Clardy's Corner: September Showdown

It's safe to say that before the fall began, most Cardinalmaniacs agreed that Stanford's most critical September game was the Wake Forest road trip. Not too many people were pointing to the Washington matchup and circling September 26 on their calendar. But as it turns out, the latter group may have had the right answer all along.

It may have been sealed at 3:50 p.m. Pacific time last Saturday, when the gun sounded at Husky Stadium, and Washington's upset of the not-nearly-as-mighty-as-usual U$C Trojans went final. Dawg fans stormed the field in wild jubilation, and Seattle had its biggest party since Sir Mix-A-Lot got his checks for doing those Burger King commercials this spring.

That result set the stage for a first-place Pac-10 showdown between…Stanford and Washington?

That's right. And here it is. A big September game between the Cardinal and the Huskies. And it seems to be getting bigger by the minute.

Whoever walks out of Stanford Stadium as the winner also walks out with sole possession of a 2-0 Pac-10 record and first place in the conference. That fact alone makes this a big game. Yes, it's early in the season, but it's still something. It's also a scenario few would have thought possible before this month.

Speaking of improbable scenarios, a ranked team will take the field this Saturday at Stanford Stadium. But improbable becomes impossible—and this game becomes bigger—when considering this: the ranked team is the Washington Huskies.

According to the AP poll, UW is the 24th-best team in the land. 24th! I couldn't believe it when I saw it. Washington had beaten a weakened U$C team. At home. By a late field goal. And that was good enough to get them in the Top 25?

Give them votes, sure. But 24th? A week after not getting a single vote? Two weeks after winning their first game since MySpace was still relevant? Really?!? I still can't figure it out.

Now, self-centered TrojanFan always tells me that when U$C wins, it's good for the Pac-10. That same TrojanFan will also probably spin this and say that the Huskies' appearance in the Top 25 says just as much about U$C. Using their logic, if your team somehow beats the Trojans, that automatically makes you a good team, right?

It turns my stomach to agree with TrojanFan, but I suspect there's probably something to that. U$C has earned so much clout these days, and beating them resonates. After all, Stanford got votes in the coaches poll after the Greatest Upset Ever.

It's also probably a function of how they looked against LSU on national TV in their opener. If you listen to the experts, you're supposed to believe that no Pac-10 team can possibly match up against a mighty SEC team. But take away a couple of missed Husky tackles and a pick-six by Jake Locker, and UW probably comes away with a different result against the Tigers.

Maybe the AP poll voters remembered the Huskies' frisky performance against an upper-echelon SEC team, put two and two together, and came to their conclusions. That's fine. There's just one problem: Washington played both of those games at home.

Getting in the Top 25 on the strength of a close win against one Top-10 team and a close loss against another is a heck of a reward for a team that hasn't gone on the road yet. Anyone can win at home, especially when 61,889 of your closest friends are shaking a stadium that already makes the building inspectors nervous.

But it's hard to win on the road. And I don't think you truly learn about a team and what they're about until you see how they react to playing in a hostile environment on the road. A hostile environment we'd better provide on Saturday.

That's probably why one very important group of folks still doesn't seem to be convinced about the Huskies. A group that happens to reside in a town called Las Vegas. They're called bookies.

They saw Washington's résumé so far, looked at the Huskies' ranking in the AP poll, and noticed that they were about to play their first road game of the year. And they promptly declared the Huskies as nine-point underdogs—errrr, underDawgs—to Stanford. [Editor: Casinos all subscribe to a service that recommended a line of -9, but instead opened at -7. The point still remains: the line is shocking.]

Think about that. The 24th-best team in the land was initially a nine-point road underdog to a team that got exactly zero votes in this week's AP poll (the line has since moved to six-and-a-half in some places, seven in others). And for what it's worth, the folks in Vegas tend to get things right a lot more often than the media does. If that doesn't add a whole other layer of intrigue to this game, I'm not sure what does.

All of those subplots add up to a rare huge September game for the Cardinal. The cal-Oregon game has bigger star power, and both of those teams are still more likely to be in the Rose Bowl. But the folks in the know are aware that Stanford-Washington is truly the game to watch in the Pac-10 this week. And all of us, from the wiseguys in Vegas to the AP poll voters, are going to learn a lot about both the Cardinal and the Huskies this Saturday.

And if the Cardinal win, we'd better get some AP votes, at least!

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RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS

While tailgating at Wake Forest, some of you asked me what ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper thought about Toby Gerhart. Mel told me he likes Toby, and called him a bigger threat and a different kind of back than Tommy Vardell. As of right now, Mel has him as a third- or fourth-rounder…

Let's jump in the Wayback Machine to September 23, 1995. 14 years ago today. Let's go to Eugene, Oregon, where Stanford met the Ducks at Autzen Stadium. Let's visualize the Cardinal defense intercepting Tony Graziani three times in the first half. Let's remember Marlon Evans' clutch kickoff return for a crowd-silencing score. Let's recall Andre Kirwan fighting off Alex Molden and inhaling a huge fourth-quarter touchdown. And let's remember the final score: Stanford 28, Oregon 21. Good times…

After Florida lost to Ole Miss last year, Tim Tebow stepped up and said, "this doesn't happen to us again." After Stanford beat U$C in 2007, Brian Cushing stepped up and said, "this doesn't happen to us again." Who steps up for U$C this year and says "this doesn't happen to us again"? Outside of maybe Taylor Mays, I'm having trouble coming up with some candidates. [Editor: to make matters worse, a sprained knee kept Mays out of the Washington game and has him questionable for this weekend.]

I am still stunned that, with four minutes left, facing a 3rd-and-6 from the UW 7-yard line, and down 13-10, the Trojans called a handoff instead of letting Aaron Corp take a shot at the end zone. Very un-U$C like…

Found it interesting how both Stanford and cal dealt with their respective 9:00 a.m. Pacific kickoffs. Both teams came out of the gate crisp and smooth. Then they both faded down the stretch. In my business, it's like working the morning drive show when you're not used to that schedule. At 4:00 a.m., you wake up fine. You get to the office on time. When the show starts at 6:00 a.m., you feel good. But by about 7:30 a.m., you start to slow down. And by 9:00 a.m., you are crawling. It's not the early start that gets you…it's struggling to the finish line that can be problematic. Same kind of thing was at work with Stanford and cal this year, I think…

In getting my first good look at cal this year, I was mostly impressed with everything (I mean, how can you not be impressed by Jahvid Best by now?)…but not so much by their special teams. I've always thought that bad special teams can cost you at least two games a year. The Weenies had better pray that theory doesn't hold up again for their team…

By the way, if not for Jahvid Best, the best individual performance from that game would have come from Minnesota WR Eric Decker. I remember watching him a little bit last year and liking his ability to get open and catch the rock. Last week, we found out how tough he was, too. That kid will likely find a home on Sundays…

Oh my God. Just when you think Oregon's uniforms can't get any worse…

Never mind the Ducks ending the nation's longest winning streak and beating a good Utah team. The biggest positive Oregon can take from that game is a potential breakout performance from tiny freshman RB LaMichael James. Without LeGarrette Blount, his development is critical for the Ducks, especially when you consider that entering last week's game, Oregon's leading rusher was QB Jeremiah Masoli

Speaking of Masoli, he has got to take better care of the football. Period. Those three second-half turnovers he had were brutal. And it's another reason why LaMichael James has now become the Ducks' key player…

Oregon State's offensive line has some work to do. Cincinnati's defensive line stoned them on most running plays, and got to Sean Canfield on most passing plays...

And as good as the Brothers Rodgers are, the Beavers really need another playmaker to develop somewhere…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but…the biggest winner from last week? Boise State. They used big plays to beat Fresno State, their only real competition in the WAC. Plus, Utah and BYU both suffered big defeats. TCU and Houston are lurking right now, but I think the BCS Buster Club for 2009 is officially down to one…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but…we're not even out of September yet, and the buzzards are already circling around Al Groh and Dan Hawkins…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but…give Tennessee's offensive line and defense a lot of credit for beating Florida to the punch for much of that game. I'm sure Lane Kiffin doesn't believe in moral victories (or tact), but that could well be a turning point for that program…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but…when they play Ray Lewis's highlights in Canton, that game-ending play in San Diego will lead off the reel. Incredible, incredible play…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but…this week's sign that I'm getting old: when NBC's cameras showed the cage dancers at the new Cowboys Stadium, I actually thought to myself, "wow, that's a bit much"…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but…I'm sorry I'm a week late to the party here, but this Stephen Colbert clip is one of the funniest things I've seen/heard this year…

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CLARDY'S CORNER INBOX

Thanks to Rob from parts unknown for dropping me a line! Rob and his son Andy were the two Stanford fans I chatted with at the Atlanta airport last week. I didn't know their names until Rob checked in with his note. Booties unite!

Clardy's Corner Inbox mainstay Matt in Atascadero had his thoughts on the woe at Wake:

"…the worst aspect of the game was that our defensive coaching staff failed our players and fans. Though we were up by two TDs at half, it was abundantly clear that Wake was going to attack outside the tackles, as we were clearly exposed on the edges in the first half. And our defensive staff made essentially ZERO adjustments. That's probably not precisely true...I'm sure they made adjustments. But the adjustments they made were not the ones that needed to be made…

It's too bad, because our offense makes adjustments and is clearly well-coached, and we anticipated a good year on defense (with all the returning experience). If we don't sort out our defense, though, there won't be a bowl this year either. Wake wasn't even very good. What happens when we play U$C, cal, and the dumb/weird green uniform crew from Eugene, not to mention OSU? Night-night.

PS-Did you really drop a Mike Damone reference, or were my eyes deceiving me?"

Matt, your eyes didn't lie…that was a Mike Damone reference in last week's Corner. Hey, it was great iced tea!

Obviously, that was written before the San Jose State game, when defense was very much an issue. It still is, but not as much now after the Card effectively shut down San Jose State's running game. Then again, the Spartans couldn't run against Rod Blagojevich right now, so we may not have really learned that much.

From the looks of it, the defensive coaches took some of the lessons they learned the hard way in Winston-Salem and applied them to the game plan last week. That has to give Stanford's defense and its coaches some confidence this week, now that they face a QB who is twice the threat that Riley Skinner is…

Agree with this Corner? Disagree? Got something else on your mind? Drop me a line at my Scout.com inbox (username: troyc) or e-mail me at troyc@thebootleg.com. The best e-mails will be answered in next week's Clardy's Corner Inbox!

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PAC-10 PICKS

Washington State @ U$C. I came close last week (and, as it turns out, I should have), but I have not picked U$C to lose outright since the October 24, 2007 Corner. That trend continues for at least one more week. I like U$C by 39.

cal @ Oregon. The Ducks' defense stepped up last week, especially during a critical fourth quarter. And it's almost impossible to win at Autzen Stadium. But until Jeremiah Masoli (and C Jordan Holmes) quits putting the ball on the ground, I can't pick them to beat teams like this, no matter where the game is played. Bears get handed this one, I think. I like cal by 12.

Arizona @ Oregon State. If Arizona had Rob Gronkowski, I'd give them a chance. Since they don't, I like Oregon State by 16.

Last week and this year: 0-1 (straight-up), 1-0 (ATS).

Last year: 30-6 (straight-up), 24-12 (ATS).

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Troy Clardy hosts the Stanford Daily Update, airing every weekday at 7:30 p.m. on Cardinal Sports Network flagship radio station XTRA Sports 860 in San Francisco, and available in podcast form at gostanford.com and on iTunes.

Clardy's Corner appears Wednesdays on TheBootleg.com. You can also check him out online at TroyClardy.com.


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