Coach Jim Harbaugh has obviously done a great job in bringing the Stanford program back to life, but it has been a long and arduous process with plenty of growing pains along the way. Rick Neuheisel, on the other hand, seems to have the Bruins back at a competitive level after just one season of rebuilding. This is certainly not a slight on Harbaugh as a coach, because he is clearly a rising star in one of the most cutthroat fields out there. It's more of a testament to the resources of the programs. UCLA is in sunny Los Angeles, home to more star high school talent than nearly any other place in the country. And even if UCLA is a basketball school, the Bruin football program still has a winning tradition behind it. Harbaugh has made strides in recruiting (which is saying a lot, especially at a university like Stanford) but I think overall, Slick Rick just has more resources than our beloved coach.
The process has only been a year longer for Stanford, and we were starting from a far worse position. I'd pose that it took that year to just get to where UCLA was starting. In fact, it may have been worse: Karl Dorrell still led the Bruins to a bowl in 2007. I was a preteen when Stanford was last able to claim the title of "bowl participant."
The resources point is also moot because it's not considered in a vacuum. Harbaugh has been able to do as much with less--you have to look at the entire framework of the program, and not just the bottom line and location. Part of that is intangible. Players want to come to Stanford not only to play in the Pac-10 and receive the world's best education, but specifically to play for Harbaugh and become part of the hard working, carefully crafted Stanford football community.
Regardless, when it comes to football, here's where Stanford has advantages:
1) Cardinal's QB of the future > UCLA's QB of the future. This isn't particularly debatable, so let's move on.
2) Cardinal's running game > UCLA's running game. This isn't particularly debatable, so let's move on.
3) Cardinal's offensive line > UCLA's offensive line. This isn't particularly debatable, so let's move on.
But all seriousness aside, this is about the program instead of just the current players on the field. I'd posit that, although UCLA has had better recruiting classes over the past couple of years, Stanford has its younger players in a better position to contribute than UCLA does. Part of this may be Harbaugh's aversion to the redshirt for his top recruits--they'll play. But you look at Stanford's 2008 class and you can count among them starters at QB, WR, KR, S, LT and RG, and top backups at DE, CB, P, K and WR, among others.
That's the sign of a program going in the right direction.
You make a lot of good points Wyndam, but let me do my best to try and counter with the following.
It is true that Jim Harbaugh has used Stanford's resources to the extent that few Stanford coaches have, if ever, done before. All anyone has to do is look at Chris Owusu and Andrew Luck, the two guys probably more important to this Cardinal team than anyone not numbered seven. While Harbaugh and his program's framework certainly have carved out a niche--as a place where high-achieving talents, both on and off the field, can get a great education while playing big-time college football--I'd argue that ultimately, his resources to still pale in comparison to those of Rick Neuheisel. The Andrew Lucks--a top quarterback recruit who also happens to be the valedictorian of his class--are not too common out there. More common are the stud athletes with blazing speed, many of whom come from inner cities and are more focused on the prestige of a program and how it will help them advance to the professional level. Of course, our very own Richard Sherman, a native of Compton, disproves this point, but like Luck, I think it's safe to say that he is an anomaly.
As for analyzing the very teams that took the field Saturday, I can't argue with most of your points. But I can add my own amendments to them, which might slide things a little more towards the blue and gold.
Stanford certainly has UCLA beaten when it comes to the quarterback issue, and of all the aspects of the Cardinal program, this is the one that would convince me the rebuilding process well on its way. That said, when it comes to the running game, it remains to be seen how Toby Gerhart will continue as the season wears on--both in the hits he takes and the opponents he faces. Toby is likely to face the toughest run defense he's faced so far this year: the Bruins only give up an average of 74 yards per game. Washington, last week's opponent, gave up more than 500 in its last two games (I hope you enjoy this shameless manipulation of statistics for juxtaposition's sake). And even though the Husky defense was porous, they still got plenty of hits in on Gerhart, many of them simply due to his kamikaze running style. Who knows? Maybe Gerhart's running style will sustain itself for the rest of the season, transcending obstacles faced from injury or more physical opponents. But this week may be the week where Stanford's running game doesn't appear to be as infallible as we have seen it to be so far.
Defense is the cornerstone of most any solid program, and that's exactly what the Bruins have with guys like Brian Price, Reggie Carter and Alterraun Verner anchoring all layers of the defense. Stanford's defense has played well for the most part, but there have definitely been chinks in the armor. Despite not scoring much, Washington State moved the ball relatively well against us--that is a universally bad sign that may come to haunt us in the future.
Overall, when it comes to the defenses, you have to give the Bruins the nod. And as someone wiser than me once said, it's defense that builds programs (or was it something about championships? I can't remember much these days). Offense just wins games, or something like that.
The resources point boils down to this: it's quality, not quantity. And while UCLA certainly has used theirs proficiently in the early years of Neuheisel's tenure, Harbaugh has a knack for optimizing his program both on and off the field. On the most technical level, when they're on road trips, they recruit in the areas they're visiting. More communally, Harbaugh has gone to tremendous lengths to create Stanford's football culture, which is what I was referencing earlier. The blue-collared shirts, the "we work" slogan, the enthusiasm unknown to mankind—it creates a meritocracy that says to recruits, "If I give it my all, I'll get my chances." For highly motivated and skilled athletes, that's highly appealing.
In terms of recruiting in general, we can't disregard our standards for any kid that comes across our path—frankly, I like that. But as Harbaugh has shown, that's not a problem if you can bring the smarter players into your program. Our options may be fewer at the onset, but in the end, we're still bringing in highly regarded classes.
I'd also posit that Andrew Luck is not an anomaly. Trent Edwards was a five-star recruit; T.C. Ostrander was highly regarded, too. We went through a dry spell of quarterback recruiting during the Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris years—it was over two years between Ostrander and Tavita Pritchard's recruitment, and indeed, we were lucky to have Tavita, a three-star, develop as he did. The point is: Stanford is no stranger to impressive quarterback talent. Case in point: our third stringer is Josh Nunes, a four-star freshman.
As for Saturday's game: I share your interest in seeing how Toby Gerhart performs. He's faced two cupcake run defenses over the past couple of weeks, and UCLA can absolutely bring it. My money is on Toby, but I could absolutely see him being shut down. Which, to bring this full circle, is why it's great to have a talented quarterback under center. Luck hasn't had to do much of anything with his arm over the past two weeks, but as he showed in the first half of the Wake Forest game, when he's called upon, he can light it up. And bringing it back to Toby: unless he's hit exceptionally hard (knock furiously on wood), the long-term durability question shouldn't be an issue for this game.
In terms of the Cardinal defense, I wouldn't place them above the Bruins but I think you're underrating them. Our pass rush is tremendous. We have four stellar defensive ends, as well as tackles who can penetrate. Our linebackers have played particularly well since the Wake Forest game—Will Powers showed up against the Spartans, Chike Amajoyi came through against the Huskies, and Clinton Snyder has played like a man possessed all season. Our secondary could be better but even so: Delano Howell is showing a knack for the ball, Bo McNally is still quite good in run support, and our cornerbacks are so deep that arguably our most solid player at the position—Kris Evans—doesn't even start.
I look over the key battles for Saturday and a few emerge. For instance: the Stanford rushing attack vs. UCLA run defense, and the Stanford return game vs. UCLA kick coverage. Both seem even. But what happens when UCLA has the ball? They're starting a quarterback who, despite beating us last year, is not that good, no matter what Harbaugh says, and their run game has been nothing special up to this point. The talk coming into this contest mostly surrounds the Bruins defense, but this could be a nice proving ground for the Cardinal defenders.
I guess we'll find out soon enough.
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