Red Zone Report: Closing Time

The Red Zone Report knows that Stanford's late-game defense must change. Wyndam Makowsky has just the recipe. Plus, Wyndam details moments Saturday he leapt out of his chair in joy and in frustration, and analyzes the impact of two things that are happening all too frequently: injuries and substitutions, and two things that aren't happening nearly enough: sound tackling, and scoring off turnovers.

My apologies for missing last week's Red Zone Report. It took me eight days to dry myself from the rain. If I had been in Eugene on Saturday, I wouldn't have been able to type until Spring Practice. But I wasn't, so let's march onward to the Cardinal's latest contest -- and latest letdown.

Closing the game

If last month's Arizona game proved anything, it's that the Cardinal can compete late in the fourth quarter, as long as they have the ball in their hands. And if the UCLA matchup proved anything, it's that when the tables are turned and the Cardinal is on defense, the road to a victory becomes a lot tougher.

The Oregon game reaffirmed both points. Down five points with nearly nine minutes left, Stanford worked a methodical, 10-play drive that milked nearly 6:30 off the clock. Timely passes and power running put the Cardinal in the end zone with just over two minutes remaining. Bravo.

But then the defense took the field, and, much like it did against UCLA, effectively collapsed. The secondary went into complete prevent mode, hardly challenging passes that were being caught for first downs and more. The run defense could do little, and when they were faced with third and eight from the Stanford 33, where a stop would force a 50-yard field goal attempt or a long fourth down, they let Jeremiah Masoli evade their grasp and rush down to the eight yard line.

At that point, the game was over. And the Ducks didn't even have to burn one of their three timeouts. If Stanford's defense could lock down late in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal would easily be 7-3 right now.

The odds say that, with two opponents remaining, the Cardinal won't be put in a similar situation again (defending a less-than-one-score lead with little time remaining). But say it happened again: what could they do to remedy this problem?

My solution: bring the pressure, and don't stop. Stanford is eleventh in the nation in total sacks and 27th in tackles for a loss. They have weapons in Pannel Egboh (despite a bit of a down year), Pat Maynor, Clinton Snyder, Erik Lorig, and redshirt-freshman sensation Tom Keiser. More often than not, a team like Oregon is going to run. Sending your best pass rushers and run stuffers can shut that down. But even if they do decide to pass, they're probably in the hurry up, so you're not letting them get set in the pocket, and you're wearing down the offensive line. You have to trust your secondary to make plays and not pull them 10 yards off the line. And, right now, Stanford's secondary is playing pretty well--Sean Wiser has found his stride, Kris Evans is becoming a shut-down cornerterback, Wopamo Osaisai is a good tackler and Bo McNally is the best defender on the team.

Apply pressure, trust your defensive backs, keep the offense off-balance, and see what happens. It might not work, but then again, neither does the current scheme.

Tackling woes

Stanford put on a clinic Saturday: "How not to tackle your opponent." On a sloppy field in an absolute downpour, they went for the cheap arm tackles that the Ducks had no problem slipping. Oddly, the unit that stood out the most (in a bad way) was the defensive tackles. Sione Fua, Matt Masifilo and Ekom Udofia all whiffed on tackles at one point or another. But it was hardly confined to the line. The safeties (Wiser, McNally and Taylor Skaufel) and linebackers (Snyder, Will Powers) were guilty, too. Now, no one is going to be perfect, especially in the rain, when it is much harder to grip your opponents or wrap them up. But Oregon was not plagued by similar problems, and Stanford was fine in similar conditions against Washington State. Part of the issue was that, at times, Stanford's pursuit was lacking, leading to a number of open-field situations that put the defender in a bad spot. Nevertheless, we have to expect more, especially from defenders who are normally good tacklers.

Unnecessary substitutions

Ever since his heroics against Arizona, Alex Loukas has split time with starting quarterback Tavita Pritchard. Loukas is relied on to run, while Pritchard is the main passer. Against Oregon, this trend continued. But I found myself questioning why Loukas was entering the game at all. He wasn't effective whatsoever running the ball -- seven carries for eight yards -- and Pritchard was putting together one of his better outings of the season. Pritchard knew when to run (eight carries for 42 yards) and when to stand his ground and pass (15 for 22 for 138 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions). The yardage total won't blow anyone away, but Pritchard did what he does best: managed the game and made high percentage throws. Most of all, in the third quarter, he was getting into a groove and starting to lead the offense into Oregon territory on nearly every possession.

It's painfully obvious that Pritchard needs to develop a rhythm in order to succeed, and that simply does not happen when he is swapped out for Loukas seemingly at random. Loukas is a nice option every now and then, but not at the frequency with which he enters the game, and not with the predictable play call -- either a quarterback keeper, an option, or a handoff. Jim Harbaugh has nothing but good things to say about Pritchard -- he called him "special" earlier in the year -- so it's time to trust your starter and stick with him for the vast majority of the game, even if Loukas does bring a different element to the offense.

The play when your normally stoic reporter lost his cool (in a good way)

On Ryan Whalen's phenomenal third down catch in the first quarter, I leapt out of my chair and yelled, "RYAN WHALEN DOES NOT DROP PASSES!" If I had a
fantasy football team, that would be their name. Thankfully, for my sanity, I do not. But the point still stands: Whalen has hands of absolute glue. I'm reminded of a poor man's version of USC's Steve Smith--great work ethic, doesn't drop anything, runs the right routes, has the complete confidence of his quarterback, and so on. I spoke with Jim Harbaugh a few weeks ago, and he said that last year, he had X number of scholarships, and Whalen was recruit X + 1, or X + 2. Can you imagine if he decided to go to one of the few schools that offered him a spot? I sure can't, and I doubt Harbaugh and David Shaw can, either.

Whalen's catch paid off, as four plays later, Aaron Zagory knocked home the Cardinal's first points of the game.

The play when your normally stoic reporter lost his cool (in a bad way)

On the drive after Whalen's catch and Zagory's field goal, Stanford, trailing 10-3, had an opportunity to make a statement, stop Oregon before they could score on their third consecutive drive, and get the ball back down only down one touchdown. They forced a third and four from the Stanford 43, and on the next play, had Masoli wrapped up in the backfield. But Masoli finagled his way out of it, and made it inside the 41 to set up a long fourth and one (or short fourth and two). The tackling was bad all game, and this play epitomized just that. My chair once again found itself empty as I leapt and muttered something unintelligible. That is a play you simply have to finish, especially when you have the quarterback dead to rights in the backfield.

The opponent's 41-yard line is prime four down territory, since it's too far for a field goal and can be a bit too close for a punt. So, of course, Mike Bellotti went for it. On the fourth-down play, Jeremiah Johnson busted through the Stanford line, raced downfield, and carried Wopamo Osaisai ten yards into the end zone.

Injuries hurt

If Harbaugh is Captain Comeback, I'm Captain Obvious: Injuries hurt. Nick Macaluso and Owen Marecic missed Saturday's game, and it showed. Chike Amajoyi, the former MLB starter, is more athletic and better in the backfield than Macaluso, but a poorer tackler. On a wet day with Ducks were fighting their way through would-be tackle after would-be tackle, Macaluso's tackling prowess would have been a welcome addition to the squad.

Josh Catron did an admirable job filling in for Marecic -- Shaw and Harbaugh seem to like working him into the gameplan as more than just a blocker -- but Marecic's ability to create holes and running room was sorely missed. The Cardinal offensive line was all right, but was occasionally out of sync, and without Marecic adding some extra muscle, the Stanford running game was, at times, completely shut down.

On the flip side of the injury spectrum, Chris Marinelli came back from a shoulder injury to make a surprise start at right guard. But the big man wasn't entirely himself on Saturday, and was flagged for a couple of uncharacteristic holding calls.

Capitalizing on turnovers

Oregon fumbled away the ball four times, yet Stanford could only manage six points off turnovers. Not much more needs to be added: the Cardinal had plenty of chances to separate themselves from the Ducks, and they couldn't capitalize. All year, we've been talking about how Stanford needs to cut down on turnovers while making their opponents cough up the ball. They did a great job against Washington State, and did it well again against Oregon. But the turnovers mean nothing if you can't finish the job. The squandered opportunities led to a squandered win, and Stanford isn't likely to be given so many chances against USC or Cal.

Perfection

No better word to describe the fake field goal than that. It was simply perfect. The defense was completely sold on it being a kicking situation, because Aaron Zagory has been so solid on the year. It was a guaranteed three points. If Zagory were a more erratic kicker, then perhaps the defense might have been on their toes. But they weren't.

After the snap, Marinelli and right tackle Matt Kopa did a phenomenal job of sealing off their gaps and giving McNally a gigantic hole to run through. McNally was completely untouched on his way to the end zone.

Beautiful. Even more astounding when it was revealed that the play was brand new.

Generally, athleticism isn't a requirement for a holder. Good hands, sure, but the holder doesn't need a great 40 time. But, it's nice that a superior athlete like McNally is Stanford's holder, as it allows Harbaugh and D.J. Durkin to come up with plays that exploit that.

Nevertheless, it was completely unexpected. I was so stunned that I barely moved and was thus prevented from adding a third "lost my cool" section to this report. Imagine how the Ducks felt.

Cool the jets

Clinton Snyder's aggressive play hurt Stanford twice on Saturday. He was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul late in the second quarter with the score tied. As a result, Oregon was given the ball in Stanford territory, and they were able to get a field goal out of the drive. In the third quarter, with the score tied once again, Snyder ran into the Oregon punt returner. Instead of being pinned deep in their own territory, the Ducks began the drive with reasonable field position, and again managed a field goal. Snyder's intensity is part of what makes him such a valuable part of the Stanford defense -- I remarked during the Washington State game that you knew it was over when Snyder was joking with his teammates on the sidelines. But he has to do a better job of toeing the line between aggressive and over-agressive.

The big declaration

Here it goes, just in time for the USC game: Stanford can play with anyone. The Cardinal might not win, but it'll be close. With a power run game, and a good run defense and pass rush, occasionally joined by a good pass defense, Stanford has the tools to compete with just about any team in the country. Oregon is considered among the Pac-10's best, and yet Stanford had them on the brink of defeat.

On the road.

In the less-than-welcoming Autzen Stadium.

In a driving rain storm.

USC has played like a team possessed since their loss to Oregon State, and with last year's game freshly on their minds, the Trojans will look to exert a little bit of revenge, and a little bit of punishment. But Stanford's heart is matched by few others, and I would not be surprised if Jim Harbaugh and company do their best Stonewall Jackson impersonation to keep the Trojans at bay, at least for a bit.

Quick Takes

Anthony Kimble's 39-yard run was impressive, but he may have been able to make it an extra 5-10 yards if Whalen had been able to hold his block.

• I have complete confidence in Aaron Zagory's abilities as a place kicker no matter the weather, but in inclement conditions, his kickoffs have a hard time reaching the 15.

• Oregon's Spencer Paysinger and T.J. Ward are absolute monsters. Both are young and still emerging, which is scary to contemplate.

Delano Howell forced a fumble on Saturday. He was recruited as a defensive back (as well as a running back), and there's talk of him moving there after this year. Perhaps this was a little preview of the future.

• Jim Harbaugh is a mad scientist, but did he really throw in a pass play for Anthony Kimble in the rain? Really? Thankfully, Kimble thought better of it and tucked the ball away.

• When the defense stacks nine in the box, you probably shouldn't run, especially if your bruising back, Toby Gerhart, is out of the game. This happened at least three or four times. They know you're running, you know they know you're running, and yet you run anyway. When your quarterback is having a good game, as Pritchard did, it might be worth letting him throw in those situations.

• Stanford faced third and goal from the Oregon two early in the third quarter. Pritchard lofted a beautiful pass to Austin Gunder; unfortunately, the tight end was well covered. But the ball had such nice touch and placement that it was worth noting -- it was characteristic of an all-around solid performance from Stanford's starting quarterback.

Underrated Play of the Game: On third and six, with the score tied in the second quarter, Tavita Pritchard tried to find Kimble on the sideline. Oregon cornerback Jairus Byrd made a tremendous play to come from behind, position his body so as not to cause interference, and knock the ball away.

Big Hit of the Game: On second and 20 from the Stanford 38 near the end of the first half, Jeff Maehl took an option pitch down the left sideline. He almost made it to the first-down marker, but McNally delivered a crushing blow that knocked Maehl straight off his feet and out of bounds a yard short. McNally stayed on his feet and barely flinched. In the end, it didn't matter, though, as Oregon converted on third down and tacked on three points before the half.

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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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