44 For the Corps
The location of Saturday's game was exotic. The opponent's offensive scheme was unusual. The visiting team's performance was rather uninspiring. But the crowd's selection and adulation of its hero was random, bizarre, and wonderful.
Hundreds of Army cadets hung around above the tunnel after the final gun to beg Stanford's John Flacco to come back out of the locker room.
"[No.] 44 for the Corps!" the throng of soldiers chanted, pleading for a curtain call.
Within hours, the reserve Cardinal safety had accepted over 600 Facebook friend requests. That number soared well over 1,000 just a day later. Dozens of Internet memes glorifying his likeness had gone viral through West Point's social network. Though he'd seen only one late play on special teams, Flacco turned into the highlight of Stanford's occasionally sluggish and disjointed 34-20 win at Army. His popularity had spread like wildfire through the jam-packed cadet seating section and into the infinite reaches of the web.
An Army cadet told me that the cult-like worship for Flacco had nothing to do with his famous brother, Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Flacco. It was born because of his genuine acknowledgement of the cadets in attendance, who had cheered for him throughout the game as their "Rudy"-like figure. (At the time of publishing, 678 Facebook users had "liked" that picture.)
The worship truly picked up steam very late in the game after Flacco saw his one play on the field, which came to a thunderous cheer from the crowd. On the game's last play, he joined the hoard of Army cadets cheering from behind the Stanford sideline to lead the "Rocket," a traditional West Point football cheer.
The rest was history. Flacco's interaction with the crowd might have made him the most popular opposing player to ever visit Michie Stadium: According to Facebook posts, cadets even voted him as the player of the game.
The legend took on a life of its own in the following days, particularly when Flacco himself authorized PM inspections at West Point through a Facebook post. This "allowed" cadets to sleep through rigorous morning inspections and turned Flacco into a true hero at the Academy and on Wikipedia, where he is referred to as "a legend among the United States Corps of Cadets for his performance at the 2013 Stanford vs. Army football game."
Stanford's first visit to West Point since 1976 was never expected to be a run-of-the-mill road trip, and Flacco's surreal encounter with fame among Army cadets certainly put a unique extracurricular stamp on the contest. A previously anonymous Stanford football player had won over the hearts of thousands of Army cadets. Sports are able to create a bond between people thousands of miles apart, and this particular connection will serve as the lasting memory that separated this game from the Cardinal's ordinary ones against non-military academy opponents.
Sluggish, Disjointed, but Physically Dominant
On the field, the Cardinal ultimately accomplished the inevitable: They overwhelmed Army behind a massive size advantage that surpassed 50 pounds at some positions. But that edge didn't prevent the Farm Boys from yawning out of the gate and delivering a performance marred by inexact play and a pair of turnovers.
David Shaw expressed little concern about the game's 9 a.m. PDT start during the preceding week. Players only slightly tweaked their schedules 48 hours prior to kickoff. Come game time, rustiness, perhaps resulting from jet lag, was apparent right away. Kevin Hogan fumbled the ball away on the third play of the game. After another three and out just minutes later, Stanford found itself trailing 6-0 to a severely overmatched opponent.
"We have to take the error out of our game," Shaw said afterward. "We had two balls pop out on us, and that can't happen."
It's clear that Stanford has the size and athleticism of a legitimate national title contender. That's why undersized Army never had a chance to win, despite the Cardinal's early struggles. By the time the game's third possession rolled around, Stanford's morning coffee appeared to have kicked in, and the Farm Boys proceeded to slap Army silly down the field. Tyler Gaffney carved out a punishing 25-yard gain before Michael Rector hauled in his first career catch, a 26-yard touchdown that he caught off a defender's tip.
Still, Stanford never fully grabbed the broom to knock out its early-game cobwebs. Devon Cajuste dropped a sure touchdown pass it appeared he would easily reel in, while Army's Josh Jenkins (De La Salle High School) intercepted a horridly underthrown second half deep strike intended for Jordan Pratt.
"That ball should have never been thrown," Shaw said.
Furthermore, the Cardinal's tight ends, who towered over Army's small defenders, didn't record a single catch for only the second time in the Jim Harbaugh/David Shaw era. This position group was last held without a reception on September 19, 2009, in Stanford's home opener against San Jose State.
These shortcomings meant little against an inferior opponent this past Saturday, but the scepter of their return looms large with capable Arizona State visiting The Farm this coming weekend. Per Vegas, the Cardinal are only about a touchdown better than the Sun Devils, so another mistake-littered performance will likely not be enough to win this coming showdown.
Triple Option Troubles
Army had 61 carries to only 10 pass attempts against Stanford, about par for the course for an offense that kept the ball on the ground 88 percent of the time last season. The Black Knights' predictability was decidedly unpredictable and effective, though: They racked up 296 rushing yards on the afternoon, 117 of which came in the second quarter alone on only 18 carries.
"When you're playing a triple option team and you're not a triple option team, it takes a half to get used to the speed, to the tempo, to the [cut] blocks, and to the misdirection," Shaw said. "We felt really good about our defense after halftime. We started slowing them down and getting them into passing downs. ... I thought it would take a quarter, but it took a half to get used to playing these guys."
Army neutralized Stanford's defensive size advantage by confusing the Cardinal throughout the first half. They implemented a philosophy similar to the one that earned UCLA success against Stanford at last season's Pac-12 title game: During their second quarter touchdown drive, the Black Knights' Terry Baggett stretched the Cardinal to the perimeter on a 46-yard gain before Larry Dixon gashed up the vulnerable middle for a 15-yard score.
"It's like Oregon and Chip Kelly's offense," Shaw said. "They're going to probe and probe, and then based on whatever you're doing, they're going to try to turn that against you. ... It's about trusting your eyes defensively. Everybody has to be where they're supposed to be. In the second half, we did a much better job of that."
Defensive end Josh Mauro took over in the second half, frequently rupturing Army's offensive line before the Black Knights even had the chance to decide on the triple option. He finished with seven tackles.
"[Mauro] was beating two guys at a time," Shaw said. "He made plays I haven't seen made in a while. Josh is going to play in the NFL. No question about it. He plays with reckless abandon."
Mauro's formidable presence was critical after starting defensive end Henry Anderson went down with an apparent knee injury in the second quarter. Anderson, who was on crutches after the game, is awaiting MRI results. Stanford is optimistic that his injury is not severe, but nothing is certain until the results come back.
Cornerback Wayne Lyons packed a physical punch in the backfield for the second straight game. His two tackles for loss neutralized Army's perimeter rushing attack in the second half. He leads Stanford with three TFLs through two games.
Positive Offensive Developments
Though Stanford received no receiving production from its tight ends, Rector emerged as a threat for the first time in his career. It turns out that his lack of involvement in the season opener against San Jose State was nothing to fret about. The Cardinal targeted Rector downfield three times, and his speed bought him valuable separation on each of those plays. Hogan's throws to No. 3 were not particularly accurate, though, so the redshirt freshman finished with only the one touchdown catch.
Still, Stanford is making clear progress in implementing an offense that is speedier and more dangerous on the perimeter than its predecessors. The Cardinal lined up in a five wide receiver set for the first time in four years Saturday. They busted the top off Army's secondary with Rector, Cajuste and Ty Montgomery. Montgomery became the only Pac-12 player other than Marqise Lee and Reggie Bush in the last 10 years to record 130 receiving and 30 rushing yards in the same game.
"Since the day Chris Owusu got hurt, we haven't had this kind of [offensive speed]," Shaw said. "We want to be a team that can put out eight linemen on one play and five receivers on the next play. It's about being as diverse as possible."
Speaking of linemen, Stanford's front certainly hasn't been tested by pass rushers its own size yet, but it is worth noting that Hogan generally had enough time in the pocket to read Rags to Roses. Tyler Gaffney worked behind a diesel-fueled Cardinal line that delivered nearly 3,000 pounds of weight during one nine-linemen formation. The senior racked up 132 yards on 23 carries. (He also caught 23-yard touchdown on a wheel route.) That performance statistically surpassed his previous career best, which came in Stanford's 2011 ground obliteration of Washington. The Farm Boys racked up a school-record 446 rushing yards in that game en route to a 65-21 victory.
"[From the day Gaffney returned to practice from professional baseball], it was obvious that he had been lifting like a football player and not like a baseball player," Shaw said with a smile. "He plays with such an appreciation for football now. He loves all the little things about it."
* Francis Owusu became the first true freshman to see game action for Stanford this year, fulfilling Shaw's prediction. He appeared on two punt coverage units. Meanwhile, tight end Austin Hooper remains a playing time candidate this year, though the clock is ticking. Shaw has said that players who do not enter within the first four games will almost certainly redshirt this 2013 season.
* Shaw graded Hogan's performance a B or B-plus. "We've got to get him to the A's," he said.
* Stanford's injury issues go beyond Henry Anderson. Cornerback Barry Browning was hurt near the end of the game, and Shaw was not ready to give an update on his condition afterward. Fullback Ryan Hewitt (bruised knee) suited up but did not see action. Meanwhile, linebacker Blake Martinez was inactive and wearing sweats on the sideline. Stanford has not disclosed the reason for his absence.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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