An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Cardinal.
If there was a single moment that Stanford "arrived" as an unlikely Pac-10 contender, it was probably when Richard Sherman took a fourth-quarter interception to the house to lock up a blowout win at USC last November. That happened just one week after the Cardinal pummeled the eventual conference champ, Oregon, behind 500 yards and 51 points. That breakthrough was three years in the making, from the moment the Cardinal went out on a limb to hire former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh — barely five years into his coaching career, none of them in Division I-A. Harbaugh was asked to lift them out of the tangled wreckage of a 1-11 crash in 2006 that might have been worse than the record suggests. After two-and-a-half years of tantalizing moments (see the 2007 upset at USC), the late-season run at the league crown — highlighted by the first sellouts at Stanford Stadium since its renovation from 85,000 to 50,000 seats in 2006 — felt like paydirt.
That momentum didn't entirely hold through the new year, thanks to losses to Cal and Oklahoma in the last three games and the constant speculation that Harbaugh is as good as gone when the right job opens up elsewhere. Through the first few months of 2010, though, Oregon has lost its star quarterback for the season, Oregon State has suffered unexpected attrition on defense and the still-reeling Trojans have abruptly overhauled the management, seemingly opening up the top of the Pac-10 to any and all comers. This time last year, Stanford as serious Rose Bowl hopeful wouldn't have seemed possible, but if the door is as open as it suddenly appears, it's impossible not to ask at this point: Why not Stanford?
What's Changed. Human Brinks truck Toby Gerhart carried the ball more times last year for more yards than anyone else in college football, personally accounting for well over a third of the total yards from scrimmage by the Pac-10's best offense. Gerhart's bruising consistency gave the Cardinal unusual balance (218 yards per game rushing, 209 per game passing) and made life extraordinarily easy for quarterback Andrew Luck. The redshirt freshman attempted fewer passes than any other regular starter in the conference, was sacked fewer times and — in a stunning coincidence — also finished with the highest pass efficiency rating.
Luck is a big (6-4/235), gifted, prototype pocket slinger clearly bound for heavy-breathing praise from draftniks as early as this winter, especially for his big-play arm (he averaged nine yards per attempt in '09 despite a mediocre completion percentage, or almost 16 yards per completion, both among the best numbers in the country). Much of that success came as a result of play-action and flea flickers when Gerhart was rolling, though, so it seems almost inevitable that the big-play frequency and overall efficiency will fall without the benefit of anything approximating a Toby-like presence to consume defenses' attention and keep the down-and-distance in Luck's favor. The top returning rushers, sophomores Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, have good size and some promising recruiting hype, but almost certainly will not be mistaken by anyone for thundering Heisman finalists.
Luck should be a better "fantasy" quarterback in his second season, if you're into that sort of thing. His total yards and touchdowns are bound to rise as the run/pass ratio moves closer to 50:50. His interceptions and sacks will likely rise, and maybe some frustration during rockier moments, when Luck looks more like a sophomore adjusting to his expanded role than a potential All-American. The challenge of the transition to a Luck-based attack will be somehow keeping the quarterback comfortable in the pocket, keeping play-action viable and keeping the receivers in favorable match-ups downfield, even as defenses are better prepared to handle all of the above.
What's the Same. Fortunately for Luck, the rest of the offense seems pretty well-equipped on at least two of those fronts: Four starting linemen return, as do both of the top receivers, Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu. Owusu is the resident deep threat (second in the Pac-10 at 18.4 yards per catch) who also doubles as a dynamic kick returner.
Far more than the receivers, though, the veteran line will make or break the conference title run. The only loss, All-Pac-10 tackle Chris Marinelli, is a big one, but otherwise this is the same group of colossal gentlemen that paved the way for the most productive rushing season in school history and didn't allow more than one sack in any game. A repeat performance up front should guarantee even a mediocre rotation in the backfield at least two-thirds of last year's production on the ground, which should still be enough to allow Luck to grow and prosper at the expected rate.
Albatross. The defense was a mirror image of the offense: Below average against the run, abysmal at creating pressure in opposing backfields, vulnerable to the big play in the secondary while making precious few of their own. Six times in the final eight games, Stanford was bombed for at least 450 yards. Oregon State, Arizona, Oregon, California, Notre Dame and Oklahoma averaged almost 38 points against the Cardinal and accounted for four of their five losses (all in games in which the offense/special teams scored at least 27, no less). In that context, the departure of four top veterans — Bo McNally, Clinton Snyder and Ekom Udofia, all four-year starters, and linebacker Will Powers — doesn't exactly conjure any thunderclaps of anxiety.
If anything, the stock is pointing slightly up on defense thanks to a new scheme and a youth movement. Juniors-to-be Delano Howell and Thomas Keiser, the team sack leader, and Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas, who both wound up on various Pac-10 All-Freshman teams, figures to mature into a competent group in its second year together. In particular, Skov, the most hyped member of the '09 recruiting class who had more than 30 tackles in the last three games, is representative of another obvious upgrade under Harbaugh:
Even if that trend holds, it's another year or two from showing up on the field — the best bet this year is that the Cardinal again fail to crack the top half of the conference in any major statistical category. Still, with any luck (i.e. a few more turnovers), it may not take much improvement to allow the offense to add to the win column.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. On the other hand, the situation at linebacker is so thin that kinky-fro'd fullback Owen Marecic — perhaps best known for cracking not one but two of his own helmets during the course of games last year — has spent much of the spring holding down one of the starting linebacker jobs in the "hybrid" 3-4/4-3 scheme being installed by new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Marecic got a little press as a "two-way player" late last season, when he was pressed into emergency back-up duty after starter Clinton Snyder was felled by a season-ending knee injury. The fruits of that labor amounted to one tackle against Cal and an assist against Oregon. The offense can hardly afford to lose Marecic as a blocker in the fall. He's generally considered one of the best lead-piledrivers in the country and was a substantial part of Gerhart's success last year. Marecic also is a competent outlet receiver and short-yardage battering ram near the goal line — which only goes to show a) That Owen Marecic is the true Iron Man, or b) How much the D is still desperately in need of able bodies.
Best-Case. There's no replacing Gerhart's impact and production with any one player, but Taylor and Gaffney were four-star recruits who made it onto the field regularly as true freshmen, operating behind a proven line and a helmet-cracking fullback. That could be enough to keep the power running game churning, at least enough to allow Luck to reprise his role as an older, wise downfield bomber without putting the entire offense on his shoulders. If so, Luck could be a Heisman candidate, the Cardinal will be the most potent offense in the conference and, with a small boost from Fangio's arrival on defense, a serious candidate for league frontrunner. The extreme parity in the Pac-10 probably guarantees at least two conference losses, but an early win over either of the league favorites — at Oregon on Oct. 2, at home against USC on Oct. 9 — could provide the tiebreaker edge in an eventual march to the Rose Bowl.
Worst-Case. What program — much less a decidedly non-powerhouse, academically-constrained program only beginning to forge a respectable recruiting profile — can lose its first Heisman finalist in four decades and go on averaging 35 points per game? Gerhart was the unmistakable engine of last year's attack, without which Luck could easily fall into the sophomore slump opposite a defense that leaves no margin for error. There's no grace period on the schedule, either: Four of the first six games are road trips to UCLA, Notre Dame and Oregon and a home date with USC, a gauntlet that threatens to halt the Cardinal's momentum by midseason as quickly as it accelerated through the same stretch of games last November. If it goes badly enough early on to knock them out of the Pac-10 title race before Halloween, it could only take one really back-breaking loss — at Washington, say, or Arizona State — down the stretch to send them careering to a 5-7 finish and bring three years of steady progress to a grinding halt.
Non-Binding Forecast. The overall talent level, especially on defense, still seems prohibitive where a conference championship or BCS run is concerned, but there are no equalizers like a veteran offensive line in front of a first-rate passer. Luck's continued development is the ticket to the promised land. There's enough parity throughout the conference and enough question marks about the offense in Gerhart's absence to old back on real visions of grandeur, but this remains an ascendent program that obviously doesn't back down from the heavyweights. If it takes a couple more big games and avoids a major slip-up against the bottom half of the conference, 9-3 is within reach en route to a top-20 finish and really big expectations in 2011 — if Harbaugh and Luck are still around with big jobs (Michigan?) and big money likely calling at the end of another solid season.
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