October 13, 2010

Positive take-outs from USC game

Saturday night's 37-35 shootout victory over USC re-established Stanford as a potential contender for the Pac-10 Title and keeps the hope alive for a possible at-large BCS Bowl bid. There are plenty more games on the schedule, but Stanford filled a critical piece of the puzzle with its last second win over the Trojans. Here are seven positives for Stanford from the game:

7 Positives From The USC Win:

1. Andrew Luck is the #1 Pick in the 2011 NFL Draft:
The guy is just outstanding. Plain and simple. Luck is in total control of the game, every game, from start to finish. I think Coach Harbaugh said it best in the USC postgame interview "people who have doubted Andrew Luck just do not know football ". It is amazing that people can find much, if any, fault in his game. No, he is not flawless. No one is. Luck needed to deal the ball earlier when he locked on to Coby Fleener in the redzone and ended up eating the sack, which caused the fumble as he was in the process of throwing it away. Next time, Andrew will throw it away half a Mississippi earlier.

But seriously, the guy was outstanding again. 20 for 24, 285 yards passing, 3 Passing TDs, and 6 rushes for 40 yards. How about this for a second level stat…every time that Luck either ran it himself or passed it on 3rd down, Stanford converted 100 percent of the time. 2nd Quarter, 3rd and 9 from the USC 44, Andrew Luck runs for 14 yards...and a Stanford 1st Down. 3rd Quarter, 3rd and 10, from the Stanford 21, Luck completes to Ryan Whalen for 18 yards...and a Stanford 1st Down. 3rd Quarter, 3rd and 4 from the Stanford 38, Andrew Luck completes his pass to Owusu for 29 yards...and a Stanford 1st Down. 4th Quarter, 3rd and Goal from the USC 7, Luck completes to Doug Baldwin for the 7 yards and the Touchdown...and a Stanford 1st Down. 4 for 4. And most of these game scenarios were not high percentage situations for conversion. Gamer.

I just don't see him not being the 1st pick in the NFL Draft, or at least the first quarterback taken. Yes, Locker has all the ability. But he has yet shown any type of real consistency in his game. And Locker still has to have the passing game be force-feed to him. Don't get me wrong, he has a cannon. And they don't make humans as big as he who can run as fast straight ahead as he does. He is a freak. And he is a good guy to boot. Actually, I like rooting for him and by default UW because of him.

But if you are an NFL GM, you are not excited about what Locker can do year one for your team. If Andrew Luck does not exist, then yes, Locker (or possibly Ryan Mallett) is your 1st Pick in the Draft. You take them because you have to. You work to build them up. But you also realize that their maturation process is going to take awhile.

Conversely with Luck, you are getting a guy that is totally NFL game-ready from the first snap of mini-camp to the final snap of training camp. You and your team are not going to be limited by any factors related to Andrew Luck at QB. And that has real value. Your 100 million dollar payroll is not wasted money waiting for the one player to develop to being "good enough to not lose a game". The guy can make every throw, process any terminology and offensive scheme, lead with authority but yet remain NFL rookie humble, make plays with his feet but not be dependent on it, and pretty much act like a 7-10 NFL veteran without taking 7-10 years to grooming him to get to that point. He has no downside. And there are still tons of upside and potential with him to be unleashed and untapped. And that is why he will be the #1 Pick whenever he chooses to come out.

And that is also why people should be running, not walking, to the Stanford Ticket Office to gobble up the remaining 3 Stanford home game tickets versus Washington State, Arizona, and Oregon State (as well as the Big Game at Cal). This guy unfortunately will not be here forever. Or maybe he will be longer than we think! But really at some point, he has to graduate at some point. So don't chance it. Come to the games now!

2. Offensive Schematic Advantage:
I think it is pretty obvious (but perhaps not to everyone) that Stanford's offense is one of the best and most dynamic in the country. It helps tremendously to have Andrew Luck at the controls of it all. But the Stanford offensive coaches are doing and have done an excellent job each and every week to maximize the talents of Stanford's personnel while exploiting the opponent's weaknesses. Ask any opposing defensive coordinator or head coach that has to prep for Stanford. The offensive coaches are always tweaking plays, adding just enough trick plays, and deception plays here and there. Not wholesale changes. But tweaks.

Some of it, I believe gets lost in the smoke and its inherent visual simplicity for the average fan. It is not fully declared with wide open spread sets (though occasionally Stanford does implement that). Rather, it is finding different ways to get to the same play, particularly in the running game but also the complimentary passing game, with pre-snap motions and shifts, with new personnel groupings executing the same play. Is it any wonder why no one has been able to stop the power play for Stanford…regardless if Toby Gerhart or Stefan Taylor or Usua Anaman is running it…or regardless of what number James McGillicuddy is wearing?

The Stanford offensive coaches have had some great playcalls throughout the season and last Saturday's game. In particular, the final touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin on 3rd and Goal from the USC seven was just outstanding. Stanford went to an empty set and rocked motion back and forth with Baldwin to make USC both spread out and not be able to disguise their coverage. Eventually, Stanford ended up in a 3 by 2 empty spread set with Baldwin on the hip of the TE on the three-man side at the snap. Often the motion guy and more so in a 3x2 or 3x1 set, you will get the #2 WR darting to the flat immediately with the #3 receiver (in this case the TE) going vertical or sticking out after 5-7 yards. It is basically a strong side spacing pass play. With the QB having the option of #2 or #3 on the strongside, and with an empty set, a backside slant on the weakside if the coverage is rolled heavily to the strongside. Pretty basic stuff. However, Stanford knowing the type coverage tendencies and confirming on the field with the rock motion took advantage of Monte Kiffin and USC's defense by flashing Baldwin to the flat, again typical for the set.

But then, Stanford's coaching staff took it a step further by adding the slight wrinkle of bringing him back underneath after 3-4 steps, just for this special moment. Giving the USC MLB enough time to be preoccupied with the TE Vertical stem, combined with their Tampa 2 concept and/or Quarters coverage, making it hard for him to come off in time…Result, easy pitch and catch for Andrew Luck and Doug Baldwin. First Down, Touchdown Stanford. I also thought the Stepfan Taylor run at the end of the game was a gutsy yet outstanding call that caught the USC defense off-guard and sealed the victory for the Card. Game situation made that a surprise, not as much schematic magic. But big strong call by Harbaugh and Company along with excellent execution by Taylor made for an easy kick for Whitaker. Game, set, match.

3. Big Time Players make Big Time Plays in Big Time Games:
Doug Baldwin and Chris Owusu really stepped up and made some huge plays in the USC game. Not that they have not made plays in the past. But Stanford was going into the USC game with pretty big questions marks at the WR position. The type of issue that could have affected the entire offense and ultimately the outcome of the game. But these two guys really answered the call.

First off, I have no idea how Owusu was able to be medically cleared to play for this game, one week removed from being basically lifeless for 3 minutes on the field at Autzen. Yet he did not appear to have any lingering effects in the USC game. If anything, Owusu looked like a man possessed. Maybe he was still in a bit of a haze from the knockout shot of last week at Eugene. If he was, Stanford will take it every week!

Statistically, Owusu has probably had bigger games. This week Owusu had 3 receptions for 73 yards, 1 rush for 20 yards, 6 returns for 205 yards and a long of 88 yards to answer USC's scoring drive and attempt to shift Big Mo.

Bottomline, he might not have scored any touchdowns. But Owusu played the best game of his career because every touch counted. He most certainly made the best catch of his career. 21-21, late in the 3rd Quarter, Stanford Ball on the Cardinal 38, 3rd and 4 and Stanford needed to get the first down to keep the momentum going and match the USC scoring surge. 30 yard reception from Owusu with really tight coverage by the USC defender. Owusu has solid hands. But he has been prone to drop the easy ones and has previously not made that BIG catch yet. This was that defining catch that will set him apart. Huge play on many levels. Obviously his contributions in the kickoff game were impressive.

More than anything, I think it is impressive that he was out there at all returning kicks after last week's shot. It is one thing to be getting some spot-duty on offense. It is entirely another thing to be flying around, going a 100 mph on kickoff returns with the target on your chest. Most impressive.

Separately but equally as important, was the game and role that Doug Baldwin played against USC. Baldwin has also had some good plays and some good games in the past. But there has always been an air of inconsistency in his game with Baldwin.

For instance, Baldwin had 4 receptions for 111 yards and 2 TDs in the Sacramento State game. But, he also had a couple of drops too. In the USC game, he played his most complete game in his Stanford career by far. Making both the routine catches and the highlight catches with consistency. Baldwin has always played with passion. Now he was playing with passion and the ultimate focus.

Statistically Baldwin ended up with 8 catches for 98 yards and 2 TDs for the night. But the difference, he had 0 drops. Baldwin made both the highlight film catch over the shoulder against press coverage for 24 yards and the easy catches like the one for the 7 yard TD score the same. 7 of his 8 catches were for 1st Downs. And the one that was not statistically a 1st Down ended up being one as well after taking the late hit from USC LB Chris Gallipo.

Great game for Baldwin. Hopefully he keeps this momentum through the bye week and onto the final half of the regular season.


4. Johnson Bademosi is getting better and better:
Being a starting cornerback at the D-1A level for any team is never an easy job. The rules of football are continually adjusted to give the offensive team, particularly the WRs, every possible advantage to score points and to be successful over you. It is an uphill battle to begin with.

On top of that, people will generally only remember the plays you gave up (or appeared to give up) rather than a majority of the plays you may have made. Being a cornerback at Stanford is an even harder task. You immediately get stamped with the universal perception that you are slow, or at least slower relative to other Pac-10 cornerbacks. So, you have an even bigger a target on your chest. Teams are not going to be dissuaded nor intimidated by the Stanford CB mystic. They will be taking their shots, early and often. But aside from the philosophical difficulties of the position and the position at Stanford, it appears that Bademosi is really making strides.

In general, he seems to be really settling into the CB position after originally being recruited as a safety and possibly an OLB out of high school. Yes, his 10.8 -100m mark was impressive. But first, that was a high school time with a HS coach's timing. How many kids claim to run sub 4.4 out of High School than can't break 4.7 at the college level? And two, that is really not that impressive. 10.3 - 10.5 in HS. That is impressive.

But Bademosi actually begged to be given a shot at CB and has slowly but steadily improved his game year in and year out. In particular last week against USC, Bademosi stepped up and made two consecutive nice plays that might have been forgotten with the surrounding excitement of a 37-35 shootout win and offensive fireworks on both sides of the ball. Bademosi clustered two noteworthy plays on one of USC's final drives. With 7 minutes to go in the 4th Quarter, on the Stanford 32 yard line, USC went after Bademosi on consecutive 3rd Down and 4th Down. On 3rd Down, Bademosi showed press coverage, but then bailed just before the snap. This threw off the QB-WR communication as the USC WR saw the bail, and hitched while Barkley saw the presnap press, and went with the fade. Incomplete, advantage Bademosi. Next down. Again Bademosi pressed. This time choosing to stay pressed and with a solid re-route on the SC WR, he again threw off the timing and the route pattern. Another incomplete pass and this time with a turnover on downs. Obviously this was just two plays.

But, how hard to stay calm while in press against Ronald Johnson with zero over the top and the game's outcome hinging in the balance 34-28? Impressive, and definitely something more to build on for Bademosi.


5. Anthony Wilkerson is a beast:
Anthony Wilkerson needs to get more touches! The staff has been slowly but steadily increasing Wilkerson's workload. He may not be getting more stat touches with actual carries. But he appears to be getting more plays, at least at more critical times in the game. Maybe he is just impressing more and more with the plays he is in. Remember the guy is still a freshman and playing in one of their more complicated offenses in the Pac 10. But it is pretty obvious that he has the juice, and again exhibited a few more flashes last week versus the Trojans.

Maybe with the injury hiatus for Tyler Gaffney, and the somewhat new fumble-itis for Stefan Taylor, Wilkerson can start being implemented more and more at the end of the half and the end of the game to secure the win. Wilkerson seems as dependable as Taylor. And with his size and speed, he might be a nice change up for opposing defenses to deal with. Also did you see the top end speed that Wilkerson has? Forget the 25 yard screen pass that he caught from Luck and ran to the USC 8 yard line in the final play of the 3rd Quarter. On the Owusu's 88 yard kickoff return, Shareece Wright was not the only player hawking down Stanford's fastest player WR Chris Owusu. Anthony Wilkerson was moving! Yes, Wilkerson only has 83 yards on 22 carries to date. But the guy has some serious stuff.

And Wilkerson looks to play a significant role in the future for Stanford. The sooner, the better.


6. Drew Terrell Returning Punts Again:
Lost in the glow of the win and Doug Baldwin's performance on offense is the news that Drew Terrell is returning punts again for Stanford. Yes, perhaps people can see this is as a demotion for Baldwin.

But the reality is that Stanford is probably better off with Terrell back there fielding the punts. I personally have total confidence in him to make each and every catch. He is a true natural at it. Baldwin has more of an upside returning the punts after securing the catch. But he is not quite as dependable catching every punt, relative to Terrell. And it only takes one punt drop to ruin a game.

All and all, I like having Terrell back there. In 2009, Terrell was rock steady, officially fielding 11 punts for 71 yards as well as numerous additional fair catches that don't get statistically quantified for some reason. More than anything, it is Terrell's one job. And he is aces at it. Now, next time, it would be nice if he did not catch the ball on the 5 or even inside the 10. But again he made the catch!


7. Home Field Advantage….Finally!:
This is the second game in the new Stadium that I have actually thought Stanford had a semblance of what other teams around the conference (and more so nationally and SEC) take for granted on a weekly basis.

UW and Oregon (and maybe Oregon State) have distinct advantages when they play at home. Oregon at Autzen Stadium is by far and away the gold standard for crowd participation and noise. Arizona and Arizona State can get fairly loud as well. USC's Coliseum and UCLA's Rose Bowl are huge venues that hold massive amounts of people. But the stands are so far removed from the playing field that it does not impact the opposing team too much. And Washington State…well 10,000 people don't really make a difference outside of a phone booth. Although the Wazzu PA Announcer catch saying…"And that's another Cougar First Down"…can be quite annoying for a couple of reasons.

But, back to the point. Stanford's Stadium was sort of rocking last week. Nowhere near the point of the 2007 Big Game. But it was going.

And Stanford fans can take witness to their fruits of their yelling labor. The second USC offensive drive was stymied slightly with a false start penalty. Kicking the Trojans back to a more challenging 3rd and 10 instead of makeable 3rd and 5. Changes the play selection and the conversion odds. With the following Matt Barkley incomplete pass, Stanford's defense is off the field. Another example, in the 2nd Quarter, with USC lining up for another QB sneak from the 1 inch line, the Stanford crowd again makes its presence felt. And draws another USC offensive false start. Now, USC is going from the Stanford 6 yard line instead of inches away. Granted USC ended up scoring on the very next play, but credit the Stanford fans for getting loud and trying to influence the game in the Cardinal's favor. This stuff may not seem like much a couple of days removed from the game.

The Whitaker kick or any variety of other Stanford plays will be highlighted as the deciding factors for the Saturday victory. However, crowd noise and fan participation, as we know at Stanford, is voluntarily. But it does make a difference in the course of the game and the excitement for our Stanford team as well as the intimidation of the opposing team.

So bring a friend and pack the house for the Wazzu game, perhaps start a new tradition. Stanford is 14-2 in their last 16 homes games. Chances are you will see a win….and you could be a part of it!

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