The shape of the season will be determined by roughly 11 PM EST tomorrow: is this edition of Stanford football one of the most accomplished ever, or is it just a very good team with a great quarterback? Either would be very satisfying for the fans, I’m sure, but there’s something about the appeal of finishing up the year as a one-loss team that sets that possibility apart. Possible, but also possibly forbidden.
Arizona does not, generally, get a lot of attention. Unlike Stanford they don’t have many players NFL scouts high-five each other over; unlike Stanford they lack the novelty of the academic-school-makes-good storyline. Arizona’s offense, a modified version of Texas Tech’s Airraid offense, doesn’t help either in the flashiness department: it is a death-by-paper-cuts offense that has the precise execution to be able to sustain and thrive as an offense. This kind of offense is easy to underestimate, and I think people have successfully underestimated it for years now. The past two years I’ve felt, going into the Arizona game, that the game would be an easy win and the past two years I’ve been very wrong—while Stanford went 1-1, the team could’ve easily gone 0-2 or 2-0. Apparently the wisdom of crowds agrees with my previous thoughts this year: the line opened with Stanford favored by 9.5 and as far as I can tell it’s stayed this way. This is a baffling line to me: Arizona’s offense is too good and too well-matched with the weaknesses of our defense to allow the team to be outpaced that decisively.
Let’s go back in the wayback machine to last year: there Arizona was, carving up Stanford with an ever-annoying assortment of bubble screens, hitches, and the like, and Stanford was faced with a problem: how the heck do we stop this thing? The Arizona offense got rid of the ball too quickly to bring any sort of pressure to bear, and some futile attempts were made to bring huge blitzes to knock their offenses off rhythm. It worked occasionally, but also brought huge gains, the biggest plays of the night: there was the simple little draw called right into the blitz on 3rd and long that resulted in a 50 yard scamper (because everyone was blocked, and everyone had been blitzed, there was literally no one on the second level); a similar sequence gave up a huge gain on a screen as Arizona’s offense proved too much to handle for the Stanford defense as Arizona came back from 9 points down in the fourth quarter. Stanford’s offense still should’ve won the game, for a number of different reasons that are too complex to get into and not exactly the point of this graf right here focusing on the problems of the defense (basically, Chris Owusu can’t catch and Nate Whitaker missed an easy field goal; some angrier elements of the fanbase who are angrily conservative thought this set of facts meant RUN TOBY MORE despite his being held to a 3.8 yards/carry that night.) The point here is, what about this story has changed significantly? The problem in last year’s game was that the Stanford secondary had to play far off its designated receivers and couldn’t make up the distance and tackle quickly enough when Arizona threw short. Richard Sherman has gotten better since last year, but how much? Johnson Bademosi has emphatically not gotten better, and it might very well be a long night for him. The strengths of Stanford’s defense—and they’re legitimate strengths—are its ability against the run and its pressure. Both of these elements aren’t very relevant against Arizona’s offense: they don’t run a ton and the ball is out of their hands so quickly that pressure isn’t much of a factor. We should Arizona to put up quite a few points.
The dominant narrative entering into the game is Stanford offense vs. Arizona defense, with a lot of attention paid to their 14 pts/game given up. This is a highly deceptive statistic: it’s deflated by their 2 points given up to Toledo, their 6 points given up to Citadel, and their 9 points given up to Cal. A far better indicator of Arizona’s defensive quality are the 20+ points they’ve surrendered to their decent opponents—Iowa, Oregon State and UCLA. What I am worried about is Stanford’s ability to meet the ante: if Arizona scores a ton of points, as I think they will, will Stanford be able to best that high score? I have uncomfortable flashbacks to the Notre Dame, UCLA, and Oregon games here. The canny observer might say: well, aren’t you overreacting?—Stanford went 2-1 in those games and both wins were done handily. This is true; but it doesn’t change the reality that Stanford’s offense looked stagnant at times in all three games—good between the 20s, not so good within them. Fortunately the defense came to play against Notre Dame and UCLA; against Oregon, it only faced one of the very best offenses in the country. Ultimately, the game comes down to what kind of offense you think Arizona has: is it more like Notre Dame and Oregon, or is it more like Oregon? These are two extremes, but I think Arizona tends more towards Oregon, which is why I give them the slightest of edges. Arizona 37 Stanford 33.