Red Zone Report: 'Tis The Season

After getting coal in their stockings one too many times this season, Stanford is home for the holidays. But next year could bring a season to be jolly (and a season to remember), and student reporter Wyndam Makowsky makes the argument. Delano Howell, Andrew Luck, Jim Harbaugh and (maybe) Toby Gerhart -- here's why we're optimistic Stanford football is in good hands moving forward.

And so it ends—a game too early. By now, you've heard the reasons why Stanford lost Big Game: missed tackles; poorly timed turnovers; red zone inefficiency, and more. I'll touch on the game, but this season's final Red Zone Report will look as much into the future as it will on the past.

Mea Culpa…kind of

I have been living in dishonor for days now: my prediction—nay, guarantee—that Stanford would win Big Game seems to have been a bit off. A few lessons can be learned: I'm not Broadway Joe and thus shouldn't be so cocksure. Yet, even if we turned back time and gave me a second chance at a prediction, I'd still pick the Cardinal. It's not that Stanford is better than Cal—they're not. Rather, it's more that the Cardinal's wounds were largely self-inflicted. Since the UCLA game, Stanford had done an excellent job of minimizing turnovers, even against a top-ranked defense like USC. If they had done the same against Cal—which I wager they would do more often than not—then it's truly anyone's contest.
Let's go over some mistakes. Toby Gerhart's fumble was a fluke—he was still stunned that he lost the ball, even an hour after the game had ended. Tavita Pritchard struggles with accuracy at times, but even he does not usually throw as many poor interceptions as he did against the Golden Bears. And Aaron Zagory does not leave four points on the board. By all means, the Cardinal should have been at least tied going into halftime, and probably winning. The entire dynamic of the second half would have been changed—Stanford would not have had to rely on a pass-happy offense that got them into trouble.
This isn't to take anything away from the Golden Bears. They were lights-out all afternoon, and Jahvid Best is going to be a superstar. However, Stanford has largely its own mistakes to blame—and, to their credit, they take full responsibility—for this being such a blowout.

The (other) main culprit

More than any other team this year, Cal exposed one of the Stanford defense's main weaknesses: a lack of speed. Sure, the Cardinal can get after the passer, or stay with receivers, but give a fast runner some room, and he'll cover a lot of ground. This was evident from the second play of the game, when Best, after shedding a Bo McNally tackle, reversed field completely and was untouched until he was deep into Stanford territory. It was shown again on a number of Cal's trick plays, such as the hook-and-ladder play that resulted in a touchdown. And it was proven again on reverses that stopped Cardinal defenders in their tracks.
Cal—and by Cal, I mean mainly Best—showed quick strike ability that Stanford simply could not keep up with. And in the end, that helped create the difference.

Back-breakers

On two separate occasions, Stanford forced Cal to punt deep in their own territory. Both times, Mark Mueller came within inches of blocking Bryan Anger's kicks. And both times, Anger got off beauties: the first went for 76 yards and was downed at the Stanford 1-yard line; the second went 75 yards for a touchback. Both were moments of near-ecstasy, followed by disappointment. This isn't a knock on Mueller—it's very difficult to block a kick—as much as it is recognition of Anger's ability to get a kick away without any harm. Still, Mueller, who played a nice game both on special teams and defense, was a fingertip away from changing the contest completely, only to have Anger, not a moment later, diffuse Stanford's hopes. This was particularly true on the second punt, which came with Cal leading 30-3—a block would have given the Cardinal life, but the ultimate result elicited merely a groan.

‘Tis the season to be…regretful?

As Gerhart put it after the game, Stanford was a few minutes away from being 7-5 or 8-4. Three games in particular stand out. UCLA and Oregon are obvious—Stanford led both teams with less than two minutes left, only to have the defense collapse and allow a last second, go-ahead touchdown in both cases. Especially against the Bruins, an inferior opponent, this was unacceptable. The third contest was against Notre Dame. Stanford wasn't comfortable all game, and yet came within only a touchdown of tying the Irish. As it turns out, ND wasn't particularly good this year—they just lost at home to Syracuse. The Orange, as any fellow East Coaster knows, are a regional, if not national joke. Looking back on the early October match up, the Cardinal should have been in far better position to win than they put themselves in—instead, Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd were made to look like Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree.
Jim Harbaugh, Gerhart, and the rest of the team's leadership was sure to point out that a lot was achieved this season, and they're right. But they also acknowledged that there was much still to be done, and that they left a few games on the table. Stanford only needed one of those three contests to be bowl eligible; instead, they'll be home on Christmas.

Irony

We ought to make this a weekly feature. There was a big to-do on the Farm this week over the language of the Big Game t-shirts. As it turns out, the traditional "Cal Sucks" shirts that the student run Stanford Store sells leading up to the annual contests had to be changed to "Beat Cal" because of a university licensing agreement. The company that produces the shirts also makes tees for Cal, and part of their contract says that one client cannot insult another, and that if the offended party wishes, they can have the shirt changed. The University of California apparently deemed "Cal Sucks" to be tremendously insulting, so "Beat Cal" was used instead. On the surface, this is fine, I guess: it's a bit nit-picky, and if "sucks" insult you, then you need to don some tougher skin, but so be it. I did find it interesting, though, that many a Cal fan wore "F*** Stanfurd" shirts on Saturday. Now, I'm sure that the producers of that wonderfully poetic tee didn't use the same manufacturing company as the Stanford Store, so there isn't a conflict of interest. However, these shirts were prevalent—I lost track of how many I saw. There is simply no way that the University didn't know that students were wearing these shirts.
It's amusing that on the one hand, Cal will act holier than thou and request that a not-that-offensive "Cal Sucks" shirt be neutered, but on the other hand, turn a blind eye to far more distasteful actions of its community.
Personally, I'm all for the insulting shirts. Bring ‘em on. But let's not result to moral equivalency, m'kay?

A word on Harbaugh

Much has been made of Harbaugh's rise through the coaching ranks to the point where, earlier this month, he was considered the front runner for the Oakland Raiders ' head coaching position. Like any Stanford fan, I dreaded that he would leave the Farm for the football abyss that is Raiders' football. Fortunately, with a new contract hashed out that only needs some Ts and Is to be crossed and dotted, Harbaugh looks like he will be at Stanford for the long haul.
But perhaps I shouldn't have been worried at all—at this point, Harbaugh's devotion to his team couldn't be more evident. There were about a dozen reporters waiting inside a make shift tent to interview coach immediately following Big Game. He trotted down the stairs from the locker room—slowly—and answered our questions. Before anything else, Harbaugh spoke of his seniors, and the mark they left not only on the program, but on him as well.
"I have a lot of affection for the seniors," he said. "I'm maybe even closer to them than I was to my own class."
Harbaugh wasn't choked up throughout this statement, but he was solemn. His eyes, if not his soft voice, betrayed his emotions. And in that moment, I don't think any of the people in the tent would have considered for a second that Harbaugh would abruptly leave this program. The man cares deeply about his players, and about the school. As Mike Eubanks told me a month ago, some coaches can come off like used-car salesmen, but Harbaugh is the opposite. That is all too apparent, and let me assure you, as best I can from limited interactions with the man: it is not an act.

The hybrid

Tight end Coby Fleener had the best game of his young career on Saturday, catching four balls for 75 yards. He displayed soft hands and nice route running. The redshirt freshman has a lot of potential, as he can split out wide, or line up off-tackle, and still be effective. At 6'6", 240 pounds, he is a bit of a tweener—he has the frame of a tight end, but the speed and athleticism of a wide receiver.
With the impending graduation of Austin Gunder, and the full conversion of Tom McAndrew into a defensive end, Fleener has a chance to make even more of an impact next season. Jim Dray and Konrad Reuland will be in the mix at tight end, as will top recruits Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, depending on whether or not Harbaugh chooses to redshirt them. But Fleener is versatile enough that, even with a crowded corps, Harbaugh will have to find room for him. As a wide receiver in a tight end's body, he adds a dynamic to the offense that nearly no one else can provide.
Saturday was a nice coming out party, and with three years of eligibility remaining, I expect Fleener to be a large part of the Cardinal's future plans.

When America's Pastime impedes football progress

The biggest off-season concern for Stanford football is out of its control. Gerhart, who broke Tommy Vardell's single season rushing record this year, and who many are tapping as a Heisman Trophy candidate next season, may not be back for his senior campaign. Not because he is declaring early for the NFL Draft; no, Gerhart may opt to pursue a career in baseball.
Darren Sabreda wrote the following this week in the San Jose Mercury News: "Gerhart, rated among Baseball America's top 50 high school prospects three years ago as an outfielder, told the Mercury News last week that if he is selected high in this June's baseball draft and receives a "multimillion-dollar contract," he will leave football."
Gerhart was a top reserve and occasional starter last season as an outfielder, and made his biggest mark with a homerun in the first game of the College World Series against Florida State. This year, with the graduation of Brendan Domaracki, and Sean Ratliff's move to the New York Mets' farm system, Gerhart has an excellent chance at winning a starting job in the outfield. If he does, and has a good season, the MLB may come calling in the June draft.
Harbaugh has all but resigned himself to the fact that if Gerhart is indeed offered a substantial contract by a MLB franchise, then the junior will depart the Farm. This would not only leave Stanford without its main offensive threat—a mighty blow to the team before the season even starts—but would cripple the Cardinal's running back corps, too.
With the graduations of Anthony Kimble and Blaise Johnson this coming spring, Stanford would only be left with Jeremy Stewart and Delano Howell—and Harbaugh has indicated that he wants to move Howell, who he compared to Troy Polamalu, to safety. [Ed: Emphasis mine.] If Stewart is the only option, then Harbaugh will be forced to use highly-touted recruits Stepfan Taylor and Usua Amanam from the moment they step foot on the Farm. They could be great, but the jury is obviously still out. Unless Harbaugh converts another position player to running back—for example, Corey Gatewood saw time there as a freshman, and Chike Amajoyi was recruited at that position—he may be forced to rely on his quarterback play, which he didn't have to do for most of this season. That leads us to a tantalizing, final point…

Andrew Luck

No semi-witty title necessary: Luck is the future of Stanford football. Pritchard and Alex Loukas played adequately this season, but neither is a long-term solution. Luck, who just completed his first-year redshirt, is. Harbaugh almost threw him into action this season, but decided against it and allowed his 2008 top-five recruit to learn the offense. Now, the coach wants to be able to name a starter for spring practices, and Luck will be at the forefront of that competition.
He has ideal size, accuracy, arm strength, mobility, and intelligence. Harbaugh has compared him to Tom Brady. I was watching the Oklahoma-Texas Tech game in the San Francisco airport when a switch turned in my head: if we're fortunate, Andrew Luck could become Sam Bradford , part deux. They have similar skill sets, frames, everything. An opponent even compared Bradford to—guess who?—Brady.
Instead of being a game manager, as Pritchard and Loukas were, Luck would be expected to carry the load for the Cardinal, especially if Gerhart does not return. A tall task? Sure. But Luck has all the potential in the world, and I join the rest of the Stanford football nation in impatiently waiting to see what he can do.
Spring ball can't get here soon enough.

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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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