We finally got Week 1 of college football, and it provided little relief to Pac-12 fans hungering for another season of football and the first year of a 12-team conference. Never mind that the NBA enjoyed one of its best seasons in years; never mind that until well after the All-Star break baseball had more teams vying for playoff spots than perhaps ever before; never mind that the NFL finally hammered out a new CBA and has put on the most accelerated pre-season process in the league’s history: it was time for Pac-12 pigskin, and the conference as a whole hardly answered the call.
And on the national scoreboard, Stanford seemed an exception to the overall underachievement up and down the West Coast, west to Hawaii (where Colorado lost to the Warriors) and east to Salt Lake City (where Utah had trouble defeating Montana State). The Card posted a 57-3 victory at home to start off the year, so everything must be a-okay on the Farm. Right?
Not so much. Fans and commentators have been rumbling since Saturday evening about Stanford’s shaky performance along the offensive line, which didn’t allow for a productive running game but did allow the Spartans to get into the Cardinal backfield on a number of passing plays. That a large portion of Stanford’s success came directly after SJSU’s 3 lost fumbles also didn’t assuage anxiety that the beginning of the David Shaw reign would not continue to improve upon the program that Jim Harbaugh built virtually from scratch and then left for greener pastures. (This would seem to be literally true on several counts. The NFL pays a lot more cash than even the most football-obsessed universities, and one would hope that the 49ers have a grounds crew capable of laying down sod no educational institution would think about purchasing on a regular basis.)
There are certainly facts to support fears that Stanford could be headed for a disappointing year, or at least needs to make significant improvements between now and Week 3, when the Card must travel to Tucson to take on Arizona in front of a national television audience. The running game failed to finish drives that would have been gimmes a year ago and averaged a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry on the afternoon. No running back looked particularly impressive or pulled off a game-breaking play. Stanford only converted 38% of its 3rd down conversion attempts against what is easily the worst team on the 2011 schedule. Chris Owusu might not be at full health yet.
But there’s always a bright side, and the one for Saturday’s game ought to outshine the criticisms. Stanford won by 54 points. Say what you will about how various units looked and how particular figures suggest trouble, but a team that wins by such a cartoonish margin has both won the day (ironic, given Oregon’s inability to fulfill their own slogan later on Saturday against LSU) and competed in a context where statistics mean very little. Against legitimately competitive competition and in a game decided by fewer points, the performance of the team would mean a lot more. But just as it would be ludicrous to critique the scratchwork on an exam that scores an A+, it would be silly to get wrapped up about the inadequacies of one of the day’s most clear-cut victors.
Several weeks from now, we will know if all the chinks in Stanford’s armor were strangely rendered reflections of the sun or harbingers of failures yet to come. If they are the latter, all the critics will be vindicated, and their early prognoses deserving of praise. And if those chinks disappear, well, there might be a spot for Stanford in New Orleans or Pasadena come January.
Next week will probably be no different, as Duke is both traditionally awful and the loser of their game against FCS team Richmond on Saturday. Arizona will be the first real test, and the first opportunity for the cynics to begin beating their chests.
Until then, remember that the margin was 54 points. That’s more than triple the number of points Stanford scored against Arizona State last season.
The Card won that game.
Stanford might have real problems, but maybe not. David Shaw and his staff members are the only people who have a good chance of knowing the truth. The rest of us, then, have the chance to emotionally feast on the pride of an excessive win over a local rival (albeit not a formidable one) and enjoy football’s return.