October 6, 2009

6 points: UCLA recap

Rising to challenges - The past two weeks the Stanford Cardinal have faced new challenges. First it was Jake Locker and the Huskies fresh off of an upset of USC. A healthy Locker under the wing of Steve Sarkisian was a huge threat for the Cardinal. Stanford used a power running game to beat up the Washington defense and an opportunistic and swarming defense handled Locker.

Next up was the bye-week rested and undefeated UCLA Bruins. The Bruins brought a tough defense filled with award winners and NFL draft picks. But once against the physical Stanford team challenged the defense and the Bruins were no match.

The 2009 Cardinal team has risen to the challenges the last two weeks, and now comes the first hostile road environment against a team that caught some momentum.

Rebound from wake - Stanford suffered a heart- breaking loss at Wake Forest. A game that was eerily similar for Stanford fans. One where the Cardinal held a big lead and saw a team come back to win the game in the closing seconds. To a man, the Cardinal team felt they should have won that game.

Instead of doubts creeping in and feeling of here we go again, the Cardinal have reeled of three very impressive home wins. That is a clear sign this team has matured and taken last years lessons to heart.

The 2009 Cardinal are a senior-driven team that seldom has strayed from their focus. The schedule now kicks up a notch, but the next three games are all winnable for the team before the bye week on Halloween.

Creative, well-timed offense - Coach Harbaugh talked about how coaches Drevno and Roman scheme the running game each week, adding a wrinkle or play or new blocking scheme each week.

Against UCLA it was the "giant" offense, with 7 offensive lineman breaking the huddle to steam roll opposing defenses for the Stanford running game.

But is it not just the running game that is showing wrinkles week to week. It was also a well-time flea-flicker, against Washington it was a end-around to Owusu. The Stanford offensive staff has done a great job of finding the particular play that will expose the opposing defense and calling at the opportune time.

Harbaugh has also done a good job of not loading up the plate of Andrew Luck, and having a smash-mouth running game makes that decision logical. Combined with the play-calling and the week-to-week scheming of the running game the Stanford offense is proving to be a formidable challenge each week for defenses.

Tightening defense - Maybe it was the late loss to Wake or playing at home or finding some depth but the Stanford defense has played it's best three game stretch in three years.

San Jose State, Washington and UCLA were all held to less than 100 yards rushing. And the highest passing total from that three was 204. The Cardinal defense has allowed only 4 touchdowns in the last three games, with five takeaways.

When factoring in the injuries to the front four the stats are even more impressive. The Cardinal defense is not getting the attention the offense is getting but they have shown to be a deep unit.

In recent weeks cornerback Kris Evans, safety Austin Yancy have given the secondary needed depth. Will Powers has proved to be versatile playing linebacker and rush end in the nickel package.

Credit Ron Lynn and Andy Buh for making some changes and to the players for start to believe in each other. Swarming to the ball is the mantra of the Cardinal defense and these last three games have shown how good the defense can be when that happens.

National talk getting louder - Toby Gerhart and Heisman. Stanford and Rose Bowl. Those words are appearing together this week as the national media is starting to take notice what is happening here in northern California.

Gerhart, while still a longshot to win, has begun to appear on nearly every Heisman watch list. Sports Illustrated has a story due to come out this week. ESPN and Sporting News are showering accolades on the Stanford running back.

With Cal crashing with a thud, the hottest team in the Bay Area is the Stanford Cardinal. National media including ESPN, SI, Sporting News, Pac-10 media and bloggers are paying attention to Stanford.

Coach Harbaugh said last week that the Cardinal was a buzz (and they needed to make it a roar), that maybe the team wasn't a 'preferred BCS' team, on the national radar but in a wide open Pac-10 race the 3-0 Stanford team is close to be a top 25 ranked team.

Crowd control - Exposure for the Cardinal is not the only thing getting larger in 2009. So it the home attendance. San Jose State drew 33,000, Washington increased to 36,000 and the UCLA game saw 41,000 in attendance.

More importantly the energy in the stadium has increased with each game. The student section has seen a revival from previous seasons and the Cardinal are taking the steps to having a real home-field advantage.

With four games remaining, there appears to be several chances for great crowds. Homecoming against Arizona State and gamed with Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame all figure to have large and boisterous crowds. If the team continues to win and remain in the hunt for the Rose Bowl, a ticket to Stanford Stadium could become a hard thing to find.

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