The Boot-Blog™: Sac State

An experimental new feature, The Boot-Blog™, offers a wide variety of observations and insights following Saturday's dutiful demolition of Sacramento State.

The Boot-Blog: Sac State

Well, it is hard to tell in total, what we have with our team, but individually and position-wise we think Saturday's Sacramento State game provided some interesting feedback and in part a preview of what fans can look forward to with this Stanford Football team, 2010 Edition.

The reality is that we won a game that we should have won and managed to win it in pretty dominant fashion without showing much at all, on either side of the ball.  And that is a very good thing.  Good teams do that.  We chose not to run our new 3-4 defense.  So UCLA, despite reading all sorts of media reports including The Bootleg's attempted practice coverage, knows that it is there and coming next week to Pasadena, yet does not get to see it on film.  Unless of course, the Bruins somehow are filming our practices...which we now know no one can do, thanks to the reincarnation of the old Stanford Football "Fort" last year.  But seriously, this may not seem like the biggest deal to some.  And indeed it may not be the biggest deal in the world.  But you have to always appreciate Coach Harbaugh's über-willingness to get any and all strategic advantages for our Stanford Cardinal. Even though UCLA knows, by the simple fact of hiring Vic Fangio as our Defensive Coordinator, that we will be running the 3-4.  Harbaugh opted not to let them get a "sneak peak" at it until game time next week.  No free previews for anybody!  Again, not the biggest of big deals.  But the 3-4 in general, and particularly under Fangio, is built around deception and confusion for the offensive line with their running and pass protection schemes.  So the simple act of not showing even one snap of it allows for a certain level of uncertainty that UCLA will have to adjust to next Saturday in the Rose Bowl.  Mainly, this will be in the form of Stanford personnel within that scheme.  And most of that is predictable as well.  But.... we still like that we showed less!

You can say a lot of things about Jim Harbaugh and Stanford Football under him, almost all of them extremely positive.  However, I would like to focus for a second on something so basic and elementary that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of quickly digesting a win like this, one that we clearly are supposed to have, and moving on to UCLA game-prep or the next big thing. Simply put, Coach Harbaugh gets the team "ready to play", particularly for games against inferior opponents.  May not seem like a big deal to the average fan.  But to be honest, we respect this.  We like winning the games that the Cardinal should win, almost as much as getting the big upset.  Stanford, probably more than most major college football teams, has been inconsistent in many areas over many years with many coaches.  And probably one of the most consistent of inconsistencies is that Stanford, no matter the season, on any given Saturday, can (and often does) play with anyone, beating many top 5-10 nationally-ranked opponents while finishing those respective seasons with less than .500 winning records.  

At the same time, Stanford has had a perplexing propensity to play down to lower-caliber opponents.  Case in point on everyone's mind is UC-Davis in the infamous home opener in 2005.  But prior to UC-Davis, a rarely better-than-average San Jose State program of the past two decades would present from time to time (admittedly not all the time) considerable problems.  Everyone likes to talk about the last Rose Bowl team, but we lost to San Jose State that year too (44-39).  We don't care if SJSU was "half-way decent" that year.  So while we appreciate wins like the 2007 upset of USC in Los Angeles, the Oregon shootout victory in 2009, and the merciless beat-down of USC last year,  we all have to understand and appreciate that essential element of simply building the program back to being a consistent winner and a nationally-ranked (and nationally-respected) team is to add a level of consistency for all games.  Particularly the ones that we as fans would like to look past.  And though we will have ups and downs in the level of productivity in some games/seasons.  Stanford needs to be able to control the control-ables.  And that starts with winning the winnable games.  Stanford did just that Saturday against Sac State and under Jim Harbaugh, that has been a given each and every time Stanford takes the field.

True, the Cardinal running attack was less than outstanding yesterday.  Most of that we are willing to put on Stanford and Coach Harbaugh not wanting to show their hand.  For the most part, Stanford ran pretty generic running plays. I t will be interesting to see how things play out throughout the course of the season.

Not sure if people caught this during the Sacramento State game.  But at least two different occasions, we ran the "Pistol", "Revolver", or whatever else you want to call it.  " The Stanford Squirt Gun"…or perhaps "The Red Gun". I will stop.  Anyway, we have not heard anything about the "Pistol" being even an option for the Stanford offense this year.  So perhaps, it was a one- to two-play gimmick that the Stanford staff just threw in for fun.  Or perhaps it was indicative of a future package.  We would love it if Stanford choose to do it with Alex Loukas for 5-10 plays a game.  Hey, to be honest, who really knows outside of the Cardinal coaching staff?  But we do know this.  The defensive coordinators at UCLA and others teams are going to have a lot of fun watching, prepping, and practice during our game week for yet another wrinkle in our offense.  As if Stanford, and Andrew Luck in particular, don't do enough already.  Now they have the "Pistol" to get ready for.  Could be a total bluff by Coach Harbaugh.  Either way, we like it.

Special Teams looked "okay" yesterday. Obviously punt coverage suffered a significant lapse and obviously they would like to have that particular play back.  We know, stating the obvious.  Kyle Monson's 70-yard punt return for a TD made us want to toss.  In the previous three years, Stanford has had just one other punt returned for a score, but it was a backbreaker in the 2008 USC game.

Doug Baldwin(#89) looked very solid playing WR, yet inexplicably tentative on returns (particularly on kickoff returns).  Baldwin needs to stop dancing every second step and just hit it!  This is an especially prevalent issue on kickoff returns, more than on punt returns

Usua Amanam (#15) showed some real flashes today.  As expected.  But the sophomore from Bellarmine Prep seems to lack the top-end speed to be a serious homerun threat.  That being said, he is incredibly effective in short bursts and has us wondering if he can field punts safely and what other ways the staff can get him more touches on offense.  Amanam is the quite the enigma.  Unlike injured Chris Owusu (#81), he does not (at least not now) have the real straight-line speed to be a "great" kickoff returner, though we think he could be better than average because he is pretty fearless in his running style, and that, friends, is half the battle.  But as a punt returner, he has the tools to be truly outstanding.  His change of direction and initial quickness are rather remarkable.  Now, maybe he can't catch punts.  We doubt it, since in high school he had really good ball skills on offense and defense.  But maybe he struggles with punts.  Perhaps he is not as consistent as Baldwin.  Could be  the reason Baldwin is the starting punt returner.  Or maybe right now, the staff simply has more confidence in the senior.  However, down the road, either latter this year or perhaps next year, Amanam would be really interesting to see back there catching punts and taking them back for a consistent high average.

Nate Whitaker (#39) really parked some balls yesterday….and then missed a few as well.  But still, much like last year, and maybe better than last year, and particularly in comparison to 2008, we have a weapon that can neutralize opposing team's and their offensive production by having them start at the 20-yard-line. Huge advantage.

We wish that Alex Loukas (#5) would have gotten some more snaps, particularly earlier in the game.  Luck was in the game until 2:48 left in the third quarter.  Granted, the game was potentially somewhat close with the score 38-14.  But realistically considering that this was Sacramento State, I think we could have put Loukas in much earlier than that the final series of the third quarter.  Not sure what the reasoning was behind that.  Perhaps the staff wanted to get Andrew a substantial amount of live game reps against someone else besides our own guys.  I am sure that this was not done arbitrarily.   However, the risks do not seem to balance out the rewards.

Loukas needs to continue to be developed.  It is obvious that he is a very viable backup quarterback for Stanford.  And on top of that, he can be a separate weapon all on his own.  But he needs game reps, particularly to develop his passing abilities.  And this past game against Sac State would have been a great way to get some more game reps without the pressure of a hostile environment or some form of "sudden change".  Next time, hopefully, there will be another opportunity to play without the pressure of winning or better said, "not losing" the game.  But perhaps not.  Don't want to be negative.  But the next time we see Loukas for a substantial amount of playing time, he might have to make plays.  And then we're going to wish he got as many reps as possible previously - particularly on throwing the ball. Loukas has a really strong arm, as evidenced by one of his deep throws in the game Saturday.  He can make every throw, no doubt.  And his athleticism is unquestionable.  Hey, let's be honest, UCLA would kill to have Alex Loukas right now.  But it would have been beneficial to him and to the Stanford Football team for Loukas to have gotten a few more reps throwing ball in the first game.  Not being picky.  But just saying if it had to be done over again, it would have been advantageous.  Hopefully we are blowing out UCLA next week or Wake Forest in the following week, and we can maybe get another opportunity to make that happen.

Jamal-Rashad Patterson (#21) almost had the catch of all catches with his circus back-catch in the third quarter yesterday.  Would have been interesting to see how that might have increased his overall confidence level.  Not saying that Jamal-Rashad has a confidence problem.  He knows he can be a good player.  But at some point, sooner or later, Patterson is going to have a break-out game.  Ideally this year!  And we are going to look back and wonder where this was earlier.  It just appears that he is one of those guys that has to have it all come together... to make it all come together.  But once he gets it, watch out.  Some guys are like that.  T hat being said, it sure would have been great to see him come down with that ball.  Similar to last year after the ASU reverse for his first TD of his career, he would have been sky-high.

Defensive end/linebacker Chase Thomas (#44) continues to improve.  We are v ery excited for him.  He's going to have a BIG year and we have not even gotten a chance to see him in his new 4-3 role yet.  That was last year's Chase Thomas, doing what he does best….getting to the quarterback from the DE position.

The Levine Toilolo Situation - very unfortunate for #11 and for the team.

RB Anthony Wilkerson (#32) was impressive.
  Get used to it. A lot more to come.

Stepfan Taylor (#33) is the guy, as expected. Capable of the huge play.

Jeremy Stewart (#34) walked off the field in a boot, but will be back...Levine, not as likely.

Richard Sherman (#9) just looks better overall.  Stanford observers of any significant tenure should realize that early playing time at Stanford, as well as a long playing career or numerous games-started, does not necessarily translate/equate to a particular player having gotten better.  It just means simply that he has played a lot of football.  We could list off a number of individual examples.  But what is the point?  T here are a number of reasons that certain guys will play early on in their careers, and others don't.  And unfortunately, it's not always for the best reasons.  Anyways, we will leave that point at that.  But that is not our point.  Our point is that Richard Sherman looks good this year.  Perhaps not great.  But he has really improved from last year.  And although it is only one mismatched game against Sacramento State.  we think there are valid grounds for maintaining legitimate optimism based on the level of play that he exhibited yesterday.  Hopefully, it all comes together for the remainder of the season. 

First and foremost, Sherman just looks so much more comfortable out there this year in comparison to last year.  Don't want to say "night and day" from last year because at the cornerback position you just don't get a lot of data points, in a game or even over the course of the season.  And in this case, this was only one game.  But to project and prognosticate, perhaps Sherman looks better because he is finally comfortable with the cornerback position after a year of learning it on the run in 2009….perhaps it is his new position coach…..perhaps he has physically or emotionally matured….perhaps he is realizing that this is it, he is a fifth-year senior and this is his last go around.  Most likely, it is a combination of all these factors, some more influential than others.  There are probably other reasons that are unknown to anyone besides him and the coaching staff.  But whatever the case, there is a lot of optimism with regard to #9.  Really have to get excited with the overall physical presence that he brings to the table.  His tackling was not only more secure, he was actually bringing the wood.  Did anyone see how far that Sac State ball carrier went flying onto their sideline and into their benches?  Now granted, being the most viciously-tackling cornerback is the not the important prerequisite for the cornerback position group.  But you have to love it.  And Stanford in general needs a more physical presence, particularly from its defense.  Love it that Sherman was the first to start off the hits this season.

Safety Michael Thomas(#3) looked good out there as well.  To be honest, we were a little tentative to buy in fully to the transition of "MT3" from cornerback to safety in the offseason.  Not that he is not a good guy, or capable of being more than serviceable at safety.  But we just kind of wondered how good Thomas could really be at that new position, taking into consideration his proficiency at the cornerback position at the time of the transition.  We don't think that anyone had the misunderstanding that Mike was going to revolutionize the corner position, but he was solid for Stanford.  And had really formed a nice niche role as a back-up corner and starting Nickel CB/LB.  And it is not as though Stanford in the recent past has had DBs, let alone CBs, running around in droves.  So we were a bit skeptical.  Particularly a t Stanford, when you finally find a decent corner, you don't move him around.  However, the reality is that while Stanford's cornerbacks position as a group is not "loaded", we have some pretty good options there.  And not just the starters.  If nothing else, Stanford has some options.  Sherman and Bademosi are long, loose, and have experience on their side.  But aside from that you have Terrence Brown and Quinn Evans coming along nicely.  And seeing Barry Browning emerge quickly through the ranks, and not just by default as you could have said in previous eras with young guys getting thrown in early, it might reasonable to understand why Corey Gatewood asked to switch over to WR.  And why we should all be comfortable that Mike Thomas has moved to Safety.  Moreso, and this just kind of dawned on us at the Sacramento State game when Stanford was staying in its "Four Down-Lineman Nickel Defense" for a majority of the game. 

But Michael Thomas has the ability to roll in and out from his safety position to the Nickel spot even more easily during both Base and Nickel packages for Stanford. There is a huge benefit to have a safety with corner experience/ability.  Individually for the player, but also schematically for the entire defense.  The ability to disguise and functionally do so many more things really is not constrained now by the coverage abilities/limitations of your safeties.  And again we think we saw a glimpse of this on Saturday.  Brian Dawkins and John Lynch are an extreme example that might further illustrate the differences in safeties.  Each  is an all-pro and future NFL Hall of Famer at the same position.  The difference is that Dawkins can do anything, in addition to being just a great all-around football player that will crush people as a safety.  The guy has serious man-to-man skills.  Better than some starting corners in the League.  John Lynch on the other hand, as bad-ass as his was, could not cover any WRs, and even struggled with some TEs in the NFL.  That versatility is a huge strength.  Particularly in the NFL, where everything matters and is detected. To a similar extent, the same holds true at the college level.  Maybe you c an't get the Nickel Defense out in time, or you get confused by teams with personnel groupings that are well disguised.  If you have a versatile safety, y ou already have your built-in adjustor.  Michael Thomas brings that to the table for Stanford at the safety position this year.  It should be exciting to see how and if it plays out throughout the course of the season.

Safety Myles Muagututia (#47) got in early.  Interesting, very interesting.  And he looked solid.  Not a huge surprise.  But there is a lot of competition (which is a great thing) at the safety spots.  With lots of capable players, and guys that have started many games at Stanford at the safety position in previous seasons.  So it was very interesting to see Myles get in the game early.  Something to get excited about for the future.

David Yankey (#54) played LT with the 2's.  Impressive.  Most impressive.  There is a lot to infer from this.  All of it good for both Yankey and Stanford's future.  The prevailing thought all camp was that the tackle position with the departure of Chris Marinelli, Allen Smith, and eventually Matt Kopa (Note: Kopa, and unfortunately not Marinelli or Allen Smith, made the 49ers practice squad…..yet Masoli gets to play at Ole Miss without sitting out for at least one year, but we digress....) was going to be a possible Achilles' Heel for the Stanford team.  I t remains a significant area of concern.  But even with the emergence of Derek Hall to the starting group, the prevailing thought was that Cameron Fleming was the odds-on favorite to be the true freshman offensive lineman most ready to play during the 2010 Stanford Football season.  And despite all the evaluations and rationale substantiating that prognostication, it ends up being David Yankey that comes out the box in the first game of the season as the most-ready freshman offensive tackle.  Perhaps Flemming was banged up.  But most likely not.  Assuming that is not the case, we see it more as a huge endorsement for David Yankey and his development to be playing as a true freshman.  Yes, he is not starting.  And no, he is not going to unseat Jonathan Martin for the starting Left Tackle position any time this year.  However, with his playing yesterday, which looked pretty good, granted against Sacramento State, you have to assume that his development from a run-dominated, dive option HS background to the pro-style offense that Stanford employs and the substantial range of new blocking and passing protection techniques and schemes, that he must doing quite well with his transition to the college level.  And that is awesome news for Stanford Football!  We figured that a redshirt year was a guarantee for Yankey coming from that background.  And that was certainly not an indictment of his ability, particularly not his ultimate potential, which could be anything from very good to outstanding.  But this newest development is a huge endorsement for Yankey.

The Zach Ertz TD was outstanding.  Very simple play.  But even with Levine Toilolo's injury, Stanford is a nightmare match up for opposing teams with our Tight Ends, and not just for Sacramento State, but for every team in the Pac-10.  And that play exemplifies the matchup problems that teams will have in the Redzone, particularly three yards and closer to the goal-line, as teams debate whether to put their short yardage/goal line package in.  Most offensive teams have an inherent predictability depending on their Tight End/Running Back personnel groupings.  Particularly with the number of Tight Ends.  However, Stanford's sheer numbers, overall athleticism and versatility at the Tight End position allows for that to not be the case.  Fade or slant option routes with Ertz or Coby Fleener (and probably with a healthy Toilolo as well) are simple and effective.  Our Redzone Scoring Percentages were off the charts last year in 2009.  And moreso than Redzone Scoring, touchdown efficiency inside the five-yard-line is a staple of good teams.  Last year, we had Toby Gerhart and a really dominant offensive line.  This year, we obviously don't have Toby.  And there have been some new faces on the offensive line.  Not saying we can't have that same style and level of production from the 2010 Stanford Offense, because we can.  But manipulating personnel mismatches through schematic trickery is an additional wrinkle that is going to do nothing but help Stanford's offense maintain its previous Redzone success.

Don't want to talk about what we could have had.  It is a general rule in recruiting that you don't worry about the players you missed out on, but rather you need to worry more about the recruits that you are bringing into your program.  At worst, if you lose a recruit to a rival Pac-10 school, perhaps you see them at most 4-5 times over 4-5 years.  Granted, during big games.  But it is more important to focus on the guys that you are bringing into your program and what they will be doing on a daily basis for 4-5 years with you.  However that being said, it is already hard to watch Notre Dame as is.  One-time Cardinal commit Tai-ler Jones is going to make it even harder.  Expect a big year from him.  And then watch the Notre Dame hype-machine take off promoting him harder than a Don King Heavyweight Championship Fight.  This guy would look outstanding in a Cardinal uniform.

The fun part of the Sacramento State game was watching some of the younger guys play.  Not just the true freshmen, but rather some of the less-heralded freshmen from the 2009 recruiting class that were getting their first real snaps after sitting out last year.  Obviously Levine Toilolo in even for two snaps made his presence felt and gave people a glimpse off why he won the starting TE job over some serious competition.  And Zach Ertz and Usua Amanam were easily identifiable with the ball in their hand.  But couple of young guys on the Defensive Line showed well yesterday, granted in limited minutes.  Trent Murphy had some nice plays, particularly a nice play in space on an open-field tackle.  Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro, Terrence Brown, and Jacob Gowan also showed well.

There will be a LOT more to talk about after next week's pounding of the Bru-Crew in Pasadena! Go Cardinal!

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