Red Zone Report: Brain Freezes Bruin'

Student writer Wyndam Makowsky was at the Rose Bowl and meticulously details his impressions from Stanford's most disappointing loss this season. The officiating, the band, the UCLA fans, the two-quarterback strategy, the inconsistency, the team MVP and the costly mistakes... we cover it all in The Bootleg's Red Zone Report.

 I like to start these columns with a joke or two to ease everyone in to 1,500 words of football nuggets. But this was just too pathetic a loss to warrant a wisecrack. Let's get to the painful experience of reliving this "game."


UCLA scores seven points on turnovers, three on penalties

There's no way to sugercoat it: Stanford cost themselves the game. UCLA played… all right. Good enough to win, I guess, but I feel comfortable saying that the better team lost. The Cardinal should have won by at least ten points, but they simply gave the game away, and leave Pasadena losers, once again.

The ten penalties for 103 yards we simply unacceptable, and there is no excuse. Yes, it's nice that Stanford is a more physical team this year. But there's a line between "physical" and "stupid," and the Cardinal surpassed it.

Let's look at UCLA's final drive of the first half. They had the ball at their own 10 with 2:30 left to play. They had been able to do practically nothing all day on offense—Stanford should have gone into the locker room with a 14-3 lead. But two defensive offsides penalties, one personal foul, one pass interference and one big third down conversion later, and Kai Forbath had a chip shot from the Stanford two as time expired. Stanford gave UCLA 35 yards in penalties on that drive alone, and went to the half with only a one-score lead. The final margin was, of course, three points.


Consistency does not live here

The Stanford secondary can go from lights out to knocked out every other week. It's a nice Jekyll-and-Hyde act, but it has to stop if Stanford is going to win two of its last four games. Kevin Craft is a solidly mediocre quarterback, and he had an easy time picking apart the Cardinal secondary. He had men wide open at 15 yards or more downfield at least a dozen times. Yes, a dozen. Imagine if he were a better quarterback.

Wopamo Osaisai was picked on all day, and for good reason—he couldn't defend anything. Kris Evans was a non-factor, and Bo McNally, despite excelling against the run and in pass rush, continues to have some trouble with his coverage. Michael Thomas, after a breakout game against Arizona, missed a number of tackles and committed the horrible personal foul on UCLA's final possession of the first half. The one Cardinal who actually looked good was Sean Wiser, who played far better than he did against Notre Dame or the Wildcats. He showed much better instincts and awareness than he had previously. But as a whole, the unit was hard to watch. You can't blame the pass rush—Stanford had seven sacks. Yet, Craft was able to find his men. When he throws for 285 yards against you at nearly a 60 percent clip, you have issues.


Two quarterbacks = too much risk

I expand more on this in a piece in Monday's Daily, but a quick word on the use of Tavita Pritchard and Alex Loukas: interchanging two quarterbacks as frequently as Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw do isn't the best strategy. It didn't work last year, with Pritchard and T.C. Ostrander, and in the first game of this season's experiment, it failed, too. Loukas only threw the ball once, on the final play of the game. Otherwise, it was either a run from a back, or a Loukas keeper. He had a decent rushing average, but most of his yards came on a 29-yard scamper in the first quarter.

It's also becoming increasingly clear that Pritchard needs to get himself into a groove in order to succeed during games. If he's taken out for even one play (like on a Michael Thomas-as-quarterback draw), he can sometimes appear a bit out of it. By using Loukas as much as the coaches did, they didn't allow Tavita to ever get rolling.

I'm not saying that they should abandon the two-quarterback technique all together. But they should reel it in a bit. Maybe use Loukas like UCLA used Chris Forcier—in for a play every few drives or so to scramble and catch the defense off-guard.


Playing down to their opponent

Stanford has a habit of playing down to the level of their opponents. The Cardinal is far better than San Jose State—yet, the Spartans were within a touchdown for practically the entire game. Stanford should have beat up on Washington, especially after Jake Locker was sidelined, but they couldn't pull away from the Huskies. Arizona could get nothing going against the Cardinal, yet they only lost by one—Stanford should have won by two scores, but squandered a number of opportunities. And on Saturday, UCLA shouldn't have come close to winning the game, and yet the Cardinal handed it to them with penalties, turnovers and poor pass defense.

Should have, should have, should have. Let's hope, when this year wraps up, that this isn't the tune of the 2008 season.


No Pac-10 recap is complete without a word on the officiating…

The zebras did, for the most part, a relatively decent job. But they did have some odd spots on a number of occasions, highlighted by two red-zone runs. The first came early in the game, when, on 3rd and 8 from the Stanford 21, Kevin Craft rushed just about to the first-down marker. It appeared that he was stopped a bit short. The head linesmen stood at about the Stanford 13.5, but the referee placed the ball at the 13, giving Craft enough for a first down without even a ball spot.

The second instance came on a Toby Gerhart run with just about three minutes left in the half. On 3rd and 6 from the UCLA 25, Gerhart plowed ahead for six yards. It wasn't clear if he had gotten the first down, and again, the head linesmen stood about a half a yard behind where the referee spotted the ball. But, like on Craft's run, the spot gave Gerhart the first down without question.

I checked both times to see if my eyes were playing tricks on me, literally projecting the head linesman's position across the entire width of the field. Sure enough, he was a half a yard short of the ball spot. Twice. It was odd enough the UCLA fans behind me muttered, "That's a bad spot, that's a bad spot," after both runs.


Speaking of UCLA fans…

I decided to watch the game a bit differently on Saturday—I went back to being a fan. My reasoning was such: a press booth is a press booth, but the Rose Bowl is one of the great American sports stadiums, and I had yet to experience it. So, instead of getting a press pass to the game, I got a regular ole ticket and sat in the stands. But I didn't sit with the smaller-than-expected Stanford contingent—instead, I had seats smack in the middle of Bruins' country.

And I have to say: those are some great fans. My "Biggest Upset Ever" t-shirt (which puts USC to shame) probably mitigated whatever animosity they may have felt towards me.  But when I tepidly rose to cheer on Bo McNally's interception in the first quarter, the UCLA fan behind me laughed and said, "Go ahead, we don't bite." I had a nice time talking football strategy with three alumni next me, one of whom said, "Jim Harbaugh should run Toby Gerhart 100 times a game. There is no better way to break down our defense." There's also no better way to break down Toby Gerhart, but I had to nod in agreement. Running Toby a few more times on Saturday would have been more effective than most of the throws our quarterbacks made.

Anyway, my hat is off to them. A few even reigned in their excitement when they saw my (very) obvious frustration with Stanford's performance. All class, all day.


One last non-football note

I'm a big fan of the LSJUMB. Their attitude and approach is nice relief from the standard militaristic marching bands seen throughout the college world. Admittedly, their shtick can sometimes get old and, well, simply not funny, but they gave a great performance at halftime on Saturday. The theme? USC cheats at Monopoly. There were some great lines ("When USC players pass ‘Go', they don't just take $200. They take $200,000,") to go along with funny formations ("200" morphed into "200k"). Obviously, they poked some fun at O.J. Simpson, one of USC's most notorious alums. The Monopoly pieces that ran around the band were a Bronco and a few cop cars, and the final formation was a classic: "25-" changed into "Life."


Last week I said…

"USC has five Goliaths with the tenacity of five Davids, and both Cal and Oregon have impressive lines too, but after them, Stanford is right up there."

I was talking about the Cardinal's excellent offensive line play, but I'm ready to augment that statement: Stanford has the best OL unit in the conference. Sure, some teams may have better individual players (See: Mack, Alex), but as an entire group, the Cardinal line stands out from all the rest. There were some runs yesterday where Gerhart, who thrives on contact, wasn't touched for about 7-8 yards. Both Pritchard and Loukas had, for the most part, plenty of time to pass. The line has been doing this practically all year. Alex Fletcher is a star (and a midseason CNNSI All-American), but this is a classic case of fairly unknown players, who know each other's tendencies and skills as well as their own, being more valuable than a lumped together group of stars.


When Jim Harbaugh proves me wrong (Or: "Last week I said…" Part Deux)

I criticized the coaching staff for using four different kick returners last week against Arizona. Specifically, I said that using Anthony Kimble and Chris Owusu as return men when Jeremy Stewart and Delano Howell were already doing well in the role was simply unnecessary.

Against UCLA, Harbaugh and D.J. Durkin used Howell and Owusu as the deep men, with Owusu fielding every kick but a squib. And he had an excellent day: he averaged 28 yards a return, including a 54-yarder that may have gone the distance had he not been caught by his arm at midfield.

Owusu is an exciting and remarkably skilled football player. We all knew this coming into the year, and he hasn't disappointed since coming back from injury. Harbaugh wants his playmakers on the field, and putting Owusu in the kick returner role allows him to create as many plays as at any other time he'd see the field.


And this is why Toby Gerhart is your team MVP…

Sure, he's a good running back. But Gerhart proved his worth (once again) on Doug Baldwin's reverse in the first quarter. Gerhart acted as the lead blocker on the play, running with Baldwin the entire way down the right sideline. Just as the blue shirts looked as if they were going to converge for a tackle, Gerhart laid out the main would-be tackler, which sprang Baldwin for an extra 10-15 yards. On the next play, Toby finished the drive with a three-yard touchdown run.


Final Notes

• Aaron Zagory replaced Travis Golia as the kickoff man last week, and was once again given those duties on Saturday. He is getting good length on his kicks, so he may retain that job for the foreseeable future. Also, you can't say enough about Zagory's improvement throughout his Stanford career. It's gotten to a point where I am completely at ease whenever he trots out onto the field for a field goal, and I rarely get that feeling with kickers.

• Alex Loukas destroyed a UCLA defender on a 29-yard run in the first quarter. Completely bowled him over. The hit sounded throughout the stadium and elicited its fair share of "Woahs."

• Doug Baldwin is becoming a fairly good punt returner, but he makes a play every now and then (see: fielded punt inside the five against Notre Dame) that puzzles me. Saturday, I had to wonder why he didn't fair catch the punt he fumbled in the third quarter. There was a UCLA gunner bearing down on him (by which I mean that he was perfectly timed to hit Baldwin the millisecond after he fielded the ball) and not a great amount of open field to run to otherwise. If he broke free from the gunner, the most he was going to get was a few yards. It wasn't worth the risk.

• Despite being perhaps a bit too aggressive at times, Clinton Snyder had a big game against the Bruins. Snyder has been invisible at times this year, but he had eight tackles and two sacks on Saturday.

• I liked Saturday's offensive game plan, which relied heavily on the ground game. Pritchard wasn't throwing particularly well, and the UCLA pass defense did a good job of smothering the Stanford receivers. When you have a good running game and a mediocre passing game, and your opponent has a good pass defense and a mediocre run defense, just run baby, run.

********** ********** **********

Sophomore Wyndam Makowsky covers Stanford football for the Stanford Daily. Contact him at makowsky at stanford.edu.


Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg ? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up )!


The Bootleg Top Stories