The biggest story from Saturday’s football game was not Andrew Luck’s impressive performance, the Cardinal’s offensive potency without Toby Gerhart, or whether Sacramento State had an opportunity to pull of a Jacksonville State-caliber upset on the Farm.
Instead, Stanford fans should be most concerned with the team’s troublesome performance when the Hornets had the ball.
Was the Cardinal defense horrible? No. Sacramento State mustered a pathetic 167 offensive yards in 57 plays, fumbled twice, and rushed for an average of 1.8 yards per carry. They scored 10 points on the Stanford defense, and all 10 of them came in the second half, when the game was ostensibly over and bench players began getting good playing time. Several true freshman saw action this weekend for Stanford. Still, a look around the PAC-10 reveals what may be Stanford’s biggest weakness coming into the season: shutting down opposing teams. Against other Big Sky competition (Sacramento State belongs to the conference), PAC-10 teams Cal and Arizona State allowed fewer points while scoring almost exactly the same number as Stanford did (Cal beat UC Davis 52-3; ASU beat Portland State 54-9). Arizona and Oregon both played teams that are significantly better than Sacramento State, and neither PAC-10 defense allowed a single offensive point (Oregon trampled New Mexico 72-0; Arizona beat Toledo 41-2). If the Cardinal let a mediocre FCS team put up 17 points, how many points will the Ducks score in Eugene when Stanford travels north?
Sacramento State’s other 7 points pose an even greater concern. In the Hornets’ only punt return, Kyle Monson took the ball 70 yards for a touchdown. In the postgame press conference, Jim Harbaugh called the coverage on the punt return a “snafu.” If it simply is a Week 1 snafu, then it shouldn’t be anything to worry about going into games against good opponents. However, fixing those kinds of errors will have a noticeable effect on the team’s record this year. In one of the country’s most athletic conferences, Stanford can’t afford to let punt returns go for touchdowns. And, to reiterate the point from earlier, if a 5’6″ Sacramento State punt returner can break tackles and take a punt into the endzone, what will players from Oregon and USC manage?
Other assorted thoughts from Saturday:
- The running game is uncertain, but it would be unfair to base any significant judgements on the season opener versus an irrelevant opponent. Stanford’s leading rusher only picked up 57 yards on 2 carries, and they were both quarterback scrambles (from the legs of back-up Alex Loukas). We’ll be able to say more about the running game after more competitive games, such as the game in two weeks against Wake Forest or perhaps as early as after Week 2′s trip to the Rose Bowl and UCLA.
- Andrew Luck was a beast: career-high 4 touchdowns, 17/23 for 316 yards. We have a Heisman contender on our hands here.
- The defense should improve when the Cardinal’s best linebacker, sophomore Shayne Skov, returns to the lineup. He was injured this week, although the team did not disclose the specific cause.
- Stanford plays on the road against a UCLA team fresh off a somewhat close loss at Kansas State in Week 1. UCLA just implemented the Pistol offense, which is unique in the PAC-10. Expect more on that in our weekly football preview, which will appear later this week.
- USC fans are much more concerned with their defense than are Stanford supporters. The Trojans let Hawaii score 36 points and the game was close until the 4th quarter. USC’s blue-chip athletes allowed more broken tackles and yards after contact than the storied program has in years, and Hawaii isn’t even a particularly high quality opponent. USC’s game next week against Virginia will say a lot about what kind of team we should expect from Heritage Hall this season.
Also keep an eye out for a new DailyAxe.com podcast that will premiere this week. Although we don’t want to tell you too much, it will be cool.