Gunning For An Upset!

With the Cardinal a touchdown "dog" at home, The Bootleg's ever-popular Greg Schindler delves into the proper mental approach a football team needs to take in preparing for an upset. Reminding us that Oregon is just another team, despite being talented & excellent, Schindler argues that upsets don't require a team to produce the "perfect game", but rather to expend a perfect 60 minutes of effort.

Gunning For An Upset!


It was just as surreal as I'd expected it to be, even though I really had no idea what to expect. As I took to the sizzling field in Austin, Texas , for the first snap of my collegiate football career, my heart and mind sprinted, and my legs felt like warm Jell-O - as did the humid air. The Longhorns were 0-1 and unranked when our 1999 Stanford squad visited Darrell K Royal Texas Memorial Stadium for our season-opener. But I was a redshirt-freshman offensive tackle, and it took little to overwhelm me.


There were several reasons why Texas smoked us 69-17 that day. Losing our three most experienced offensive linemen to first-half injuries didn't help; nor did waking up at 5 a.m. PST to battle an immensely talented team amid a hostile crowd and suffocating heat few of us had ever experienced. But perhaps no factor contributed more to our humiliating demise than the fact that we were competing against a program many of us had seemingly put on a pedestal. We had watched the previous week as the Longhorns fell flat in an upset loss to North Carolina State . Still, Texas' pedigree and history loomed even larger than their mammoth and uniquely dynamic defensive line, featuring current NFL stars Casey Hampton and Shaun Rogers.


As most Cardinal fans know, that epic trashing was following by a resilient run to the Rose Bowl — as well as a home victory over Texas the next year - further proving that the margin of our opening setback was due far more to awe than athletic differential. When Stanford (5-3, 4-2 Pac-10) hosts No. 7 Oregon (7-1, 5-0) this afternoon, its key to executing an upset that would uproot the current college football landscape may hinge on reversing one of sports' most widely accepted clichés — that the name on the front of the jersey is far more important than the name on the back.


For the sake of maintaining unity and selflessness within a team, that axiom is apt. But when analyzing an elite opponent, the opposite is true. Focusing on the storied name stitched across a foe's jersey front only leads players to overestimate the relative simplicity of their actual task. Staring directly at any of the Duck's ghastly uniform combinations has been known to cause nausea and seizures, as well, but that's another issue. What Stanford's players must remember today is that they're not lining up against Oregon's lofty ranking, nor the program's impressive recent resume, or even the raucous home crowd that has fueled most of its landmark victories — including last week's 47-20 dismantling of USC. The Cardinal must simply compete against another group of 18- to 22-year-old student-athletes for a few hours.


As obvious as that statement sounds, it goes forgotten with shocking frequency. Nearly every Saturday, a highly ranked team looks to be floundering for its last breath, only to be let off the hook by its underdog opponent (i.e. Iowa versus Indiana last week). Many laud these close escapes as tributes to the superior team's character and ability to "step up when it really counts." This theory can't be entirely dismissed, but I believe two scenarios are more common: that the disparity between opposing teams is rarely as great as many assume, and that underdogs often wilt in a game's deciding moments because they're just as surprised as the rest of us that they're in them.


Oregon
is easily the best team Stanford has faced this season, and arguably the toughest of its four stiff remaining tests. Still, I will not be the least bit surprised if the Cardinal (a seven-point underdog) wins today. I also won't be surprised if it loses by three touchdowns. After playing in 44 college football games and watching hundreds more, I've learned that few results merit shocking reactions. We all know the cases that can be made for either outcome: The Ducks have too much speed for the Cardinal's soft secondary; Oregon hasn't faced an offense as physical as Stanford's; both teams are 3-0 against their common opponents to date; no team can sustain the level of greatness the Ducks have displayed since their ugly opening loss at Boise State.

A victory would make Stanford bowl-eligible for the first time since 2001, but it wouldn't even approximate the program's most shocking triumph in recent history (that, of course, being the 2007 road upset of 41-point favorite USC). A Cardinal win wouldn't come close to the Pac-10's biggest shocker of the season, either (recent doormat Washington over seven-time reigning champion USC comes to mind). A Stanford victory would simply be pleasing and admirable, which shows just how far Jim Harbaugh and his staff have brought the program after a prolonged period of irrelevance and ineptitude under its previous two regimes.


The Stanford squads I played on from 1999-2002 went 5-9 against ranked opponents, including 3-4 against top-10 teams. None of our "upset" victories shocked us, but in hindsight, some were more improbable or extraordinary than others. Our 2001 team had similar talent to No. 5 Oregon and far more heart than No. 4 UCLA. Though reeling off several momentum-changing plays in a 49-42 comeback thriller that ended the Ducks' 23-game Autzen Stadium win streak and sent them to their only loss of the year was monumental, it wasn't as inconceivable to many as our 27-24 triumph over No. 5 Texas in 2000. Not only had the Longhorns gored us by more than half a hundred the previous year, but we were coming off our third-straight loss to San Jose State and Randy Fasani's knee injury forced redshirt-freshman quarterback Chris Lewis into his first game action. The enduring image of that game is wide receiver DeRonnie Pitts twirling into the end zone for a spectacular go-ahead score with 1:22 left in the fourth quarter. But that pivotal pirouette was made possible only by our impressive mediocrity across the board. Bear with me.


Offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick was visibly pained each time he reluctantly gave a compliment. But in our first offensive meeting after corralling the Longhorns, he issued one that was simple, heartfelt and undeniably true. "It wasn't perfect," Diedrick said of our performance, "but you got after them for 60 minutes." True upsets typically aren't thorough or pretty. They're narrow, gritty and sometimes lucky. When an unranked team romps over a highly ranked squad, it's not an upset so much as proof that rankings are inherently imperfect and misleading. We did not dominate Texas that night (the Longhorns outgained us 343-315 while holding us to 60 rushing yards). There was no magic in Stanford Stadium, and few of us played the game of our lives. What happened in that game is what needs to happen for a team like Stanford to defeat a team like Oregon today: The majority of the underdog's players must simply neutralize the player across from them while a few favorable mismatches gradually emerge and become exploited.


The first game of my college career wasn't the only surreal one; it was the first of 44 dream-like games I played for Stanford. Every time I took the field for a game's opening snap, I felt the eerie sensation of peering across the line of scrimmage at a defender I had read about in a media guide and watched for several hours on tape. There were always subtle surprises: "He's shorter than I thought"; "I wonder why he's wearing a knee brace"; "I didn't know he was that strong." But an important lesson I eventually learned is that my opponent was equally nervous, mystified and wary of me. We were both just college kids who loved to play football. We both had strengths. We both had weaknesses. We both comprised only one percent of our respective teams. I enjoyed the games and moments in which I felt dominant, but I learned that those instances would be rare against first-rate opponents, and that there was no shame in merely holding my own against a stud defensive lineman.


Such was the case in our 2000 Texas game. Hampton, Rogers and defensive end Cory Redding (another NFL starter) were the best trio of defensive linemen I ever faced, and at no moment in our victory did I doubt that. I wasn't OK with getting beat, but I knew it was bound to happen over the course of 74 plays. I got stuffed on most running plays, but had the best pass-blocking performance of my two years at tackle, essentially doing my part to negate one piece (Redding) of Texas' powerful puzzle.

The term "pressing" is infuriatingly overused by sports broadcasters when athletes make mistakes, but players are often inhibited by self-imposed stress when they believe a perfect performance is necessary to defeat a talented opponent. That's never the case. Texas blocked our first extra-point attempt in 2000, and embarrassed our offensive line by forcing a safety on a running play. Fasani went down in our upset at Oregon , and we had a late extra point blocked that could have easily spelled disaster. Our 2001 38-28 victory over UCLA began ominously, as the Bruins returned a fumble for a touchdown just two minutes into the game. But in each case, we "got after them for 60 minutes," and eventually prevailed.

                      

Stanford needs to play its best game of the season today, but it won't be perfect, and it doesn't need to be. When highly ranked teams lose, they are often accused of reading their own press clippings. But it's just as dangerous to get caught up in an opponent's accolades. Jeremiah Masoli, LaMichael James and the rest of Oregon's speedy spread-option attack are extremely talented, but they're also young, mistake-prone athletes, as are Stanford's defenders. The Ducks' defense has allowed just 11.6 points per game since its breakout performance against Cal , but Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck needs only to be efficient and Stanford's smash-mouth ground attack shouldn't be disappointed if it doesn't run the ball with ease. Assuming Oregon's admittedly superior offensive talent doesn't get off to an insurmountable head start, the Cardinal will have myriad opportunities to prove its collective excellence to the entire country — even if it manifests itself in individual examples of hard-fought mediocrity.  

About the Author: Greg Schindler, LSJU '03, was a four-year starter and four-year letter-winner for the Cardinal from 1999-2002, starting 42 of 46 games. After redshirting as a true freshman in 1998, he was the team's starting right tackle in 1999-2000 and the team's starting right guard in 2001-02. Prior to Stanford, Schindler starred at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, CA and was named a First-Team All-American by Prepstar in 1997. Following his Stanford career, Schindler was signed by the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent after graduating in 2003 with an English major, which, as you can see, he puts to excellent use here at The Bootleg!


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