Red Zone Report: Home Finale

Wyndam Makowsky made the most of the Red Zone's final home game of the season. Why Stanford reminds of the New York Giants, what the sellout crowd sounded like on the field, why Stanford needs to improve its kickoffs, why the officials continue to struggle and why a certain wide receiver isn't letting himself get pushed around: we cover it all in this week's Red Zone Report.

"We bow to no man. We bow to no program here at Stanford University." –Coach Jim Harbaugh.

 

It's a line—half battle cry, half mission statement—worth repeating. In just two years on the Farm, Harbaugh and has instilled a Churchill-esque "never surrender" attitude into the Stanford football program.

 

It was in full display Saturday. We'll touch on that, but while this Red Zone Report is going to have its share of football talk, a lot of it will be devoted to the atmosphere around Stanford Stadium, which was the best so far of my time on the Farm.

 

A look back at last week's declaration

 

I wrote: "Stanford can play with anyone. The Cardinal might not win, but it'll be close… 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."

 

I may have underestimated the Cardinal: Stanford did more than just stop USC in the first half—they flat-out dominated them. As the game went on, the Trojans' depth and talent was just a bit too much for the Cardinal to handle, but Pete Carroll can't be too pleased with how long Stanford stuck around. The game wasn't really put away until midway through the fourth quarter. The Cardinal rushing attack made the vaunted USC defense look perfectly average (for a half), and in the end, Stanford's 23 points matched the total points USC has allowed over their previous six games.

 

Moral victories will never replace the real thing, but it's hard to see how there aren't some positive kernels from this game. Last Saturday affirmed that Stanford really is getting into a position to play with any opponent, that the team has a running attack that can go against any defense in the land and that the program's rebuilding process is far ahead of schedule.

 

Best in the conference

 

When I watch the Stanford run game, I am constantly reminded of my NFL team, the New York Giants. Both squads have a multi-headed rushing attack that relies on a bruising back to carry the load and set the tone, and a more nifty, change-of-pace back that can do everything well—block, catch, and, of course, run. Throw in a bullish fullback and you have your requisite skill players.

 

But that's only half of a good run game. You also need an offensive line. And, like the Giants, the Cardinal has one of the best lines in country and, at this point, undoubtedly the best line in the Pac-10. Like their professional counterpart, the Stanford line doesn't have a ton of stars and is better as a whole than as five (or more) individual pieces. Their cohesiveness breeds success—and running room.

 

Irony

 

As the game wound to a close, many Stanford fans left the stadium while most USC fans kept their seats. So, it was no surprise that the fans' general reaction in the final few minutes favored the Trojans. When USC scored a touchdown with 1:23 left on the clock to push the score to 45-17, the fans cheered. When Stanford decided to respond, the boos rained down. And not just here and there—this was a chorus. I don't expect anything less, but I do find it funny that fans can't see the incongruity of applauding a gratuitous touchdown in one instance, but taking such objection to another gratuitous touchdown just a minute later.

 

For the record, I liked Harbaugh's decision to actually play the final drive. If USC is going to drive up the score, why play dead? And I can't help but think that it was a not-so-subtle message from Harbaugh to Carroll: don't [expletive deleted] with us. Ever since their media altercation in early 2007 (from which the quote that lead this piece arose), Harbaugh and Carroll have said all the right things. But the revived rivalry between USC and Stanford—and Harbaugh and Carroll—is one interesting subplot to keep an eye on.

 

So this is what a sellout looks like…

 

Speaking of the crowd, the turnout Saturday was fantastic—the first sellout in the new Stanford Stadium. The difference between 55,000 fans and 35,000 fans was staggering, both visually and audibly. Granted, many of the fans were USC supporters, but not as many as one might think. The Red Zone was packed, and the stadium was so loud that for most of the game, I couldn't hear the band. That's right: when Toby Gerhart scored the first touchdown of the game, I couldn't hear "All Right Now." That's how loud it was. So, kudos to everyone who came. You made your presence heard.

 

Given how many people saw Stanford's performance against USC, I think this game may have a chance at turning around the Cardinal's attendance woes. The diehards and many students will always come out, but when a program has been down for a while, more casual fans (and non-Stanford supporters all together) may only make the trip for big-time opponents, like Southern Cal, and even then, it's to see the wonder of the USC football program as much as it is to see the Cardinal.

 

But then Stanford smacks the Trojans around in the first half, and all of a sudden, the rumors are true: Cardinal football is back on track. Maybe they're worth watching, thinks the casual fan. And look at this stadium! Is there a better football venue around? Maybe I'll reconsider that Gridiron Guarantee and take in some more games next year…

 

Not-so-special teams

 

I'm sure no one has used that line before. Nevertheless, the Cardinal's special teams coverage—which has been solid all season—didn't show up against the Trojans. I'm just going to quote a paragraph from my recap of the game for the Daily, since it already says everything I want to say.

 

"In the second quarter, CJ Gable returned a kickoff for a score, and on the opening kick of the second half, Ronald Johnson advanced into Stanford territory. As a result, despite the Cardinal's superior play on both offense and defense, USC was still very much in the game. The Trojans went three-and-out on all but one of their first-half drives; at halftime, however, the score was tied 17-17."

 

If coverage had been better, then USC would have 10 points wiped off the scoreboard. There were a few big plays in this game that changed the tone of the contest completely—the Gable touchdown was one of them. USC's average starting field position was their 41-yard line. You simply cannot give the Trojans essentially half a field to work with and expect to emerge victorious.

 

Interestingly, though, Pete Carroll felt that the Cardinal special teams played just fine.

"They have some pretty good stuff on special teams," he said. "We thought they were very solid and didn't show any real weaknesses at all."

 

To be fair, it didn't appear that too many people missed tackles in coverage—USC simply did a fantastic job of manning their blocks and creating holes. Gable and Johnson are excellent football players, and if you give them a little bit of room, they'll exploit it. Hopefully, Carroll's right and it's just a case of USC finding the right seams, and not indicative of any declining play of the unit.

 

As always: the Zebras

 

So, what are the odds that there will be a Pac-10 football game in my Stanford career that doesn't have any officiating errors? 30,000 to 1? The refs weren't horrifically bad on Saturday, but they did make their presence known. In particular, there were a number of questionable spots that gave both USC and Stanford better (and worse) field position than they deserved.

 

One such instance happened right in front of where I was standing on the sideline. Stafon Johnson fielded a punt at around his own 16. He advanced a step, then stuttered backwards, and was then hit by Wopamo Osasai, who dragged him straight into the turf. USC should have been given the ball at around their 16. Instead, the pigskin was placed on the 18.

 

There was also an egregiously bad no-call early in the third quarter. After catching a Tavita Pritchard pass, Delano Howell had his facemask pulled so hard that his helmet was ripped off. No flag. Brilliant.

 

Around the same time, on one of USC's first possessions of the second half, Harbaugh got into it a bit with the referee—he was constantly making the holding sign, and motioning with his hands that his players were being thrown to the ground. The ref turned around and ignored him.

 

The true heroes

 

I was witness to a beautiful halftime ceremony. As the first half wore down, the flight crew of the two jets that flew overhead after the national anthem came down to the sidelines. After taking some pictures with the Song Girls, they marched out onto the field, where they were introduced over the stadium PA system. They were joined by three men in civilian clothes. Turns out, this was a trio of Stanford students who had either completed ROTC or OCS—I couldn't get a clarification. After their introduction, one of the soldiers—in full dress uniform—had the three students (and one other person, dressed in his flight suit) take the Oath of Office, right there on the field.

 

It was a powerful moment, one that the circle of people there to watch—the other flight crew members and the Stanford cheerleaders—all took in but few others in the stadium seemed to notice. Which isn't anyone's fault, as it did take place on the sideline, but they missed out on an event that was so strong, brave, and moving that I took off my KZSU headset, listened in, and offered my congratulations.

 

The (regular) season's final declaration

 

At the beginning of the year, I predicted that the Cardinal would go 6-6 and make a bowl appearance. I'm not backing down from that now: the Cardinal will win Big Game. Stanford is better than last season, and Cal hasn't improved (or worsened) too much from 2007—the Bears have stayed relatively stagnant. The Berkeley defense is good—not great—and a healthy dose of Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble should put Stanford in good position to win. Neither Cal's rushing attack nor its passing game particularly stands out, so another good effort from the Cardinal secondary and front seven should keep the Bears relatively contained. Big Game will be close, but I have faith in Stanford. Sing it with me: I'm a believer.

 

Quick Notes

 

*    Alex Fletcher did his best 300 impression after the Cardinal's first TD—he raced off the field pumping his fists and literally roaring.

*    Until the fourth quarter, Stanford's defense turned in a stunning performance. They were pursuing and tackling well; the secondary shut down most of Matt Sanchez's receiving options; and the line was getting good pressure. All of this without Nick Macaluso or Pat Maynor. Oddly, the one player who seemed a bit off of his game was Bo McNally, Stanford's defensive stalwart all season—he was caught badly out of position on a few plays, and missed a number of tackles.

*    The LSJUMB has been solid all year, and their halftime show did not disappoint. Their final formation was "24-23", and was done to "All Right Now." I hadn't heard the fight song used in a show before. USC's band also played the song—poorly, and without enthusiasm, I might add—much to the chagrin of the Red Zone.

*    If you combined Kris Evans and Wopamo Osasai into one football player, you'd get an All-American cornerback. Kramo Osans would have the speed and tackling ability of Osasai, and the coverage skills of Evans.

*    It was pretty amusing to see Doug Baldwin, all 5'11", 180 pounds of him, talk smack to 6'2", 260-pound Rey Maualuga after a reception in the first quarter. But don't sell the Stanford receiver short—he's tough. Maualuga gave Baldwin a bit of a shove, and it was Doug who had to be held back from escalating the situation any further.

*    Chris Owusu has developed a habit of hurdling during his kickoffs. I am not a fan of the technique—while there is always the possibility that you could break it long, it also leaves you far more open to fumbling, and Owusu has not been error-free in his ball handling, even when he stays on the ground. That being said, I do like Harbaugh and D.J. Durkin's decision to use Owusu for kickoffs—he has gamebreaker ability.

*    Aaron Zagory has been excellent on field goals all year, but his kickoffs, especially as the season has progressed, leave much to be desired. USC's David Buehler—who had two uncles play for Stanford—showed how much of a weapon a strong-legged kicker could be on Saturday, as he booted four balls for touchbacks. Stanford has exactly one touchback on a kickoff on the year.

Credit to the Stanford defense: the Cardinal had three sacks on the day, all of which came on third down. At least one was a coverage sack, which speaks volumes to the improved play of Stanford's secondary.


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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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