My take on the Stanford game is very different from what seems to be the near consensus opinion on Bruins Nation (although it isn't that different form VeniceBruin's fanpost), and I expect it will get a good deal of negative reaction. What I see as missing in much of the commentary here is any sense of context. This includes two things: looking at our team from the perspective of where we are coming from and then what I call the classic sports fallacy which is that athletic performance is a function of what your team does while missing the key role that your opponent plays. The first of these points applies mostly to the offense and the second to the defense.
When CRN came here our offense was in a very sorry state. We had a terrible offensive line and a third string quarterback, and we could neither run nor pass effectively. The next year we had a freshman quarterback and an offensive line that was terrible in pass protection. Then last year we finally got a pretty decent running game going, but we still couldn't pass and were one dimensional. The biggest problem all along has been our offense. We play in a conference against teams that put up a lot of points, and we were handicapped by an offense that could not match this. Our offense looked much improved this year after the Houston game, but some here at Bruins Nation said that it was premature to conclude too much from this, since Houston was not a good defensive team. They said the same thing after the Oregon St. game, and in both cases they were absolutely right. We wouldn't really know until we played against a really good defensive team if the offenses's improvement was for real.
Well now we know. Last night we played one of the best defensive teams in the country, and we were able to move the ball on them. We had three really nice scoring drives and a long drive to open the game that we didn't score on. And we did this with a nice balanced attack which featured more yards passing than running. In addition our offense was able to move the ball on Texas too. At one point starting late in the first half of that game and going into the second half we had four scoring drives in a row resulting in two touchdowns and two field goals. If anyone has noticed Texas is now ranked #10 in the coach's poll. So those urging caution about the apparent improvement of our offense against weak opponents were absolutely correct to do so, but the verdict is now in. Our offense which has been our greatest liability is clearly capable of moving the ball against top 5 and top 10 teams, while it now features a credible passing component that had been missing up until now.
However some people not only are not acknowledging that our offense is significantly improved but are even spinning it to mean that this shows we had the talent all along, and this only goes to show how bad the coaching is. So now even if our team shows marked improvement that just proves how bad the coaching staff is for not fully developing it sooner? Talk about circular reasoning. The Stanford game shows that we are a much improved offensive football team right now, and that is according to the very reasonable criteria set forth here at Bruins Nation of waiting to see if our offense can perform against a very good defensive team. And even if someone can make an argument that they should have arrived at this point sooner why is that relevant now? Our offense is in fact much improved now, and that is what counts.
The other big criticism of the offense has been that the play calling has been too conservative. Well perhaps it has been, but I think against Stanford the play calling was anything but conservative. There was a lot more passing and a really good balance between running and passing. There was even a surprise onsides kick. Yet this has been mostly overlooked by some here because on our first drive we ran four straight running plays from inside the five, and this conservative play calling is seen as having cost us a touchdown and depriving us of the momentum we needed to have a chance of winning the game. It's almost taken as a given that if we would have passed in that situation we would have scored. How does anyone know that? Play calling is a matter of probabilities and in that situation given that our strength has been in the running game it was reasonable to conclude that the best chance of scoring was to run the ball four times if necessary. The fact that we didn't score doesn't mean it was the wrong call. Running may have given us the highest probability of scoring, but it doesn't guarantee a score. Passing the ball inside the five is a much riskier proposition. There ís very little space to work with which makes an interception more likely. However even more likely is a quarterback sack which effectively takes away the run option on the next two plays with the likely result being a field goal. I remember a game last year at home where we got a first and goal inside the five. Norm Chow called a quarterback roll out, and a defender got through and sacked Brehaut for about a five yard loss. That effectively took away the run and dictated two pass plays resulting in two incomplete passes in the end zone and a field goal. I remember thinking that was a terrible call at that time. And some people are looking at this one series with hindsight and saying that it was the wrong call while making the unwarranted assumption that we would have scored if we would have passed along with the unwarranted assumption that we should have known in advance that we wouldn't score on four running plays inside the five. They are then seeing this as a microcosm of the whole game as if the problem is again conservative play calling. But this was just one series of downs which was not representative of the whole game and which can be seen as a credible decision given the time and situation in which it was made. The truth is that we learned in this game that we now have an offense that is for real and which is capable of moving the ball on just about anyone. And we did this with a balanced attack that is not conservative. As for not scoring on that first drive why not give credit where it is due to the Stanford defense. Or are all great goal line stands the result of overly conservative play calling on the part of the offense?
I think that probably the main reason that the big improvement on offense is not being fully recognized is because the defense looked so bad. And there is no question that the defense does seem to have gotten worse from last year. They certainly have not lived up to expectations. I don't know why the expectations were so high before the season started, but they were apparently based more on hype than on reality. I think one possible factor that I haven't heard anyone mention is that we may have had better players last year and the year before at key positions. We had some really dominant players like Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore last year along with Brian Price and Alterraun Verner the year before. These have all turned out to be elite NFL players, and players like Akeem Ayers and Brian Price could dominant the line of scrimmage. We don't have anyone like that this year, and I think that may be a factor.
However I don't think the defense is really as bad as they may have looked yesterday. That ís where the sports fallacy of not recognizing the role of your opponent comes into play. Over the last three years Stanford has had one of the premier offensive lines in college football and in addition they have the most talented college quarterback since Peyton Manning. They are a great offensive team who is going to put around 40 points on almost anyone, and they will make just about any defense look really bad. In fact can anyone name a defense that hasn't looked bad against Stanford? How about Pete Carroll's last SC team that gave up 55 points at home in the Coliseum? How about last year's Cal defense that held Oregon to 15 points but then shortly after lost 38-0 to Stanford. Or what about 11th ranked Virginia Tech who lost 40-12 to Stanford in last year's Orange Bowl? And like yesterday Stanford in that game too had a 99 yard scoring drive. The only difference is that they scored in two plays. First there was a 55 yard run through a huge hole in the line, and then on the next play on play action Luck threw deep and hit a receiver for a touchdown who had beaten the nearest defender by about fifteen yards. And doesn't everyone think that Frank Beamer is a very good defensive coach? Well if you went by that game you would think that Frank Beamer can't coach defense at all. The only way that anyone is going to beat this Stanford team is to outscore them which is going to be very difficult, because their defense is so good. Maybe a top notch defensive team like Alabama or LSU might slow them down some, but I even doubt that.
I guess a lot of this comes down to where our expectations are at this point. If you think that by now we should be national contenders then the coaching staff has failed miserably. If you think that we should now be a top 25 team well we're not there yet. And if you want to use Jim Harbaugh who probably engineered the greatest turn around in the last 50 years in college football as the standard of comparison then our coaching staff is an abysmal failure, but so is almost everyone else. However if the expectations are that we are making significant progress then I think there is still reason for optimism, because our offense which has been our weak link is clearly much improved, and if our defense can improve we'll be a good football team. I think a more realistic comparison would be to Dennis Erickson. He was a coach with a proven record winning a national championship at Miami and then coaching an Oregon St. team that was superior to any of Mike Riley's teams. However his Arizona St. teams have been mostly mediocre and not until now in his fifth season do they finally appear to be breaking out. We'll just have to see how the rest of the season goes.