nother week, another comfortable win. Stanford more than doubled UCLA’s score on the Farm Friday night and improved to 2-0 in Pac-12 play.
Yet this is exactly how everything was supposed to go for the Card. Only the most ambitious and maverick prognosticators foresaw anything but a 4-0 overall record for the Cardinal through Week 5. Stanford’s competition in the first third of the regular season had almost as much to do with the likelihood that the team would go unscathed thus far as the roster’s talent did; none of the 4 losers is nationally ranked and only 1 (Duke, at 3-2) currently has a winning record. Stanford’s two away games to this point–at Arizona and at Duke–came before student-athletes had courses to keep up with and took place in environments that don’t hold a collective candle to the Autzens and Death Valleys of the world.
The joys and compelling components of Saturday’s win over the Bruins were largely metastatistical–and metaathletic. Andrew Luck called his own plays in no-huddle sequences, and the team gave the Wildcat formation a handful of tries. One Wildcat snap even resulted in a Tyler Gaffney rushing touchdown, his third of the young season. Andrew Luck caught a pass in absurdly athletic fashion and Stanford showed a flair for the creative and surprising that had been largely absent in the year’s first 3 games.
The superficial benefits of strategic variety are obvious. Most importantly, a team that can physically dominate the majority of its opponents gains yet another advantage by pulling the rug out from under defenses by calling whacky plays that require, say, the nation’s best passer to catch a pass. The shifts, bizarre formations and overall eccentric playcalling from 2010 is well documented; David Shaw now seems to be looking to put his own mark on offensive innovation with Stanford.
The extent to which trick plays and just plain old weird ones will be used in future games remains unclear. Shaw did say after the game that Luck will not be running routes again, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see #12 running the no-huddle offense many times between now and January. The luxury of a intellectually gifted quarterback allows Stanford to supplement its hard-hitting philosophy with faster play calls, which could turn run-of-the-mill victories into blowouts against good teams and be the difference between a win and a loss against the strongest teams, such as Oregon, still on the 2011 schedule. At the risk of shoveling even more hubristic praise toward Luck, it’s worth mentioning that he is now clearly operating at an NFL-caliber leadership and analysis role. No other university in America has the same behind center.
Most encouraging, though, was the attendance at Stanford Stadium. Last year’s attendance woes became a topic of national interest and threatened to keep the Card out of a BCS bowl game. On Saturday night, Stanford packed the house–if only for a portion of the game–and sold every ticket available. Selling out means higher revenues for the program (both in ticket sales and in merchandise and concessions), a more respectable image to project to the country and prospective football players, and a true home field advantage.
But it also makes going to games more fun. Anyone who has kept up with the program for even the last year will notice a marked improvement in the environment in and around Stanford Stadium on football Saturdays, and to all but the few players, coaches and administrators that spend their lives trying to win, the sort of camaraderie and innocent joy that’s beginning to be a part of the Stanford football fan experience is why anyone cares about sports in the first place.
Substantive football matters will come up more frequently and have more urgency as the season goes on. Stanford wasn’t in top shape against UCLA, but the team will still run away with all of its games at least until Washington comes to Stanford on October 22. There are real areas of concern for Stanford–namely in pass defense–but the exact nature of them will likely be difficult to assess until the Huskies, Trojans and Ducks come calling. Until then, there’s no shame in celebrating so simple a thing as a full stadium–a feat deemed virtually impossible less than a year ago.
(Headline image courtesy of kla467 on Flickr)