I don’t know that my entire philosophy of life is based on the message of the best film noirs, but they sure look like a tempting way of describing a pretty good chunk of life, and they certainly described Stanford’s performance tonight (hopefully for the last time—as “fate” or “the house” always wins in film noirs, we can pretty much count on a “film noir” script for Stanford screwing us in the long run). The lesson of the film noirs, from the older times of, say, Double Indemnity to the latter times of, say, Fargo is that people are ultimately weak: they fall to whatever tragic flaw they happen to have, and worse, both they and the audience know all the while that they are doomed to fail—but somehow it’s always surprising and tragic, like a knife to the back, when it actually happens. The knife in the back missed Stanford this time, which is why it’s a film noir with a happy ending; it doesn’t have to be that way. (NOTE also that there were several Stanford injuries—Owusu out, other players injured or hobbled at various times. Also, the defense—while it gave up a respectable number of ponts—was not actually all that good; but Arizona State’s tragic weakness—that is, crippling stupidity [they are the idiots of Burn After Reading in football player form]—cast them down and doomed them.)
The setup: you knew fate was up to some odd things when I e-mailed a friend noting that this game was eerily reminiscent of Big Game 2009. For those who need refreshing, Big Game 2009 featured an atypically awful offensive performance, keyed by the normally stout offensive line failing to block much of anything; this was indeed the case today. Here’s where the human weakness that surely must have been appreciated as Stanford continued to do the same thing over and over again: Harbaugh has a tragic flaw, and it is stubbornness. Harbaugh knows, somewhere deep in his essence, that if you run the ball all the time, it surely must work. Generally this deep self-belief works, because generally teams do not have the line to cope with Stanford’s and do not have the sophistication to cope with Stanford’s; the sophistication comes after the line, and Arizona State’s defensive line’s dominance on running plays blew up any attempts at sophistication.
The critical note here is on running plays. Let’s recall Big Game 2009 once again: Harbaugh electing to run Toby Gerhart again and again despite being stacked up again and again, setting the offensive back on its heel into 2nd and long and 3rd and long again and again in the stubborn, fundamentalist faith that eventually Cal would crack before Stanford did. The faith was not borne out then, and it was in danger of not working out now. Harbaugh seemed determined to waste his very best asset, one Andrew Luck. Let’s recap first-down plays; the running plays gained, in order: -1, -1, 3, 5, 4, 4, 0, 0, 0, 0, -1, 1. Pretty terrible—means your offense is forced into situations in which everyone in the stadium knows the pass is coming; it’s a wonder Luck was able to pass for 8.8 yards per attempt in the half considering that. Oh? You asked about the passing plays? Glad to recap that too: 11, 9, 10, 18, 13 (no incompletions). The second half featured similar futility along these lines: Luck comes out throwing on the first first down—13 yards to Doug Baldwin; on the second, Harbaugh elected to plunge Taylor into nine men in the box which was stacked up for no gain (shocker!). Tragic flaws indeed—the offense was stopped. (What happened the next drive? Luck threw on every first down and the offense moved crisply down the field and got a field goal; had Luck been inch-perfect on a pass, he would’ve connected with Ryan Whalen for a touchdown.) Stanford would’ve been much better off had Harbaugh elected to use his best player, but Harbaugh is stubborn and the audience knew it must get him into trouble.
You’d also be remiss not to note the wonder and power of Anthony Wilkerson at this point. Don’t bother looking at the stats on ESPN.com or wherever; they are surely, at this early stage, wrong: the spotters routinely confuse Taylor’s #33 with Wilkerson’s #32; it’s happened quite a few times this season, and it’s weird. Wilkerson was much better running, and Harbaghian stubbornness nearly prevailed over good sense when, during the final drive, Harbaugh sent out Taylor at first (who struggled), then sending out Wilkerson (who ripped off runs like the born running back he is.) Is Wilkerson the all-around better back than Taylor? No: Wilkerson cannot pass-block and hence his presence is a certain tip-off that a run or play-action is coming. Nevertheless, if you intend to run all the time, you might as well send out your best runner and today it was as plain as day that it was Wilkerson. Harbaugh eventually learned and outraced his own weakness and avoided the film noir’s unsurprisingly surprising tragic ending—or maybe it hasn’t happened yet?