Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stanford vs. Arizona State, a Review

So everybody’s happy about yesterday’s Stanford game, right? It was clearly a good game; both sides of the ball played well. However, what was really striking about the game, for how good the offense was, it could have been better: Arizona State was daring us throughout the game to throw deep, and we took them up on the dare several times, only to fail by several mishaps. I’ve heard the number 0-7 to Owusu on deep patterns; I have no way of confirming this, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

Still, Stanford rolled what was statistically a very good defense, and our defense did its job. It’s tough to say whether the improvement on defense—particularly the new corners—was related to the fact that Danny Sullivan sucks, or whether the improvement is something that is more portable. Sadly, it’s probably a little of both, and how much it’s the latter will determine our season more than any other factor.

It’s also a game that gives you a nice happy feeling about the future, specifically Andrew Luck. As Dennis Erickson said after the game, “He’s a heck of a player. He has a chance to be a great one.” That’s succinct, and it’s perfect. To wit, Andrew Luck is good now, but he can get much better, nice as that is to contemplate. Here’s how:

1) YAC throws. You look at an elite quarterback, like Sam Bradford, and he throws a ball that’s not just catchable, but that lets the receiver run after the catch. Now, if the route specifically calls for running after the catch (e.g. a bubble screen), then Luck is fine; however on other throws, you’d like to see him throw into the route more.
2) Audible. I don’t believe I saw Luck audible once. Now, Harbaugh and Shaw are good playcallers, but they aren’t perfect: stubbornness, in particular, is their vice. They often become too fixated on rushing Toby Gerhart, often to the detriment of second-half performance: if the whole stadium knows you’re rushing, then you need to throw a changeup. No matter how blatantly obvious it was that the wideouts enjoyed single coverage on the outside, Luck didn’t audible out. This kind of bugged me.
3) Being aware of the rush. Luck is incredibly mobile—I mean incredibly in the old sense of the word, i.e. unbelievable, because it’s unbelievable how he gets the rushes/avoidance of the rush that he does. But sometimes—and I’m thinking of those consecutive sacks against UCLA—he can be a little unaware of the rush.
4) More accurate throws. He’s thrown behind or in weird positions at some disconcerting times. Folds into my point in number 1.

And Luck’s—and the offense generally—performance will be improved by doing two things. First, is scheme-wise: there’s a formation we’ve been sitting on for a while, and that’s the 4 WR, 1 RB formation. We’ve only thrown out of it. But imagine running out of it: that will put the defense in a real dilemma, and likely result in a Toby vs. DB matchup (that’s good, for those of us keeping track). The other thing is more long-range: that’s the wideout position. Whalen is a fine possession receiver who can get deep. I have no quarrel with him. Increasingly, though, Owusu looks like the rich man’s Doug Baldwin. The biggest problem, however, might be this: Andrew Luck can technically leave after next season. The rule for eligibility in the NFL draft is three years after high school, so redshirt sophomores are eligible. Naturally, we hope for this to resolve well, so that all these problems can be sorted out (I mean, can you imagine Luck and an elite wideout together?)

Here’s what I mean. Back when we were thinking about the Chris Owusu Experience, the Chronicle’s beat writer talked to Oaks Christian’s coach, who said, jokingly, “I was afraid of him fumbling because he had done that a little bit in practice. If I had let him run back kickoffs, we probably would have been 114-8 [instead of 111-11-1].”

Well, as it turns out, he was right. Let’s look at Owusu, game-by-game, since the UCLA game.
UCLA: fumble lost on end-around.
Oregon State: Sure touchdown dropped on first play of game.
Arizona: easy drop on fourth-and-1, two drops on final drive of the game.
Arizona State: nothing so egregious, but a drop of a potential TD passs.
That’s basically one hands-related issue per game since the Washington game. That appears to be a trend, my friends. Now, to be fair. Owusu is young yet, maybe hands can be acquired. I don’t know. But I do know that one of the positions Jim Harbaugh has recruited extravagantly well at is wideout. There will be improvement.

Speaking of Harbaugh’s extravagantly good recruiting, we have to note that a quality corner committed last night, named Keanu Nelson (great name!). He’s rated a top-50 CB by scouts and rivals, and the #44 athlete by ESPN. And, to continue the theme of Jim Harbaugh’s recruitment, we have to spend a moment reflecting on the next great Stanford running back: Stepfan Taylor. Did he look great last night or what? He just has pure running back instincts, and he gets in gear quickly. I hope that Harbaugh can split carries more evenly down the stretch, to keep Toby fresh. Because he’ll need to be fresh for the stretch. This was an A effort, and if we bring one more A effort against the upcoming schedule, we’ll be bowl-bound again.

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