Is there any place to start when discussing Stanford Football today other than the defense? The statistic of the week, which you undoubtedly have heard numerous times already, is that the Cardinal possess the worst rushing defense in the nation. There is dead last, and then there is dead last, which is the case for the Card.
Stanford has thus far allowed 320 yards per game on the ground. That of course ranks at the absolute bottom (119th) in the NCAA's Division I-A statistical rankings. But that tells only part of the tale. Ordinal rankings easily understate or overstate value too often, and hard though it may be to fathom, Stanford's 119/119 ranking does not do justice to the horror of the rushing defense. Take a peek at #118, East Carolina. The Pirates may be just one slot ahead of Stanford, but their average given up on the ground is 56.5 yards lower. ECU would have to give up more than 21% more yards per game to sink to Stanford's depth.
What has everybody buzzing about this week's match-up is the fact that Navy has the #4 rushing offense in the nation, at 335.5 yards per game. There may not be another more statistically mismatched game on the ground - at least on paper - the entire year in college football.
Put an epically bad rushing defense on the field against one of the most prolific rushing offenses in the nation, and the outcome appears clear for Saturday. However, let me say this: too often in sports have I seen what appears to be an obvious match-up scenario and then been surprised by the result. Sports, and college athletics in particular, is a very funny thing. Something tells me this Stanford-Navy game will have some surprises and different dynamics.
Why? The answer does not appear to be due to a big shake-up in Stanford's defensive front seven. Coming off the San Jose State debacle, we heard whispers that a handful of starters would lose their jobs on the defensive line and in the linebacking corps. At Stanford's practice yesterday, however we saw only one surprise on the first-team defense. Manning the #1 spot at the "Ted" (strongside) inside linebacker position was true freshman Brian Bulcke. That job has previously been manned by fifth-year senior Mike Silva. Silva was practicing Wednesday but running with the second unit of the defense.
"We're pretty static," says Stanford head coach Walt Harris of his defensive personnel. "Our goal is to get everybody better."
The other inside linebacker position of course sees a change. As we reported earlier this week, Michael Okwo is back in action. The Stanford senior broke his right thumb on August 16 and has been in street clothes for practices and games since. He practiced for the first time this month on Sunday, albeit in a no-pads workout. Tuesday was his return to a full-pads practice, which was an exciting site, even if the practice wasn't easy for Okwo.
"Rusty but quick," Harris assesses of Okwo in his return. "I think he handled the cast better [Wednesday] better than the previous day. He called it the longest practice of his life. That's because he is not in very good shape."
With Okwo back to the starting spot at the "Mike" (weakside) inside linebacker position, redshirt sophomore Pat Maynor moves down to second on that depth chart. The ripple effect also moved freshman Nick Macaluso to the scout defense this week. At one point in August, Macaluso looked like he could be used on the field this year and have his redshirt burned. He in fact was one of just seven true freshmen to make the 65-man travel squad for the Oregon game (all six others played). For the time being, Macaluso looks much more likely to keep his redshirt intact.
On the other side of the coin, the Cardinal look like they are working on an honest-to-goodness running game of their own. Stanford's best rusher ranked #19 in the Pac-10 last year, worse than the second best running back at eight other schools. These kinds of statistics are not very meaningful after just two games, but it is heartening to see Stanford's #7 ranked #7 in rushing for the conference. Freshman Toby Gerhart is upgrading the ground game every bit as much as we hoped, after watching his limited work when not injured during training camp.
Gerhart's numbers so far:
|9/2 - Oregon||16||63||8||55||3.4|
|9/9 - San Jose State||13||83||1||82||6.3|
As a team, Stanford ranks #58 in the nation running the ball. That is nothing to plaster yet on a recruiting brochure, but it is a remarkable uptick from the #110-ranked rushing offense of a year ago. Or the 114th rushing offense of 2004.
There are always injury questions each week, and the big one on most people's minds is redshirt junior cornerback Nick Sanchez. He has not played since leaving the Oregon game, and last week he did not practice at all. He did practice this week, albeit in a yellow jersey. Sanchez is a "gamer" who will do and say anything he can to get onto the field. Last weekend was the first time he missed a game since he started playing football in grade school. He even played with a badly torn meniscus in the final playoff performance of his senior year of high school.
"He hope that he is available," says Harris of Sanchez' status. "We're not 100 percent sure yet."
It may not be obvious why Sanchez could be valuable to the Cardinal this Saturday, against a Navy team that has completed and NCAA-low three total passes in their two games this season. However, it was Sanchez' cornerback position, manned by a combination of redshirt junior Tim Sims and redshirt sophomore Wopamo Osaisai, that was badly beaten in open-field tackling situations against San Jose State's skill players running up the field. There are no guarantees for what Sanchez will look like - if he plays - coming back from injury. But he is a good tackler. That is low on the list of skills commonly valued in a cover corner, but that is high on the wish list for this defense and this weekend going up against Navy's option attack.
"He's one of the guys who we have worked hard on improving his tackling from last year," Harris comments. "Hopefully he has not forgotten the lessons of the off-season and the summer while he's been out."
We thought there was some ailments on the offensive line this week to worry about as well. Tuesday was a circus for the front five, missing redshirt sophomore Allen Smith, who left the San Jose State game with a concussion. That one absence on the thin Stanford O-line pulled fifth-year senior Jon Cochran out of his starting right guard position so that he could play tackle. The resultant guard depth required that three players split time across the two-deep of both positions. We also saw fifth-year senior Jeff Edwards (who was also battling the flu) play left tackle, though he starts on the right side. The overall rotation and flip-flop of positions throughout Tuesday's practice was dizzying and indecipherable.
The good news is that Smith and the rest of the line were healthy a day later on Wednesday. Tuesday was a lesson in how quickly the Cardinal can descend into chaos when injury hits the offensive line.
Based on what we saw Wednesday, it does look like we might have fifth-year senior Josiah Vinson make his 2006 debut in the starting lineup. He took the lead in practice repetitions at left guard, where classmate Ismail Simpson started the first two games. Vinson was out almost all of camp in August with a concussion, followed by back spasms.
One offensive lineman still missing in action is fifth-year center Tim Mattran. While we were encouraged to see him this week run some conditioning sprints with the team, he may not be back anytime too soon.
"I don't think he is getting closer to playing," Harris opines.
Preparing for Navy's offense is not a normal undertaking for the Cardinal, or any college football team. However, they were reasonably successful last year when they opened the season at Annapolis. The Mids ran the ball 54 times for 210 yards. That 3.88 yards per carry was well below the 5.86 average they produced the rest of the year, when they ran for 329 yards per game.
Credit has to be handed to Aaron Smith, the Stanford safety who has switched his defensive jersey for an offensive one as the Cardinal's scout offense option quarterback. Smith also gave the Stanford defense a look last year for Navy's triple-option offense. He was an option quarterback at Point Loma High School in San Diego (Calif.) and has played exclusively at safety since arriving at Stanford, but his option abilities are currently being leveraged.
"We did a pretty good job versus the run last year. Aaron really gives us a great picture, and that is a really difficult look because it's so foreign," says Harris. "Hopefully he is doing as good or a better job this time for this year's group."
The Cardinal did practice today for the first time ever in the new Stanford Stadium. That is the usual pattern - to have Thursday's closed practice each week in the stadium, which includes rehearsal of scripted plays. The last two weeks, while work was still being done in the stadium, the team practiced Thursdays on the regular practice fields.
Said one amazed player after today's practice, "This stadium, seat for seat, is the nicest in the country."
Stanford officials are a little disappointed that only this week have ticket sales for the Navy game crossed the 40,000 mark. The new Stanford Stadium has a capacity of 50,000, which means that the Cardinal are a far cry from a sell-out.
When single game tickets were first put on sale this summer, it was widely said that the Navy and USC games would be sell-outs. Several times this week, we have heard frustrated Stanford officials remind the media that the Navy game is in fact not sold out. There is concern that it became an accepted fact that the game sold out, keeping people from buying tickets.
It would be a deflating opener for this new home of Stanford Football if there are scads of empty seats on Saturday. Of course, there will be a spike of sales on the actual day of the game. Stanford in the past has enjoyed an average of 22% of their seats sold on gameday. That would fill the remainder of the stadium, but with a much higher number of season tickets sold for the new Stanford Stadium, you can expect walk-up sales to be weaker.
News came down today on the Stanford Band's immediate future. They have been moved from "indefinite suspension" to "indefinite provisional status." The good news, if you are a fan of the LSJUMB, is that this means you will hear the Band play at Stanford Athletics events soon. They are not allowed to play anything the remainder of this month, but they should be back in October. While it is disappointing (and controversial) to some Stanford supporters that the Band will not play Saturday at the grand opening of the new stadium, nor the next week for the Washington State game, they will play this fall... provided they do not implode their provisional status.
Walt Harris opened his Stanford career last year against Navy, and after the win he had a nice moment when he walked to the edge of the field and smilingly played like a conductor to the Band's victory rendition of "All Right Now." Harris is the last man to easily forgive transgressions, and the Band has had too many, but he welcomes what the LSJUMB will mean to his team and the game environment upon their October return.
"We love anyone and any group of people who support Stanford Athletics," states the Cardinal coach. "We can't wait to get them back. They're an integral part to the Stanford game experience."
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