air under them.  He has sailed the ball over receivers near and far with unnerving regularity.  I alluded recently to mechanical problems for Lewis that crept up this summer, and now understand how that has translated into this systemic error.  His lead foot has been extended too far out, which shortens his effective height, and also cocks his body such that he is throwing up more than out.  This was a problem the last staff dealt with, and the current staff had mostly fixed in the spring.  But when Lewis showed up this fall with it back in full force, the work has had to start all over...
  • With Lewis unable to take throwing snaps, Ryan Eklund has been the major beneficiary.  He is throwing hard and confidently, and could rightfully be the #2 guy for this Oregon game.  If the staff wants to go downfield, there is no question that Eklund has a great touch very deep.  But the improvement Stanford has made with turnovers (interceptions in particular) would be at risk.  That is a trade-off Stanford would have to work with should he have to enter the game...
  • Speaking of quarterbacks, Wednesday was Trent Edwards' birthday, and his father and sister were there at practice to greet him afterward.  But even on that special day, Edwards was the last player off the field.  And to those who have not attended practices this fall, that is a regular occurrence.  Edwards is always the last man off, throwing balls to any assistant or inanimate object available to him.  He is showing a rare focus and commitment for someone in his first year, and that gives great hope to Stanford's passing future when you also factor in his mechanics and gifts.  The staff has also worked on a small kink in Edwards' throwing motion, that is letting him throw a little deeper, a little more accurately, and without as much soreness after workouts are done.
  • Though many observers take today's quarterbacks for what they are, and don't see an obvious remedy to the woes, running back is a completely different question - especially given the inspiring running Kenneth Tolon has provided in spot duty this season.  Tolon is right now the only back on this roster who has the shake and bounce to find open space and beat defenders to the corner.  I admit that I was not a believer last year, even with his performances past the century mark against Arizona and Notre Dame.  But I have seen a higher level of playmaking ability this year that has convinced me since the Notre Dame game that this kid is special.  Special to the point that he could conceivably turn this entire offense around.  He is the one running back who could break a forty yard run on any given play, and it is the big play that has been so abjectly absent from this offense this year.  Buddy Teevens has promised that Tolon will see more time this Saturday, and I fully believe he is sincere.  The first concern, though, is that Tolon has been absent from Stanford the early part of this week with the death of a grandparent.  Teevens gave an immediate and unconditional blessing to Kenny to go home, take care of business and put family first.  A phone conversation with Kenny's concerned mother assured her that the time he would miss in practice would not have to jeopardize his time this Saturday.  The team was in fact scheduled to have a morning practice today before flying up to Eugene, and the hope is that a return from Tolon in time to freshen up on some of this week's plays would get him ready enough for a big Saturday.  The other outstanding question is why Tolon has not seen more action.  The answer lies with a confidence issue, whereby Tolon has not been able to mentally get over the barrier that he is an underclassman.  This confidence problem has stretched back to his role last year, and even to high school.  The coaches have been working with Tolon since they discovered this for themselves in the spring, but it is a slow process.  Expect Kerry Carter to still get the start, but for Tolon to get a lot of work.
  • Speaking of Carter, it is not a straight-forward decision to limit his reps Saturday.  He has shown in the last two games the hardest running we have seen from him all year.  He is consistently falling forward for an extra yard or two after the tackle, and he is breaking into the defensive backfield for more midrange pickups.  It is no coincidence that his best running this year has come as he has recovered from his early season injury.  With an improving big Carter, and the breakaway abilities of Tolon, plus a healthy J.R. Lemon now getting reps again practice and ready to roll when needed on Saturday, the running game looks stacked.  I don't know how Lemon can be integrated, but a good mix of Carter and Tolon
  • For any back to have success, the offensive line has to hold up, and that is a tall order with today's beefcake beatings.  Paul Weinacht frankly cannot be replaced by Dustin Stimson, though Stimson has done a surprising and admirable job this fall.  And Greg Schindler has been playing for the last several weeks at just a fraction of his ability, particularly his mobility and body rotation.  Also note that Kwame Harris has been hurt at least once in each of the last few games.  The picture looks grim, and UCLA's defense showed how effective a scheme that loads up in the box can be.  But there are two notes of optimism: 1) UCLA had the best corners Stanford will face this year, and Oregon surely has but a shadow of that ability - they would be hard-pressed to get away with that much front-loaded pressure; 2) Greg Schindler took off the yellow jersey and actually had more work in practice this week than I've seen in a while.  If he indeed is mending some of his beaten body, that should give a some hope...
  • Also on the encouraging injury recovery front, Casey Moore has for the first time in weeks taken off the boot and ran freely in practice.  In previous weeks, he kept the boot on for all but one day...
  • Even better, Luke Powell is getting closer to his free-running abilities.  The coaches are noting that he is better able to stretch the field and go get long balls this week, and I have noted a changed demeanor for Powell the past two weeks.  Earlier this season, there was visible frustration and a somber weight he carried around practices.  Now as his health is freeing him to run more like his old self, I have seen a lot more playfulness and laughing from the redshirt junior.  Nothing is a guarantee, but there is a chance that Stanford's best gamebreaking threat at receiver could show up like Stanford so badly needs him this Saturday...

Defense has been a big part of what has kept Stanford in some of these games, though with varying outcomes...

  • One overall view of Stanford's last four opponents carries one theme: offensive injury woes.  Notre Dame was without starting quarterback Carlyle Holiday, and meager though his abilities may be, Pat Dillingham presented clearly the weakest quarterback Stanford has faced and likely will face all year.  Wazzu brought a banged up Jason Gesser, who played with a lot of pain and even sat out a chunk of the game.  Arizona could have been a beast on offense had they the services of Clarence Farmer, arguably the most dangerous running back in the conference.  And UCLA hosted Stanford without their top two quarterbacks this past weekend.  Stanford's defense held the Domers for much of that game, and adjusted to really clamp down on the Cougs in the second half.  The Arizona and UCLA games were very winnable given the defensive stops throughout those two games.  But all of these opponents missed some very big key to their offense... Soooo, I caution Cardinalmaniacs™ to ratchet back expectations heading into this Saturday's Eugene affair.  It goes without saying that Jason Fife is no Joey Harrington (who in his senior year looked like the best quarterback the Pac-10 has seen in several years), but he can move the ball deep down the field with two big playmaking receivers.  And Onterrio Smith is undoubtedly the most dangerous back Stanford will see this season.  This young defense has gelled marvelously and is not making plays with smoke & mirrors, but they do make young mistakes (in both coverage assignments and tackling) and they will get burned at times on Saturday...
  • One ongoing question in the linebacking corps is the move of Jon Alston ahead of Michael Craven.  I checked with Buddy Teevens on this issue again this week, and he says that Craven is still limited with a stinger.  That is the primary reason Alston runs ahead of him in practice rotations, and why he is playing ahead of him in the game.  Unless Craven markedly improves right at the end of this week, I expect Alston to again get the start on Saturday.  The good news in this is that the Alston is getting a lot of reps, and the coaches are seeing measurable progress.  He is better understanding the reads and assignments, and is more comfortable making plays out there.  Though Craven is an unmatched talent in this linebacking corps, Stanford's defense is being made better by this opportunity and progress by Alston.
  • Watch David Bergeron as a key player in this game.  He spent three years in high school at Oregon's football camp, and was heavily recruited by the Ducks.  By his own admission, he gave Eugene a hard look with all of that exposure and local pressure.  Now coming into his own as a redshirt sophomore, Bergeron has been the most pleasant surprise of all the linebackers.  He has never impressed with the speed of a Craven, Alston or Jared Newberry, but he keeps getting into the backfield and making big plays.  He leads the team with 5 1/2 tackles for loss this year, and is very fired up for a huge homecoming game this Saturday...
  • Up front, the focal figure is Babatunde Oshinowo.  Last week in practice, he barely could do anything, including the one-on-one drills versus the offensive linemen.  He has made a little progress with his ankle this week, but is below 100%.  O.J. leads all defensive linemen in tackles for loss (4 1/2), and has put some of the best interior pressure in the offensive backfield that Stanford has seen since Willie Howard's Rose Bowl season.  I also want to note that Oshinowo is showing the greatest leadership of any young player on the team, particularly in games.  In both talent and fire, this beast of a nose tackle is looking like a core of Stanford's stellar defensive future.

Special teams has been about as special as a surprise root canal this year...

  • Michael Sgroi has been up and down with his performances, with a couple of contributing factors.  A couple of the blocked kicks have been blown blocking schemes, but he certainly has had some erratically low trajectories as well.  The one aspect of his kicking game that practices gave the most optimism was kickoffs.  But those have been erratic as well.  He has put a few booming shots deep into the back of the endzone for touchbacks, but he has also laid balls as shallow as the ten yardline.  Sgroi has some game-time nerves that the coaches are working on, and which is believed to be the greatest source for the inconsistent length of his kicks.  There is no question that he has a heckuva leg, but calm and composure are the keys to getting more touchbacks.  And with Stanford's turnstile coverage this year, those touchbacks are badly needed...
  • The kickoff return game has been almost as disappointing as the coverage performances.  Granted, there are a few new guys out there who don't have special teams experience, but you would expect a few returns to move the ball based on the singular skill of the return man.  But the clear picture through seven games of this season is that Ryan Wells does not run the way he did two years ago when he was a top return man in conference, if not the nation.  He used to get to top speed in a hurry and hit the wedge such that one missed tackle meant another ten yards for his return.  He is this year approaching the wedge more like a punt returner, looking for holes and space to run to.  If it is true that the blocking is sub-par right now, that tip-toeing approach will ensure returns out to the eighteen yardline every time.  I propose that the speed and fearlessness be upgraded at the kick return position, and would look to T.J. Rushing as a primary candidate.  His blazing speed and shiftiness in the open field was evident from high school film, and he is too young to be wary of the crushing hits he may sometimes take in the return game.  I would put him and Kenny Tolon back for returns, though Tolon was pulled from that duty with his indecisiveness early this year.  If I could believe he wouldn't make those mistakes again, I would put him back there as the secondary return man alongside Rushing.  Leigh Torrence is another thought, though he was moved off punt returns in training camp because he did not consistently catch the ball.  Kickoffs are a different beast altogether, and easier to field, though...

Scheme and playcalling have been focal points of fans' concern in recent weeks as well...

  • Two playcalls deserve special mention from this last game at UCLA.  The fourth and one call came on the heels of two timeouts, which raised the collective temperature of the Stanford fanbase a couple degrees.  The first timeout was understandable, given that the playcall on third down should have either been complete for a first down or incomplete and mandated a punt.  But Teyo cut off his route a little short, and Matter threw the ball low which forced Teyo to come down and back even more.  The second timeout came because when the offense was ready to run the fourth down, the UCLA crowd reached its loudest point of the game.  The players could not hear the cadence and could not run the play and burned the second timeout.  I personally voted to go on that fourth and one, though the play was not well executed.  With how poorly the offense was playing, and with how Tyler Ebell was running crazy late in the game against Stanford's defense, I had a hard time believing that an offense incapable of picking up one yard could be capable of picking up the other sixty or seventy to score.  I have learned since that the offensive players unanimously wanted to go for it, though you can take that for what it is worth in such a situation.  Now the dubious playcall in my mind came on the 4th and 15 from the UCLA 19 yardline.  There was a little over a minute to go, and Stanford needed two scores, down ten points.  Whether you go for the field goal or the touchdown, you have to get the on-side kick to work.  And if you get that to work, you will already have the ball with a minute to go at midfield.  The differential of difficulty in driving that ball from that point to the endzone rather than to field goal range is not trivial, but it surely is better than completing a fourth down play for 15 yards.  When you consider that Stanford could not begin to throw the ball successfully for that distance throughout the game, it seemed horribly improbable to get a first down or touchdown - at least to me.  So why did Stanford go for it with those facts?  The coaches saw something changing in the defensive scheme that they thought was going to give them a reasonable shot at the touchdown pass.  Without seeing the film of the coverage given on that drive, it is hard to evaluate the call...
  • As far as overall scheme, BuddyBall is no more.  At least, it has completely disappeared as of last week's game.  There is so little that this passing game can successfully execute right now, coupled with the rising strength of the running game, that the offense has been largely scrapped and built from scratch.  Two questions remain right now: 1) Will the offense be opened back up, given that Oregon defends the run well but has been sieve-like against the pass?  2) Can the confidence, personnel and execution of this offense be reengineered in the off-season such that a similar incarnation of the offense Mike Sanford and Buddy Teevens wanted can be reborn in 2003?  The answer to #1 depends on what the coaches see with the early execution on Saturday.  I think #2 will be answered in the affirmative, with the assumption that an open quarterback competition this spring will bring forward a signal-caller who can handle the responsibility and demands that this offense requires.

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