Winning or losing: Isolating the difference
Even if the players, coaches and fans are too disappointed to admit it right now, in the wake of a 23-20 loss that severly crimped the Cardinal's bowl hopes, Stanford has outperformed its expectations this season. No one would have thought, two months ago, that Stanford would be one play from 4-1 in the Pac-10, or that they would have run for 250 yards against UCLA on nearly six yards per carry, or that the Cardinal, somehow, would have been ten seconds away from winning in Pasadena, despite completing five passes for 51 yards all afternoon.
So while we don't want to succumb to the natural tendancy to be too high after your team wins and too low after it loses, it has to be said that this game painfully isolated and identified what the Cardinal lack, and the consistent winning football program they want to become possesses. And it was the same problem that's haunted Stanford for years, the same problem that has especially haunted Stanford recently against UCLA: when it matters most, Stanford's defense just cannot get off the field.
Take away the last three minutes of each half, and Stanford held UCLA to 196 yards Saturday afternoon. Those numbers show what we all saw -- Stanford's defensive line dominated for 90 percent of the game Saturday. Unfortunately, "for 90 percent of the game" is a refrain we've heard far too common in the pre-Harbaugh era on the Farm.
At the end of the first half, UCLA went 88 yards in 13 plays for a field goal that not only tightened Stanford's halftime lead to within one score, 14-6, but also put in the back of Stanford fans' minds a question that has come up all too often in recent years -- will our defense be able to hold with the game on the line? And with 2:31 left in the fourth, the Bruins answered the way we all feared, going 87 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Look, if this proves to be the game that keeps Stanford out of a bowl, plenty of fingers can be pointed. Start with the Card getting one quarter's worth of passing in a whole game's worth of attempts. Tavita Pritchard's not having an All Pac-10 season, but let's not make him a human pinata; he's only as good as he's going to be. What about the receivers? What about a coaching staff that has three other quarterbacks (Luck, Forcier, Loukas) that were viable options heading into the season? Saving Andrew Luck's redshirt and Tavita Pritchard's confidence is great, but at what cost? Another first down or two out of the passing game, and Stanford is a win over Washington State away from a bowl game.
The secondary gave up 285 yards, and, given the first five games of the season, last week's lockdown of Arizona looks like an anomaly. Other teams never seem to have the same problem Stanford's corners do -- enough athleticism to keep up with a receiver, but not enough awareness to know when to turn around and make a play on the ball.
The only part of this team that is truly dominant is the offensive line and the rush game. Stanford loses Alex Fletcher, but returns most of the other key cogs in their ground attack next year, and for that reason alone you have to consider it more likely than not that the Card make a bowl in 2009.
The defensive line, another strength of this team, also graded out fine for most of the game -- but where was the pressure when Stanford's secondary needed it most, in the last two minutes of each half? To be fair, a defensive line tires quicker than any other unit and UCLA naturally switched to a quick-pass attack in their two minute drives, that had the effect of somewhat neutralizing Stanford's rush. But for UCLA to gain over half its yards and nearly half its points on the drives at the end of halves, one has to wonder if the coaching staff didn't let off the Bruins' throat at precisely the wrong time. Stanford got precious little pressure on the quarterback when it most needed to rattle UCLA's attack -- either the same players and stunts that had created so much pressure the other 56 minutes faltered in the clutch, or Stanford's defense shifted into a prevent look at precisely the wrong moment. Either way, the defensive braintrust has some serious soul-searching to do.
You have to figure the Card will rebound strong against Washington State, and you have to figure Stanford is strong enough that they'll give one of USC, Oregon or Cal a run. Nonetheless, the Cardinal has now lost its best chance at its first bowl berth since Ty Willingham was coach, and, to our eyes, the primary culprit is the same as its been for years on the Farm: Whether out of scheme or fatigue, Stanford's defense simply could not create pressure in the critical moments.
That's our take. Here's what news outlets across the Golden State saw Saturday...
In a matchup of coaches trying to turn programs around, Rick Neuheisel and the UCLA Bruins outfinished Jim Harbaugh's Stanford Cardinal. ...
UCLA's Craft finds a way... again
If the Stanford football team has a choice, then it could let the pain of Saturday's 23-20 setback to UCLA subside in its own good time.
Stanford senior offensive lineman Chris Marinelli watched the final series of the Cardinal's 23-20 loss to UCLA from just inside the tunnel, his left arm in a sling and a large ice bag attached to his shoulder.
San Jose Mercury News, USA -
By Darren Sabedra UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft celebrates along with his teammates after throwing the winning touchdown pass to Cory Harkey during the final
San Francisco Chronicle, USA -
At times, the Cardinal look like a bowl-caliber team, but their margin for error is slim. Stanford's defense surrendered an 11-play, 87-yard drive to UCLA ...
Chris Foster and Diane Pucin
Stanford had the ball and the lead with the clock ticking down in the fourth quarter. The Cardinal seemed content to hammer away at the Bruins' defense.
There were 16 seconds left on the clock at the Rose Bowl. The ball was seven yards from the end zone. The Bruins needed a touchdown to win. ...
We've maintained that UCLA would have to steal wins this season from superior teams, and it did it again Saturday when it pulled out a 23-20 victory over Stanford at the Rose Bowl.
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