The Sweep: In the Flesh

How about we combine our professed fearlessness, our appreciation for academics, and our legacy of innovation and start going for it on all fourth and shorts? At the very least, it'll make a national splash in the press, win over recruits and win us more games. At best, it could just contribute to another revolution of the sport – and make the Stanford name every bit as established as Nebraska's.

As always, we begin the Sweep with a Top 25. These are our best guess as to where all the teams will end up ranked, not power rankings that attempt to actually rank said teams on strength, as there are plenty of preexisting sources for that.

This week, Michigan State, losers to Central Michigan U, makes way for Michigan, victors over South Bend U (who are still a top-15 team in my eyes). We were bearish on Oklahoma State (preseason No. 18), and the Pokes rewarded our skepticism against Houston. Light week on the whole though, lot of thrilling finishes, but relatively few major shake-ups.

2009 Week 2 Top 25
1. Texas (0)
2. USC (+1)
3. Florida (-1)
4. Penn State (+1)
5. BYU (+2)
6. Mississippi (0)
7. Boise State (+2)
8. California (+4)
9. Alabama (+4)
10. TCU (+1)
11. Ohio State (-5)
12. Notre Dame (-7)
13. LSU (0)
14. Georgia Tech (+1)
15. Oklahoma (+1)
16. West Virginia (+1)
17. Pittsburgh (+1)
18. Utah (+6)
19. Virginia Tech (+1)
20. Oregon State (-1)
21. Georgia (+4)
22. Michigan (+4)
23. Boston College (-2)
24. Wisconsin (-1)
25. Oklahoma State (-10)
Just missed: Houston, North Carolina
Dropped: Michigan State
Added: Michigan

Questions, comments, concerns? Dannovi on this site or dannovi@gmail.com.

In person

As an unabashed college football aficionado with one year left in the heart of the Southeast, college football's heart, I'm trying to attend as many games as I possibly can. Finals, interviews, national holidays and the like will probably make my goal unattainable, but I'm shooting for one game a week. I'll try to go to as many different places as I can so I see as many different teams and venues as possible. Here's what I've seen thus far:

1. At Georgia Tech 30, Clemson 27, Thursday, Sept. 10

Packed house for this one and an awesome environment for the ESPN Thursday nighter. Tech jumped out to a 24-0 lead in the first 20 minutes on three big plays – a 82-yard run, a 85-yard punt return and a 34-yard fake field goal touchdown pass. Clemson then put nine guys on the line and dared Tech's triple option quarterback, Josh Nesbitt, to throw the ball. Tech is a top-ten team at most positions, but I have a better arm than Nesbitt. He finished 3-of-14 with two picks, allowing Clemson to actually take a 27-24 lead midway through the fourth before Tech re-awoke and hit the tying 34-yarder with six minutes left and the game-winning 37-yarder with a minute to go.

MVPs: Tech K Scott Blair: 3-of-3 field goals, 3-of-3 extra points and a 34-yard touchdown pass. Singlehandedly accounted for 18 of the Jackets' points. Though Tech tailback Jonathan Dwyer (66 yards, 11 carries) didn't have a huge day, his combination of speed and size made him the most talented player on the field bar none. He'll play on Sundays.

Atmosphere: Tech drives around their mascot in an old Model T, puts out sweet rap videos and their fight song describes their love of drinking whisky clear [straight] and the proclamation "to hell with Georgia."Marching band does its part and the crowd gets loud on third downs. Tech still doesn't sell out for the non-national TV opponents, and the University is very much second-fiddle to Georgia state-wide, but the stadium is in the heart of downtown Atlanta, had a beautiful view of the sunset and is the nation's oldest. It's not a 222-0 victory over Cumberland, but we'll give Tech an 8.5 on atmosphere. Great value for a football game – a friendly scalper sold me for 40 percent under face value for a national TV game.

2. At Wake Forest 24, Stanford 17, Saturday, Sept. 12

Atmosphere: 8. Beautiful, intimate, new stadium with grass-hill seating overlooking one end zone the icing on the cake. The stadium was not full and didn't get THAT loud, but the day and the city were equally beautiful – and I even got a little tan.

MVP: Wake QB Riley Skinner. Don't want to talk about it.

Analysis: I had it all written at halftime. I was outside Section 12, in line for a $5 Coke with my fellow Stanford ‘08ers Chris, Kate and Dominic and I had it all written in my head. This was to be the program-defining victory that clearly separates all that has preceded today with all that is to come. Buddy or Walt would have lost this one in a second-half heartbreaker, on the road against a legit team with a senior quarterback. And I've been cautiously optimistic about Harbaugh and Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind, but now that I've seen it in person, I'm all in.

********** ********** **********

If you're to be shamed when you fool me once, and I'm to be shamed when you fool me again, what's the appropriate appropriation of shame when you've fooled me nine times? Because much like the Bud Lights and the sun methodically wore down Chris throughout the third quarter, such that he was an incoherent slumped-over mess come crunch time, Wake Forest's seven-yard end-arounds and toss sweeps did much the same to Stanford's linebackers -- and any shot at victory. When it was all done Saturday, the Deacons had ran for 251 yards and two touchdowns on 45 carries – most of them to the outside, exploiting Stanford's linebackers in space play after play after play. However, much like I'd started celebrating prematurely against UCLA (twice), UC-Davis, USC, Oregon, Notre Dame, TCU and San Jose State in recent years, blown lead No. 9 still somehow struck me by surprise.

Stanford blew fourth-quarter leads in every single one of those losses, if my memory serves me correct, and led by double-digits in five of those games. There is no other team in the country with a similar streak of blown leads, no other school which has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with such regularity as Stanford. (By means of comparison, Stanford has had hardly any comeback victories I can recall over that period, 24-23 over USC being the obvious exception.) Three different coaches have tried without success to snap that streak of losing from ahead, and each has employed different defensive coordinators, different formations, different ratios of aggressive and conservative playcalling. None have worked. Perhaps the problem isn't just with the coaching?

Stanford's lack of quality depth is hardly new news to hardcore Cardinal fans. The recruiting dark ages ended definitively with the 2009 class, but something like a third or even half of players in the previous two or three classes do not figure to be Division I-caliber players during their time on the Farm. No school is 100 percent clairvoyant in its evaluations, but other schools do not whiff on such a high frequency of their players: Stanford's academic restrictions, lackluster recruiting efforts and horrific on-field results from 2002-2007 formed a perfect storm. Today, therefore, while the Card are talented enough to trot out respectable starters at most positions (well, more on the linebackers in a second), there is not enough depth to have Pac-10-quality second stringers, especially on the defensive line. Stanford had no sacks all Saturday and the holes only got wider as the game went on. Defensive linemen are among the quickest to tire, and when they do, Stanford's coaches are stuck with an inenviable choice: put in subpar backups or keep in the tired first-stringers. Without a doubt, I believe that's what happened in the most heartwrenching loss of all, the 30-27 loss to UCLA in overtime in 2005, after leading 24-3 with eight minutes left in the fourth. I wasn't on the field or in the postgame lockerroom Saturday, but that's my best guess as to what happened against Wake Forest: our D line got tired. Add in the close calls that went against Stanford, the miscues on offense, and a senior quarterback in his home stadium, and you have the perfect recipe for Wake's come-from-behind victory.

A few more comments on Stanford:
1. I don't understand why we didn't attempt to get more speed (and fewer linebackers) on the field by going nickel down the stretch. Wake wasn't out-muscling us – they were beating us to the outside time and time again. Replacing a winded 230-pound linebacker with a fresh 200-pound corner would seem to help.
2. I also don't understand why we didn't get our outside linebackers out of the game. To my eyes, Will Powers, Tom McAndrews and Chike Amajoyi were getting beat badly and repeatedly. Now maybe Stanford's second-half defensive struggles were the fault of the line, or the secondary, or the scheme, or something similarly subtle you could only tease out on tape, but I know what my eyes saw play after play after play. However, Stanford's coaches now saying this week that they're looking for new personnel on defense suggests that they too are now admitting that the current outside linebackers aren't up to snuff. There can only be two reasons, then, that the backups didn't get a shot on the field in Winston-Salem. Either our backups are worse than the starters, which seems unlikely given what we've seen on the field and what we expect from a guy like Shayne Skov, or the coaches are too stubborn or otherwise unable to realize mid-game that they made a mistake in their initial player evaluation, that the current depth chart isn't working, and there is need to make a change. I'm not sure which option would be worse.
3. After watching him in person, Toby Gerhart just doesn't look the same as he has in years past. I'm told he's 100 percent healthy, so I don't know whether I'm imagining things, it's just a fluke, it's a function of a depleted offensive line or there is indeed something going on. Time will tell.
4. Let's end on more positive notes. Andrew Luck: the real deal. I think after such poor quarterbacking play, people are confusing competency with All Pac-10 performances, but Luck certainly holds his own in today's Pac-10, and only figures to get better in the years to come. I love his arm strength and his ability to go through progressions. I think he could improve his accuracy and increase his willingness to tuck it in and run.
5. Finally, instead of just diagnosing problems with Stanford football today, let's offer a positive vision for the future. Based on what I've seen, Jim Harbaugh is an A recruiter and a B- gameday coach. Part of the problem with the game-day decisions is that Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind is conspicuously absent right when it's needed most – on a fourth-and-one. Despite conventional wisdom, rigorous research has proven beyond a doubt that teams kick field goals and punt far too often. Obviously, no strategy works 100 percent of the time, but in the long-run, going for fourth-and-shorts will undoubtedly result in higher average scores than kicking on those possessions.

Stanford football has done much to revolutionize the sport. Coaches like Pop Warner and Bill Walsh have implemented new formations and strategies that have taken the sport by storm, and players like Jim Plunkett or John Elway have helped usher in the modern-era of college football, highly dependent on the pass. Stanford isn't Nebraska, but while "Nebraska" and "Nebraska football" conjure up certain images, Stanford is a brand name in its own right. Stanford sits at the heart of Silicon Valley, and to the nation and the world, the University and the region stand for innovation, for Google, for HP, for new biotech and medical technologies 98 percent of us wouldn't even understand. Why not play off that legacy of innovation, play off our standing as a top school nationally, play off Coach Harbaugh's attitude of unbridled enthusiasm and start adopting the Romer guidelines I've linked above. No more kicking on any fourth-and-ones or fourth-and-twos, regardless of field position, no more kicking hardly at all inside the opponent's five or between their thirty and forty. Stanford would have likely beat Wake Forest had it replaced a missed fourth-and-two field goal with a first-down conversion, or at the very least forced overtime, as continuing the offensive possession would have drained the clock such that there would have been no time for Wake's last score. (Not to mention that Stanford's DL would have had more time to rest).

How about we combine our professed fearlessness, our appreciation for academic findings, and our legacy of innovation and start going for it with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind? At the very least, it'll make a national splash in the press, win over more recruits and win us more football games. At best, it could just contribute to another revolution of the sport – and make the Stanford name every bit as established in the sport as Nebraska's.


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