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Spelfogel: Stanford football only a ‘regional’ powerhouse
Stanford has shown glimmers of hope with players like Bryce Love, but the team must find consistency to truly be great. (DAVID BERNAL/isiphotos.com)

Spelfogel: Stanford football only a ‘regional’ powerhouse

Take me back to 2007, please! ESPN, last week, aired enough highlight reel film of Jim Harbaugh and Richard Sherman jumping up and down in pure elation, pulling off the greatest upset in college football history, a forty-one-point underdog, at the Coliseum, to the number two team in the country, yada yada yada, that I almost forgot that this Cardinal team was part of a different reality. In the build-up to the clash at the Coliseum, watching ESPN pundit Desmond Howard declare Stanford is bound for the national title game, possibly to vanquish mighty Alabama, almost made me forget that this Cardinal team was part of a different reality. Remembering that Stanford had defeated USC in three consecutive matchups, and that night two Decembers ago where Christian McCaffrey ran rampant through the SC secondary, almost made me forget that this Cardinal team was part of a different reality. Yet reality crept back quickly in the 2nd half of Saturday’s game, resulting in a 42-24 drubbing at the hands of our Southern California rivals.

Einstein once said that in theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not. The same is true with Stanford; in abstract, Stanford is solid. The parts should fit together, and make a fairly cohesive team. Yet in actuality, the secondary is rather a mush, pass protection is porous and the rushing defense could barely touch the opposing quarterback if it had a twelve-foot pole. To set the record straight, Stanford is a good team, it might even deserve to be ranked 14th in the country, but it is in no way, shape or form a great team. The Cardinal have too many questions, from a quarterback who may still be recovering from a major injury several months ago, to weak pass protection and pass rush. And the unabatingly conservative play call does not help the situation at all.

The truth is that the dismantling at the hands of USC reveals Stanford’s worst kept secret. It is merely a “regional” powerhouse, for now at least. It occasionally recruits Heisman caliber talent – Andrew Luck, Christian McCaffrey and NFL first rounder’s – Solomon Thomas and Andrus Peat who collectively drive the Cardinal to BCS Bowl games – The Orange Bowl or Rose Bowl, but the consistent inconsistencies in depth at any given position, precludes Stanford from breaking out into that next elite bucket of schools.

Worse yet, Stanford football shows a degree of complacency and attrition. Complacency in play calls – David Shaw is notoriously conservative, and this week’s clash with the Trojans was no exception, with plenty of head scratching calls. If Stanford is to succeed in challenging environments, given its current roster and talent realities, playing the yardage game against Sam Darnold at the Coliseum is just not going to work. And attrition in a loss of talent – from graduations and transfers, but more so a failure to develop talent adequately at a given position. Stanford does recruit top tier players each season, but Shaw’s model has been to cultivate players over multiple years rather than the months that most other programs do. Stanford’s best QB may be sitting on the bench in the form of K.J. Costello.

Make no mistake — Stanford strives for greatness. Its athletic facilities are top notch, and the West Coast offense mimics that of many NFL teams. Yet it seems that here again, in situations where Stanford could break out as a preeminent competitor, not in the Pac-12, but in the national title race, The Cardinal flounders. This year it was at the hands of USC, but there is a familiar pattern. Last year, Stanford collapsed completely against Washington in a high stakes match up. The season before, the Cardinal didn’t show up in the season opener against Northwestern. Having emerged victorious would have undoubtedly laid the foundation for a title run.

Yet seasons past have shown that legacies are not determined in a single loss, but rather by a pattern of reoccurrence. Last year, Stanford would have made it to the Rose Bowl if it had beaten Colorado at home (it lost 10-5). The season prior, Stanford would have gone to the college football playoff if it had beaten Oregon (it lost on a failed two-point conversion). So let this drubbing by USC be a lesson of history, but also one of conviction. Stanford is by no means eliminated from contention to any bowl game, but it does need a significant course correction – one that should start at the helm – if it hopes to advance this season.

In a conference dominated by professional caliber talent at the QB position, Stanford needs to figure out its defensive strategy, and fast. While Sam Darnold did pass for more yards than the speed of most commercial jets, the Cardinal did pick off the USC quarterback twice. Hidden in the jaws of defeat is a glimmer of hope — hope that Stanford soon finds the item it has needed more so than any position, player or coach. It’s the same item that will allow it to finally be more than just a “regional” competitor, rather one that performs on a national stage. That’s consistency.

 

Contact Michael Spelfogel at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Michael Spelfogel

Michael Spelfogel is a staff writer in the sports section at The Stanford Daily. He can be contacted at mspel 'at' stanford.edu.
  • GSB Aluminator

    Wow! A little rough on the lads….

  • Mood_Indigo

    Columnist appears to suffer from football factory-envy.

  • Anthony Joseph Gomes

    true freshman QBs tend to struggle. its not like starting at any other positions. we started justin herbert last year and i have mixed feelings about that. more bad than good i might say. sometimes better to just take your lumps and rebuild for a year. think long term and honest unless you want to end up like U$C

  • David Jaulus

    Columnist is a thoughtless troll! I see your criticism of coach Shaw and I raise you Buddy Teabins and Walt Harris! Mike drop!!!!

  • Candid One

    This author is really not very circumspect outside of his recirculated dogma. Yeesh, dude, your comparisons are other-worldly, like a different planet. You predicate your logic on miscellaneous notions that blow your cover as new to the Stanford football team and its reality. No sale.

  • Candid One

    Stanford’s playbook is too much for true freshmen to assimilate quickly. Andrew Luck was a freshman redshirt for that reason. No Stanford QB has not redshirted as a frosh since before the Harbaugh-Shaw era. It took Kevin Hogan more than a year to begin to show a starter’s grasp of the playbook. From what we’ve seen in the post-Hogan era, the current Cardinal QB veterans are aren’t being helped by their offensive line. When this happened in 2014, as substantiated by Graham Shuler, that starting center, Hogan was sometimes blamed but it was actually about the lack of o-line support, not Hogan. Hogan had been a notable success in 2013 and again in 2015–when the o-line had it together. That’s the current problem, which was initially hidden by a walkover game against Rice that proved nothing. But then to have the first true test against a playoff caliber team in USC, what flaws we saw weren’t as bad as in last year’s UW game–after Stanford beat USC. Stanford offensive line is why its run-first offense works–or fails. A good QB, like Hogan, can’t overcome that shortfall consistently enough to have much success, and a coach’s playcalling can’t be judged by the o-line’s lack of execution either.

  • Anthony Joseph Gomes

    jameis Winston redshirted. marcus mariota redshirted. starting a true freshman at QB is either a dumb move or an act of desperation imho. in the case of Herbert at U of O I think it was a bit of both. the interesting thing about Stanford is that dave shaw rarely used Hogan. in the last Stanford USC game Hogan pulled them out of the fire imho. Hogan could play at a very high level at times but not consistently. most of the time he threw fewer than 15 balls and the trees were a very much run first offense. what I didn’t understand about the last game with USC is why dave shaw abandoned the run and put the game on the arm of chryst so early. its true that USC was stuffing the run on the edges but Stanford was having some success between the tackles. if it was me and I was behind USC 3-10 I would have alternated between off tackle plays and the pass and thrown other stuff in like an end around or a draw play or whatever now and then.