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.
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.
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.
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…
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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