Football on the road

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Palo Alto anymore." As the Cardinal prepare for their first road game of 2008, former Stanford offensive lineman Greg Schindler takes you inside the locker room to see how a team must adjust. From uniform tricks to time zone tricks to unruly fans to staying cool in the heat, Schindler has it all covered.

Perhaps the Sun Devils should consider a name change, seeing as they typically play by moonlight. Stanford visits No. 15 Arizona State this weekend for its first road game of the season, and although Saturday's high temperature in Tempe is expected to be 111 degrees, a 7 p.m. kickoff negates the biggest home-field advantage Sun Devil Stadium could possibly offer. ASU will play seven home contests this season, and none of them are scheduled for the desert's mid-afternoon heat. While clearly safer for players and more comfortable for fans, those nocturnal start times do nothing to sharpen the Solar Satans' tridents.

The Stanford teams I played on from 1999-2002 made five trips to regions notorious for their oppressive heat. We went 3-0 in night games at Arizona and ASU, rolling up 151 points in the process. Our matinees at Texas and ASU yielded slightly different results though: two losses by a combined score of 134-41. No, the torrid temperatures didn't directly force our turnovers or produce our penalties. They did, however, make it nearly impossible to focus on anything but trying to keep cool. Water and Gatorade were chugged. Potassium supplements were swallowed. Massive fans circulated frigid mist throughout the sidelines. Those measures did little, other than remind us we weren't in our pleasant Bay Area confines anymore.

Playing on the road presents four major challenges: trying to concentrate and communicate amid deafening, disorienting crowd noise; tweaking pre-game routines because of cramped locker rooms and makeshift training rooms; adapting to unfamiliar climates and sometimes different time zones; and dealing with the rigors of travel. Our teams always enjoyed chartered flights and plush hotels with fine food, but the other elements of visiting-team disadvantage couldn't be tempered. Much of our practice time before road games was spent trying to simulate conditions to which our upcoming host was accustomed. Before trips to particularly loud stadiums, we practiced in a fog of obnoxious crowd noise and fight songs, pumped onto the field via mammoth speakers. Before playing on artificial turf, we trained at least once on the carpeted surface the field hockey team called home. When rain was in the forecast, balls were soaked before practice. Whether or not those tactics paid off is debatable, but one thing is undeniable: Absolutely nothing can substitute for a scorching sun or horrific humidity.

There is nothing inherently intimidating about Sun Devil Stadium. The venue is nice enough, but that's a problem as far as ASU is concerned. There is no Lilliputian visitor's locker room like the claustrophobia-inducing fort at Cal. There aren't throngs of anger-management dropouts perched in the stands, eager to hurl insults and loose change like the minions at Oregon State and Boston College. The nastiest remark I ever heard at ASU came from a jovial heckler who insisted that our 2002 duds looked exactly like South Carolina's — a charge none of us could deny. The Sun Devil Stadium grass isn't ankle-deep like the pasture at Notre Dame, and Tempe's evening air is downright pleasant. Home-field advantage is about manipulating conditions to make guests feel as unwelcome and uncomfortable as possible. This is why it confounds me that the Sun Devils seldom take advantage of the most dangerous weapon in their arsenal — the suffocating afternoon heat they train in every day.

While Stanford Stadium is hardly a hostile hornet's nest for visitors, the Cardinal squads I played on went 15-8 at home and 9-14 everywhere else. Though our often eerily quiet venue seemed to lull opponents to sleep, some of our other home-cooking methods felt more contrived. We played four games against visitors who traveled from at least two time zones east of the West Coast, and all of them were at night. Television scheduling likely played a role in those nightcaps, but I always suspected the after-dinner time slots weren't a mere coincidence. We went 4-0 against those weary travelers, including a 27-24 upset of No. 5 Texas in 2000. The Longhorns thrashed us 69-17 in Austin the previous year in an early tilt that forced us out of bed at 5 a.m. PST. But when Texas came to Palo Alto, we kicked off at 7:25 p.m. We took a 13-9 halftime lead into the locker room, where head coach Tyrone Willingham announced, "Right now, it is 11 o'clock in Austin, Texas. Let's put them to bed." By the time DeRonnie Pitts flipped into the end zone for the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter, it was nearly 1 a.m. CDT. The "eyes of Texas" were bloodshot. It would discredit our performance and undermine Texas' mental toughness to imply that we only won that game by keeping Major Applewhite and Co. up past their bedtimes. But competing against a determined opponent is difficult enough, let alone doing so when you'd rather be asleep.

Some tricks home teams pull are so deviously shrewd that they can only be admired. While visiting UCLA in 2002, our coaches wondered why the Bruins' defensive backs were wearing long-sleeved undershirts on a warm Pasadena evening. But they eventually realized that all those sleeves were white — a tone that perfectly blended with our receivers' road jerseys. The Bruins broke no rules with their camouflaged coverings, and they won the game fair and square. Still, we couldn't help but wonder how many defensive holding and pass interference calls were missed by officials who couldn't decipher one upper body from another. I coached the offensive line at my high school alma mater, Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., in 2003. The team went 0-9-1, but I made sure my overmatched Acorns learned at least one thing: the value of wearing white gloves at home and dark mitts on the road.

 My most recent memory of Sun Devil Stadium is the 65-24 beating we took on a blistering afternoon in 2002. My most pleasant recollection of Tempe, however, is the 1999 game that proved the key turning point in our run to the Rose Bowl. After reeling off five straight victories to start Pac-10 play, we suffered a deflating loss at Washington, giving the Huskies control over their Rose Bowl destiny. After razing Arizona during our bye week, all Washington had to do was sink mediocre UCLA and Washington State squads to punch its ticket to Pasadena. But late in our 50-30 victory at ASU, the speculative murmurs became official news: UCLA had upset Washington in overtime, resurrecting our Rose Bowl quest. Other than the emotional aftermath, what I remember most about that triumph in Tempe is that it encapsulated our formula for success. Todd Husak, Troy Walters and the other usual suspects torched the Sun Devils' secondary; we ran the ball often enough and effectively enough to maintain offensive balance; and our maligned but clutch defense put on a big-play display, scoring a touchdown on Willie Howard's fumble recovery and setting up another score on Andrew Currie's interception in the ASU red zone.

Nothing looks to come easy for the Cardinal on Saturday. Running back Toby Gerhart and Stanford's offensive line may not trample ASU's defense like they handled Oregon State's front seven in the opener. Sun Devils quarterback Rudy Carpenter may prove that last week's nearly perfect performance didn't occur just because ASU played host to Northern Arizona. Beating ranked opponents on the road never is a breeze, but at least the Cardinal can count on one thing: They won't have to beat the heat.

About the Author: Greg Schindler, LSJU '03 has been living in Kalispell, Montana, working as a sports reporter for the Daily Inter Lake. He was a four-year starter and four-year letter-winner for the Cardinal from 1999-2002, starting 42 of 46 games. After redshirting as a true freshman in 1998, he was the team's starting right tackle in 1999-2000 and the team's starting right guard in 2001-02. Prior to Stanford, Schindler starred at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, CA and was named a First-team All-American by Prepstar in 1997. Following his Stanford career, Schindler was signed by the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent after graduating in 2002 with an English Major and a Political Science minor. His sister, Veronica Schindler, is a Development writer at the Stanford Athletic Department.


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