"The 2009 Report Card-inal": Second-Trimester

Stanford is now two-thirds of the way through the '09 campaign. The Cardinal sits at 5-3 for the season and is undefeated at home. Just one win away from a post-season bowl appearance, the focus is nevertheless on "one tough game at a time" as the Cardinal heads with justified confidence into a challenging final stretch. Time to review the performance of the Cardinal through the first eight games.

"The 2009 Report Card-inal": Second-Trimester Grades

Editor's Note: The following commentary offers the author's personal views of the on-field performances of some of Stanford University's exceptional student-athletes. In no way should constructively-intended criticism be deemed as a lack of respect or admiration for our players' obvious desire, dedication, sacrifice and commitment.   

The Stanford Cardinal is now two-thirds of the way through the 2009 season. At 5-3 they come off a bye week break and are getting ready for what clearly will be the most challenging third of the schedule. The Cardinal needs one win to become bowl-eligible and needs at least two wins to guarantee a bowl trip. With eight completed games to grade, it is time to take a look back and see how far the 2009 Cardinal has come to get to this point.



How can this grade be any different? Andrew Luck (#12) has been better than advertised. Eight games into his college career and he is already considered one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-10, leading the conference in passing efficiency). If you trust Cardinal head coach Jim Harbaugh, Luck is already the best quarterback in the country. Luck started out slowly in terms of passing numbers against teams like Wake Forest and Washington. But perhaps that was more a product of Stanford not needing big numbers from him while the team relied heavily on a Toby Gerhart-lead running game. But when called upon, Luck has stepped up. His 423 yards passing against Arizona was the third-highest Stanford single-game passing total by a quarterback in school history. For the season Luck is 114-196 for 1,825 yards and nine touchdowns, against only three interceptions. Those numbers could be even better, were it not for some dropped passes. When discussing poor play by the redshirt freshman, the criticism is limited to a few individual plays, maybe a stalled drive or two. But eight games into the season, Luck really has not had a "bad game" or even a bad stretch. If Luck is this good already, what does the future hold?



Toby Gerhart! What else can be said? #7 has been dominant. He has opened with 994 yards of rushing so far, with a 5.1 yards per carry average and 13 touchdowns. He set a career-high with 200 yards rushing against Washington. He has rushed for 100 yards in all but two games, the losses at Wake Forest and Oregon State. While Stanford fans knew what to expect with Gerhart, one of the big questions coming into the season would be who would spell Gerhart? True freshmen Stepfan Taylor (#31) and Tyler Gaffney (#25) have both been very pleasant surprises. Taylor has rushed for 194 yards and two touchdowns. He is averaging 6.3 yards per carry and had a big 33-yard touchdown run against Arizona State. He looks like a real "keeper" for the years ahead. Gaffney has 70 yards rushing in fewer chances and a couple of big catches as well. Eight games into the season, when Gerhart goes to the sideline, it is good to see that there is not a huge drop-off when his backup comes in. Huge. 



As a whole, the Cardinal receiving corps has done a good job. They have ranged from good to outstanding. The one thing that knocks this group off the "A" grade are the multiple drops. Sophomore Chris Owusu (#81) has had a couple of very important drops, at Oregon State and at Arizona. Doug Baldwin and the normally sure-handed Ryan Whalen (#8) have also had important drops. But when you take the group as a whole, they have done very well. Whalen leads all with 39 catches for 647 yards and three touchdowns. Owusu has 26 catches for 459 yards and four touchdowns. The team is still trying to figure out the third-receiver position with Baldwin, Griff Whalen (#17) and freshmen Drew Terrell (#4) and Jamal-Rashard Patterson (#21) all getting some opportunities. Stanford is going to need this group to step up in consistency and make those big receptions in crunch time down the stretch, but as a whole there is a lot to like from this group.



This is one of the deepest positions on the team if you think about the four highly-recruited freshmen that appear to be redshirting this year. Coby Fleener (#82) has made some huge catches this year. He has 11 receptions for 145 yards making him third on the 2009 receiving list. Increasingly active Konrad Reuland (#88) has five catches and Jim Dray (#83) has six catches, two of them for touchdowns. But the true mark made by this group may be its run-blocking. As good as the run game has been, you know that effective blocking by the tight ends plays a big role.



The offense is rushing for 5.2 yards per carry. Andrew Luck has only been sacked five times. Those numbers alone justify the A grade. Then you consider that Matt Kopa (#61) went down with injury in week one. The unit has started two redshirt freshmen from day one. Sixth-year starter Allen Smith (#67) returned to left tackle for two starts before being injured again and back into the lineup went Jonathan "Moose" Martin (#73). Chase Beeler (#72) has been very solid at center. David DeCastro (#52) looks like an NFL talent at right guard. Andrew Phillips (#71) has been very good at left guard. Chris Marinelli (#63) has been a force at right tackle. The "Tunnels Workers Union" is amongst the best Stanford offensive lines in recent memory. There have been many games this year where they just flat out dominated the opposition. Arizona State was fifth in the nation at run defense, yet the Card offensive line paved the way for 237 yards rushing yards.



This grade feels like it should be an "incomplete". Injuries have decimated the unit that was expected to be a force on the team. Senior standout Erik Lorig has been out most of October with a strained groin. Matt Masifilo (#98) has just returned from a six-week absence. Brian Bulcke (#95) had to have season-ending surgery. The lack of depth has hurt the team to be sure. Sophomore Thomas Keiser (#94) has had a very good season at right defensive end, but without his pass-rushing mate on the other side, teams have been able to focus on him more. Sione Fua (#92) has stepped up his game in the middle. Ekom Udofia (#54) has played well. Freshman Chase Thomas (#93) has added some needed energy as well. The reality is that in the October losses to Oregon State and Arizona, this unit somewhat understandably did not play well. In wins over UCLA and Arizona State, they played very well. The unit needs better consistency and more importantly, better health for the stretch run.



Like the rest of the defense, the linebackers have played well at times, "not so great" at others. The games against Oregon State and Arizona were not pretty. Yet this unit rebounded to dominant against Arizona State. True freshman Shayne Skov (#11) has a lot to learn, but looks like a great player in the making. Senior Clinton Snyder (#20) has been all over the field and leads the team in tackles. Snyder admits making mistakes while trying to do too much, but overall he was the glue to the defense through the second-third of the season. After the first two weeks, it looked like senior "Sam" Will Powers was out-of-place on the football field. Since then, #42 has rebounded to the point where he has been the best player on the field for one or two games. He has added something extra to the pass-rush with Lorig out and is playing much better "outside contain" than he did during the initial couple of weeks. The depth at this position has not developed as of yet, certainly not as had been expected. But except as impacted by significant injuries, which unfortunately are part of the game, the front-line three look reasonably solid heading into the stretch run.



Shutting down ASU actually increased this grade to a "C". Overall the young secondary has been a bit of a disappointment. Focusing on the positives though, hard-hitting sophomore Delano Howell (#26) looks like a play-maker at safety and his return to good health was a big boost in the last game. The first career starts at cornerback for Johnson Bademosi (#27) and Quinn Evans (#33) were certainly successes. Michael Thomas (#3) is a solid nickel back. The downsides have been pretty obvious. Not enough big stops and a case of playing too loosely on defense. The team ranks sixth in the Pac-10 in pass defense, allowing 240 yards per game.



Chris Owusu (#81) has certainly put the "special" in special teams. While not tracking his torrid early pace, he remains a legitimate threat other teams have to plan around. His three kickoff returns for touchdowns ties a Pac-10 record. The return unit remains #1 overall in the Pac-10.  Richard Sherman (#9) has a touchdown on a punt return. Now freshman Drew Terrell (#4) owns the job and he looks like he could be very good down the road. PK Nate Whitaker (#39) has been solid, converting 8-of-12. He clearly has leg strength, but needs to improve his accuracy a little bit. His fourth-quarter misses at Wake Forest and at Arizona may have helped changed the way the rest of the games were played. Overall the special teams units have been very solid and match up very nicely across the Pac-10.



For the most part, the coaching has been very good. There will always be some nit-picking on play-calling. There can clearly be debate on a few of Coach Harbaugh's decisions on when to go for fourth downs and when to kick field goals. The defense made some nice adjustments going into the Arizona State game, but it could be argued that they were late in making those adjustments. The offensive line coaching has been magnificent. Very rarely do you see such creativity in a running game. Seven offensive linemen in the game at the same time? Then you shift them? The nuances to the run game have been amazing. D.J. Durkin has obviously done a great job with the special teams units.



5-3. Not bad. If were to have considered at the beginning of the season that Stanford would be 5-3 at the bye week (aka "Improvement Week"), that would probably have been fair and acceptable. 6-2 was probably a good realistic hope. The frustration of course is that this Stanford team is just a couple of plays away from being 7-1. Strong arguments can be made that The Cardinal "should" have won at Wake Forest and at Arizona. To take that next step, the team needs to solve those one or two plays that keep them from winning. Whether it is the defense allowing a big play late, or the offense not converting that key fourth down, Stanford is very close! And here comes the rest of the season. Home against Oregon, at USC, home against Cal and Notre Dame. Everyone knew, coming into the 2009 season, that this was going to be a very tough stretch. Stanford is good enough to beat any of those teams. To do so, however, they will need to step up in those big situations and make that one big play that is a difference-maker. They still need to learn to "finish". If they can do that, Stanford is going to upset one or more of these formidable teams and become bowl-eligible.

Dave Fowkes is a longtime Stanford Cardinal fan. Born at Stanford hospital and raised on the Peninsula, he has been a football season ticket holder since 1981. In that span he has only missed three home games, but of course never a Big Game. Dave currently works in media both on the air and behind the scenes in advertising sales. He has covered sports on and off since 1992. Currently he works as a traffic, news and sports man on several Bay Area radio stations under a few different on-air aliases. Dave blends the passion of being a fan with the perspective of being a reporter in his stories. For more Stanford football coverage by Dave Fowkes, you can read the "Stanford Football Examiner" at www.stanfordfootballreport.com  

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