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Monday, October 7, 2013

It's All About the Stanford - UW Game

The Stanford -Washington game has so much material its almost impossible to discuss anything else.  As you know, Stanford held on for a 31-28 win at home.  Personally, I think Stanford's problem was those lousy black uniforms.  Red shirts, white pants please!

It's the Strategy Stupid
First, lets talk about coaching philosophy.  Stanford's David Shaw prides himself on not caring about "style points."  That's his stock answer when asked why he takes his foot off the proverbial gas, often allowing opponents to claw back into the game.  I wrote about this after the Arizona State game.  Stanford earned a reputation for winning the close games in 2012.  But close games were understandable, given a weak starting quarterback for the first seven games, then an untested Sophomore, the remaining five.  This year, given the personnel, similar results indicate a weakness that coaches like UW's Sarkisian can exploit, namely that Shaw opts to protect a lead rather than put his teams in a position to finish off an opponent. 

Stanford jumped ahead at the opening kickoff with Ty Montgomery's 99 yard dash up the middle for a touchdown.  They basically held that lead throughout the game.  Later, whenever UW closed to within three points, Stanford would open it up and answer almost immediately with some points to jack it back up to ten. Such was the stellar hookup between Hogan and Montgomery for a TD just before halftime. 

But after Stanford achieved that that ten point lead, they'd go flat on offense. To be sure, UW's defense was stellar and rose to those occasions (more on that later).  But too often, Shaw shrank the playbook every time his charges got some breathing room.  I don't believe Hogan threw the ball downfield more than three times the entire game. 

More damning was how Stanford finished the game.  Four consecutive three-and-outs.  Five if you count the last run-out-the-clock possession.

Now let's take a look at Sarkisian.  He seems to have Stanford's number, considering his upset win last year in Seattle and Saturday's close contest.  His strategies, particularly on defense, were superb. He essentially dared Stanford to beat him deep.  He had Stanford receviers covered with a blanket.  No one was ever wide open.  His pass rush strategy was more subtle, but apparently was designed to contain, not sack, Stanford QB Kevin Hogan.  The result?  Hogan had to check off numerous receivers on just about every passing play and usually found them closely covered.  He then didn't have much of a chance to scramble because the UW defensive line was in that "contain" mode.  In other words, UW worked to keep running back Tyler Gaffney and Hogan in the box, daring Stanford to beat them with superior quarterbacking judgment and passing skills.  Stanford's passing numbers speak for themselves:  12 for 20, 100 yards.

Overall, despite the 59 total points scored, I'd rate each defense a 100 for the day.  They both played exceptionally well.  On offense, I'd give UW a 95, deducting only for some untimely first half penalties that probably cost them the lead, and a few dropped passes.  (However, any team that throws the ball 48 times, as UW did, will inevitably have some dropped passes.)  Stanford's offense gets a 75 rating for the aforementioned reasons regarding coach Shaw.

The bottom line on the game, as I see it, is that this is about as well as UW could play.  I doubt they will play a more perfect game all year.  Stanford, on the other hand, has wiggle room to do better.   And they had better if they want to make it through the season undefeated. 

Gimmickry & Chicanery
Much has been made of Sark accusing Stanford of intentionally faking injuries in order to slow the game.  Definitely possible.  Maybe even likely.  Case in point was when Cardinal linebacker and defensive leader Shayne Skov went down in the second half.  I thought for sure his knee was shot along with his senior season (he's had a number of surgeries).  Later, he was back in the game.  Hmmm.

Now, about that hurry-up offense.  As I've posted previously, I have nothing against a stepped-up, no huddle offense.  It eliminates specialty substitutions and favors the team with better conditioning. I do, however, object to the way it is often taken to extremes.  (Oregon is the poster child and UW engaged in it Saturday.) At those times, it's no longer a strategy to exploit weakness in the other team, it's just a gimmick to catch the other guys off guard.

My point is this.  Take baseball.  Remember the "quick pitch" when we were kids?  They don't permit that gimmick in Major League Baseball.  The umpire ensures that both batter and pitcher are ready.  Just imagine a batter who takes one step into the box and a 95 mph fastball comes flying in before he even looks up.  In fact, it's so far out of the vernacular that if you Google "quick pitch" today, all you'll get are shower kits, pitching machines and blog columns. 

In football there's a clock that limits how long a team can take before snapping the ball.  It should also be codified that the refs also ensure a minimum time for defesnes to get back in line.  If you watch closely, you'll see refs already doing this on an ad hoc basis, mostly related to substitution equity.  It needs to be codified.

So what do fake injuries and quick-snap offenses have in common?  Both are within the rules but contrary to the spirit of the game.  At least tamping down the rush-rush thing is easier to enforce than preventing guys from taking dives.  Perhaps putting some reasonable limits on the fast-forward goofiness will help dampen the enthusiasm for faking it. 

The polls foolishly dropped UW after the loss and rewarded Stanford by keeping them in the five slot.  Wrong move.  Stanford should drop to around eight and UW should move up to about ten.  Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News got half of it right in his own poll vote, slotting the Dawgs at number ten. 

More Polls
There seem to be two philosophies amongst those voting in the polls.  One is based solely on the record.  Wins and losses are the only thing that counts with these folks, style points be damned.  A second perspective is wherein voters look at the strength of schedule, results of the opponents, etc. Kind of a primitive regression analysis.

I prefer the second way.  But somewhere down the line when you're slotting teams relative to one another, you've got to start asking the "who would win"* question.  It's not even enough to look at the wins plus strength-of-schedule.  Eventually, you have to do some educated speculation to get it to all line up. 

*And you thought I was going to go the entire blog without dissing the Bee-One-Gee.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Slow Week

Not a whole lot to talk about after last week's relatively slim pickings game-wise.  Stanford revealed a potentially fine downfield passing attack which, theoretically, should open things up for their run game.  The first big test is at home Saturday versus the Dawgies from Washington. UW shut them down in Seattle last year, but that was before Stanford started Kevin Hogan at quarterback.  UW QB Kevin Price looks back on form this year and it should be a fun game.

Bon Mots du Jour
Some nice quips from Jon Wilner's blog in the San Jose Mercury News (I just love the name of that paper):
  • On the upcoming Oregon-Colorado matchup:  "No chance the Ducks put 70 on CU this year. They won’t score more than 65."
  • On USC:  "Given Lane Kiffin’s track record, look for him to be named coach of the Patriots tomorrow."

Why Do I Bother
Can someone please explain to me why Ohio State is ranked ahead of Stanford?  The Bucks resume includes wins over Buffalo (they who were taken to overtime by Stony Brook!), a lousy San Diego State, Cal (OSU gave up 34 points to arguably the second worst team in the PAC) and perennial powerhouse Florida A&M.  They then squeaked by Wisconsin at home.  Stanford doesn't have a great resume yet, but flattened an Arizona State team in Tempe that already beat Wisconsin.  Yeah, a bit convoluted.  But conventional wisdom has the PAC as one of the strongest conferences in the country and the Bee-One-Gee as one of the weak sisters.  So whazzup?