No analysis of Stanford's defeat in South Bend would be complete without a discussion of the officiating. Of the people I spoke with after the game, the primary first reaction was, "Could the refs be any worse?" So let's get the elephant out of the room.
To put it bluntly, the officials were horrendous. We have to allow for a bit of human error, but very little. These are professionals. If I failed — blatantly — at least a half a dozen times in one afternoon at work, I'd have my pink slip before day's end. But no, this crew was from the Pac-10, where poor officiating thrives.
Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News put it best after Washington's loss to BYU earlier in the season, when the zebras weakened the Huskies's chances at tying the game with two seconds left with a mind-numbing unsportsmanlike conduct call.
Wilner wrote: "Pac-10 refs make egregious calls at crucial moments of big games, an ignominious trifecta if ever there was one. And they seem to do it year after year; they've practically raised it to an art form."
Now, Stanford-ND will not be remembered in the same vein as Washington-BYU. The Cardinal cannot blame the loss on the refs — they still squandered plenty of opportunities. However, the officials did make a number of head-scratching, game-changing calls.
The biggest one was on a Stanford punt in the second quarter. With the Irish leading 14-7 with just under five minutes left, David Green booted a kick to about the Notre Dame 30 yard line. Stanford's Nate Wilcox-Fogel had excellent position, and was waiting in front of returner Armando Allen to make the special team's tackle. Allen called for a fair catch. And then the train went off the tracks. Allen was bumped by a teammate, causing him to lose both his balance and view of the kick. The ball fell to the ground, where it was picked up by the Cardinal and taken in for what would presumably be the game-tying score.
In actuality and contrary to Jim Harbaugh's post-game contentions, the ball glanced off Wilcox-Fogel before it landed, which would have downed it around the 33-yard line. But then the officials had to get involved.
The refs ruled that Wilcox-Fogel had interfered with Allen, which couldn't have been further from the truth. He never came close to touching him. Allen was hit by his own teammate. There is no halo rule in college football, so Wilcox-Fogel's positioning had no relevance to the call. No flag should have been thrown.
Instead, the refs gave Notre Dame 15 extra yards and the Irish started their drive on the 48-yard line. Three plays later, they tacked on another touchdown.
There's nothing to say that Notre Dame wouldn't have scored, even if they started at the 33 instead of the 48. But a 15-yard difference is tremendous, and the call was so horribly wrong that one cannot blame Harbaugh for almost getting himself tossed from the game for his (very) visible sideline frustration.
That was one bad call. Unfortunately, there were others.
On fourth and one at the Stanford 22 on their first drive of the game, the Irish went for it with a run by Robert Hughes. The Cardinal stacked the line and took him down at around the line of scrimmage. Then the refs added an extra yard, giving Notre Dame the first down by the nose of the ball. They scored on the next play.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter, as Stanford tries to tie the game with under three minutes remaining. Facing 3rd and 10 from his own 15, Tavita Pritchard hurls a pass toward Ryan Whalen on the left sideline. Whalen goes up for the ball and is hit by two Notre Dame defenders as he rises, clearly augmenting his jump. He makes the catch anyway but comes down out of bounds. No flag thrown.
These were only the most noticeable and game-altering mistakes, but there were many more minor ones as well, such as clear holding by Kyle Rudolph on a few tosses outside, and a fierce block in the back by Golden Tate. None drew flags. The officiating was so bad that even the Notre Dame-centric NBC announcing crew expressed disbelief at some of the calls and non-calls.
Kudos to the men in black and white—you certainly made your presence felt.
Too Big a Hole
One of Stanford's biggest problems this year has been starting slow at the beginning of each game. San Jose State scored twice before the Cardinal showed any signs of life at all. The Card put themselves in a 14-0 hole against TCU, and allowed Washington to score first last weekend. As a result, Stanford is constantly playing from behind, and though sometimes they can come back, they can also dig themselves too deep.
The trend did not change against Notre Dame. The Irish tacked the first points on the board, and after the Cardinal tied the game at 7-7, Notre Dame scored two touchdowns to push their halftime lead to 21-7.
It didn't have to be that way. The Cardinal squandered a scoring opportunity on their first possession on a tipped-ball interception in Notre Dame territory.
On their next drive, Stanford drove down to the Irish 29 before Pritchard threw a horrible interception to Notre Dame lineman Pat Kuntz. In the second quarter, Pritchard was picked off at his own 25.
The Cardinal were lucky that they were only down by two scores going into the half; it could have been worse. But it also could have been better. If they hadn't turned the ball over, Stanford would have had, at worst, at least two more field goal attempts. Instead, they went to the locker room with only one score to their name.
The ineptitude hurt Stanford for the rest of the game, and though their furious comeback was impressive, it was too little, too late. But had they tightened their play up earlier in the contest, it would have been an entirely different situation. Arizona possesses a high scoring offense, so if the Cardinal want to succeed next weekend, they have to start strong out of the gate.
Holes in the Secondary
Jimmy Clausen had a career day against the Cardinal, going for 347 yards and three scores. The Notre Dame blogs are talking about his progression and, to be sure, he looks completely different than he did when he came to the Farm last year. But the Stanford secondary helped him out. There were massive holes in coverage throughout the game, and Clausen had little problem finding receivers over the middle without a white jersey around them. I started to keep track of how many times a Notre Dame receiver was left open in the secondary, but I lost track.
Even when they stayed with their men, the Stanford defensive backs had problems. Michael Floyd beat Wopamo Osaisai twice on deep balls. Now, Floyd is known as a speedster, but so is Osaisai, a Pac-10 track champion. Floyd so clearly beat him on one touchdown pass that all Osasai could do was lunge at his ankles as he made the catch and took it for six.
Bo McNally played well, but his presence was felt most against the run and in the pass rush — not in coverage. Sean Wiser looked a step too slow all afternoon. And the Cardinal was prone to the occasional pass interference as well.
To be fair, the holes closed a bit in the second half. But still, Clausen was able to find a variety of receivers all over the field, and it wasn't until late in the game that the Cardinal's adjustments took hold.
Holes in the Gameplan
Tavita Pritchard's three-touchdown performance against Washington was one to remember, and the Cardinal faithful couldn't help but wonder if that was the long-awaited break out game for the redshirt junior. Perhaps Harbaugh and David Shaw thought that it was, too, as they relied more on Pritchard's arm against Notre Dame than they did at any other point in the year.
The problem with that, though, is that the key to the Stanford offense is its rushing attack. Even against the Huskies, Pritchard was not the only offensive force: Anthony Kimble and Jeremy Stewart had good games on the ground. Plus, Toby Gerhart has carried the offense on his back for much of the year.
It was odd, then, that the running game wasn't utilized as much as it should or could have been. Gerhart got only 13 carries, Kimble got 10, and Stewart none. Meanwhile, Pritchard threw 28 times, tied for the most passes he's thrown all year.
At times, the running attack was abandoned all together. Take the first drive as an example. Pritchard opened up with a 14-yard pass to Austin Gunder. But it was two runs for a combined 31 yards that got the Cardinal almost to the red zone. Yet, with a 1st and 10 at the Notre Dame 29, Stanford threw three times, the last one winding up in the hands of an Irish defender.
When you have a rushing attack as good as the Cardinal has, you have to utilize it.
Quick Bullet Holes
Want to play a not-so-fun drinking game? Take a swig every time Ryan Whalen drops a ball. It's clear that he has become Pritchard's favorite target—the former walk-on has hands of glue.
Chris Marinelli angered the wrong Irishman. Everyone in South Bend heard the Stanford lineman's comments on Notre Dame, but Pat Kuntz seemed to take them to heart the most. At a pep rally on Friday night, Kuntz tore off his shirt and declared, "I'm going to rip his head off." While he wasn't always matched up against Marinelli, he did have a career day at the expense of the Cardinal: Kuntz compiled three tackles, two sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception.
It's becoming increasingly clear that we will not see Andrew Luck this year. Each game that Harbaugh does not play him gets him that much closer to fulfilling his redshirt and gaining an extra year of eligibility. Harbaugh's faith in Pritchard has been, as of late, unwavering. With the season half way done, don't expect to see much of #12.
Delano Howell had the first three carries of his career on Saturday. The starting kick returner, a big recruit this past year, figures to play a large part in the Stanford running game in the coming years, especially with the graduation of Anthony Kimble this coming spring.
Fix Holes for Homecoming
Simply put, Arizona can light up a scoreboard. Willie Tuitama is arguably the best quarterback in the conference right now (sorry, Mark Sanchez), Nic Grigsby can run on anyone, and the Wildcats have a number of potent receiving threats. Sterling Lewis leads a defense that ranks second in the Pac-10 in points per game. The Cardinal will be motivated by their homecoming and the continued possibility of a bowl appearance, but the Wildcats are the best and most well rounded opponent they have faced thus far. It will take an all-out, mistake-free effort on both sides of the ball for Stanford to emerge victorious.
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Sophomore Wyndam Makowsky covers Stanford football for the Stanford Daily. Contact him at makowsky at stanford.edu.
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