Block Party

"Most of us had been solid pass protectors in the past, but the pride derived from keeping a quarterback clean didn't compare to the pleasure of planting a defender into the mud." The Bootleg's Greg Schindler shares his views on the pure joy of demoralizing an opponent by running the ball down its throat.

Block Party

We had always been skeptical of Bill Diedrick's sanity, and this sealed the deal. The glow was still resonating from a golden September afternoon in Stanford Stadium, but our diminutive offensive coordinator had no interest in basking. There was plenty to relish following our 42-32 victory over No. 18 UCLA in 1999. We had just improved to 3-0 in Pac-10 play - Stanford's first 3-0 conference start since 1971 - thanks to an otherworldly aerial assault, led by backup quarterback Joe Borchard. Borchard entered the game in the second quarter to relieve injured star Todd Husak, and calmly completed 15 of 19 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns. Troy Walters showcased his Biletnikoff Award form with nine catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns. DeRonnie Pitts had nine receptions for 119 yards and two scores. Our passing game was operating with such phenomenal precision that Diedrick called "Hound 2 Shake" - a slow-developing, all-or-nothing play - from our own 2-yard line during our first possession of the third quarter, prompting Borchard to drop deep into our end zone before hitting Walters for a Pac-10 record 98-yard touchdown strike. We snapped UCLA's 15-game Pac-10 win streak while tallying 672 yards of total offense, yet Diedrick punctuated our Sunday offensive meeting with his typical temperamental theatrics.

Our 207 rushing yards against the Bruins nearly tripled our average output from the previous season, when romping for more than 100 yards seemed as likely as Berkeley freezing over. Diedrick wasn't satisfied. Given the chance to cap our landmark triumph with a final physical statement, we failed to rush for a first down during the game's waning moments. Diedrick relentlessly replayed the video from our last offensive series, chastising each blocker for not topping our Bruin feast with a final pancake. We initially figured he was trying to guard us from overconfidence, or vaccinate us from the head-swelling pats on the back we were sure to receive in classes the next day. But we eventually realized that his agitation was valid. While 42 points are 42 points, nothing demoralizes a defense like an inability to stop the run - especially when it knows it's coming. Our 1999 offense was dynamic, averaging 37.2 points and 467.1 yards per game en route to a Rose Bowl berth. But Diedrick didn't find the balance he sought until 2001, when we averaged more than 200 yards passing (250.5) and 200 yards rushing (201.0) for the first time in school history.

The 2008 Cardinal are running the football with nearly unprecedented efficiency. Stanford is averaging 192.4 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per attempt. The Cardinal's lack of a formidable air attack (137.4 passing yards per game) has kept their scoring in check (23.8 points per contest), but it renders their ground dominance even more impressive. Stanford (4-4 overall, 3-2 Pac-10) has consistently run the ball against defenses that know the Cardinal has little choice but to do so, and it figures to pad those statistics Saturday against hapless Washington State (1-7, 0-5). The Cardinal's seamless running back platoon of Toby Gerhart (779 yards, nine touchdowns) and Anthony Kimble (452 yards, three touchdowns), and nasty offensive line - featuring Saturday's likely starters Alex Fletcher, Ben Muth, Matt Kopa, Chase Beeler (maybe) and Andrew Phillips - are giving Stanford fans flashbacks to 2001, when the Cardinal last ran the ball at will. Even without an outstanding lineman like the injured Chris Marinelli, the line should be able to impose its will.

I was just a redshirt right tackle in 1998, but I knew it was bad. Husak, Walters and Co. kept our 3-8 squad competitive in most contests, but we managed just 75.5 rushing yards per game and 2.4 yards per attempt. It was a nightmare for guards and centers coach Pat Shurmur, who furiously lamented our inability to produce an individual 100-yard rushing performance. Our offensive line typically kept Husak upright, but fell flat when it was time to run, and our young running backs - including Coy Wire and Brian Allen - weren't ready to create big plays on their own. I knew head coach Tyrone Willingham was irked by our inept ground game when he showed practice footage of me decleating a linebacker during a late-season team meeting. The message? If a clueless freshman can put a defender on his back, so can a veteran starter.

Four key offensive linemen - left tackle Jeff Cronshagen, center Mike McLaughlin, right guard Eric Heitmann and left guard Zack Quaccia - returned for the 1999 season, and our running game rose from the bottom to the middle of the Pac-10, at 153.6 yards per game. Our schemes hadn't changed, but with a loaded backfield - including bruising Canadian import Kerry Carter - and a staggering passing attack, we threatened defenses with balance, even when we weren't physically dominant. Our ground production slipped slightly in 2000 (138.9 yards per game), and without a consistently prolific passing game, we finished 5-6. We were determined to regain our bowling form, and in 2001, we ran wild.

We were good, and we knew it. It didn't take long in spring 2001 to see that our running game was special. In our first nine-on-seven drills against our first-team defense, our offensive line paved gaping rushing lanes, prompting our defense to stay on the field after practice to sort through its deficiencies. But our defense wasn't the problem. Our defense was good, and we knew it. And it only fueled our confidence when the same unit that led the Pac-10 in rushing defense couldn't stop us from roaming free. Our offensive line - featuring left tackle Kirk Chambers, left guard Heitmann, center Quaccia, right tackle Kwame Harris, me at right guard, and super-sub Paul Weinacht - was both physically gifted and nasty. There was no wide-eyed weak link for which to compensate, as I had been in 1999. We admired one another's skills without being jealous of one another's success. I knew I wasn't an All-American like Heitmann, but I tried to emulate his footwork. I knew I lacked Harris' pure athleticism, but I ensured that we were always in synch. I absorbed some of Quaccia's knowledge and Chambers' enthusiasm. Chambers appreciated my raw strength and mean streak. Most of us had been solid pass protectors in the past, but the pride derived from keeping a quarterback clean didn't compare to the pleasure of planting a defender into the mud.

Allen was our leading rusher in 2001, with 899 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. While Allen sprinted past most defenders, Carter simply ran them over, finishing with 456 yards and nine touchdowns. We had six rushers gain at least 100 yards that season, including Kenny Tolon (346), do-all fullback Casey Moore (199), quarterback Randy Fasani (174) and Justin Faust (152). We racked up 27 rushing touchdowns, and Allen was just one back who wallowed in hog heaven. Allen's senior campaign was fresh air compared to the suffocation of 1998, when he was our leading rusher in the Big Game, with six yards on 15 carries. "Its fun being a running back when the front five has a run-first, physical attitude," Allen says. "When your O-line is moving off the line and pancaking D-linemen every play, running the ball is fun and easy. You can see the confidence and the nastiness of an offense line when holes are huge, and you're gaining big chunks of yardage. Running becomes so easy, you want to run every play. And believe me, I politicked many times during my career."

The notion that pass blocking is purely passive, requiring only finesse, while run blocking is a macho discipline that disregards technique is false. Offensive linemen must brace for hellacious collisions during pass protection, often combating blows to the head with rib shots of their own. If sheer will were enough to effectively drive block, Rudy would have been Notre Dame's starting center. It takes as much proper footwork and leverage to cast a 315-pound nose tackle aside on a run as it does to stone his pursuit to the quarterback. Offensive linemen do prefer running the ball down a defense's throat, however, simply because it frustrates defenders so much. "As a defense, if you can't stop something, it will always be frustrating," says former Stanford nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo. "However, if you can't stop the run, you have no chance. The run game is more physical than the pass game. Stopping the run means physically dominating the other team. If you can't stop the run, you're getting beat physically at the point of attack, and that can be very tiring and frustrating."

Oshinowo was a freshman in 2001, with the unenviable task of anchoring the scout-team defense against our high-octane offense. He was strong, quick and smart, with a relentless work ethic that would make him a star. Still, he was understandably overwhelmed while futilely fighting off double teams from our ornery, veteran line. After our final practice of fall camp, I shook his hand, telling him he gave us a great look. He shook his head and laughed in disbelief, not realizing that he had been tangling with a unique group of linemen. One of my proudest moments at Stanford came two years after I graduated. While visiting former teammates in 2004, I heard Oshinowo tell some of the Cardinal's young offensive linemen that I was the one who taught him how to play college football.

Our 38-28 victory over No. 5 UCLA in 2001 marked my proudest moment in Stanford Stadium. I had ridden the wave of past big wins, but never before had I felt so integral to the tide. The previously undefeated Bruins had smothered their previous six opponents - including Alabama and Ohio State - but we took thorough command of the line of scrimmage, pounding the ball 50 times for 213 yards. Our line never was perfect, but on that day, we came close. UCLA had an outstanding front seven, but the matchups worked in our favor. Harris was the perfect candidate to stone chiseled defensive end Kenyon Coleman. Chambers was the ideal technician to silence the Bruins' speed rushers. Heitmann, Quaccia and I had the brawn to bully UCLA's stout interior linemen, demoralizing them in a way that no misdirection or flashy pass play can. Defenses have excuses for allowing long air strikes. Safeties say they slipped. Linebackers claim they were assigned to stop the run. Defensive tackles campaign for holding calls. But there is no defense for poor run defense, and there is no greater joy for an offensive lineman than watching a defense confront that reality.

The most completely enjoyable collegiate game I played in was also the most meaningless. In 2001, we had - for better or worse - already secured a berth in the Seattle Bowl when we visited rain-ravaged Spartan Stadium for our regular-season finale. Maybe it was the sparse crowd, or perhaps it was playing near my hometown of Morgan Hill, but the slopfest had me convinced I was in high school again. Our game plan was simple: We were going to run the ball through the mud and muck, then run the ball some more. We knew the Spartans' front seven was woefully overmatched, and after three straight losses to San Jose State, we were finally going to take advantage of our physical superiority. The disheveled field conditions held us to 41 points, but we rushed for 220 yards and five touchdowns on 47 carries while unleashing just 22 passes. Quaccia and I did things to the Spartans' undersized nose tackle that would be illegal in some states. The game showcased why we were brought to Stanford in the first place. When I was in high school, Willingham said he didn't care about a recruit's pass-blocking form. He was only interested in a lineman's ability to explode off the ball and eagerness to continue downfield. His philosophy was that any athletic big man could learn to mirror a pass rusher, but it took an inherent tenacity to push the pile.

While Stanford's running game had been dominant this season, Washington State's rush "defense" has been a doormat at the entrance to the end zone. The Cougars are hemorrhaging 266.2 rushing yards per game, at a gaudy clip of 6.7 yards per carry. They have allowed more than 300 ground yards on four occasions, including 426 against perennially powerful Baylor. Stanford has had uncanny success in the red zone, scoring on 22 of 24 possessions to lead the Pac-10 at 91.7 percent. It will be hard for the Cardinal to make a stirring statement against the struggling Cougars, no matter how many yards and points they pile up. But Stanford's ability to continue its goal-line efficiency against its final three, far more formidable, opponents - Oregon, USC and Cal - will determine whether or not it becomes bowl eligible for the first time since 2001.

Offensive line coaches are seemingly programmed to preach, "The goal line is all about attitude." I disagree, in that budging a defensive lineman takes exceptional technique and quickness, especially when that behemoth's lone job is to hold his ground. Still, the struggle for the final few inches that separate a successful offensive drive from a defensive moral victory is a fairly simplistic battle of wills. The beauty of advancing the ball on the ground is eliminating the passing game's pesky variables. After a hand off, there is no quarterback who must quickly read the coverage and deliver a strike under pressure. There is no receiver who must traverse a crowded end zone and secure a pass while ducking a menacing safety. Most short-yardage runs are designed to hit quickly, giving the ball carrier little to read or process. All a back hopes for when taking a handoff near the goal line is to find a crack - somewhere between the beloved big butts clearing the way.

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