The headline, perhaps, strikes you as overly cynical, backhanded, or somehow insulting. It’s not meant that way. I mean it like this: relief. I mean it that way because of Maurice Jones-Drew taking bubble screen for 20 after bubble screen for 20—yes, the exact same play over and over again—to lead #5 UCLA back from 21 down, all while I knew down at the depths of my stomach that oh god oh god we’re going to lose and while in the center of my heart I hoped that we could somehow hold them off. And yet, after that disaster I somehow managed to keep some sort of faith in Stanford, only to have Brady Quinn execute a two-minute drill on is in the last game in old Stanford Stadium to dash my hopes once again.
There was still Stanford basketball! Except, of course, to losses to UC Irvine and Montana! (Never, ever try and tell me Trent Johnson is a good coach.) Bone-crushing loss to Louisville, a trainwreck I just couldn’t stop watching. And, of course, the coup de grace: the refs robbing us of our rightful share of the Pac-10 basketball championship last year. The block was clean. (Once again, never, ever try and tell me that was a foul.)
Now, I missed the miracles of Jim Harbaugh’s first year. I was in France, which was great—Paris, I mean. But still, USC and Cal wins—I listened to the latter on the KZSU internet feed in the early morning, it was so great—were huge. But I didn’t see Stanford football come through with my own eyes, so I didn’t believe. It’s generally true that there’s a disconnect between what you intellectually know and what you understand, i.e. understand not merely the facts but the emotions and the experience of the given phenomenon. So I knew in theory that Stanford football had changed its ways but I didn’t know in fact that it had.
Yesterday’s Arizona game provided dramatic confirmation that Stanford is a different team now. It would be easy to excuse losing when your team is down to its third-string quarterback, particularly when said third-string quarterback could not beat a mediocre first-string quarterback. But the team did not quit; it rose to the occasion. It would be easy for the defense to fold when confronted with the number of turnovers the offense made; instead, the defense held Arizona to critical field goals. It’s always tough to definitively identify great coaching. It’s hard to separate the players from the guy who supposedly directs them. Does Phil Jackson have 9 championships because he’s great, or does he have 9 championships because he coached Jordan, Pippen, Bryant and O’Neal? Probably a little of both, right? Well, Stanford has great coaching. I don’t just mean Jim Harbaugh, though he deserves the lion’s share of the credit; I’m talking about Chris Dalman turning the offensive line from an embarrassment to one of the best offensive lines in the Pac-10, for instance. Or I’m talking about the greatly improved state of the special teams. The defense is better. The team is better using the same players Walt Harris couldn’t do anything with. So that’s the coaching, but it’s also the players, for their hard work and determination.
That said, against Arizona, we also benefited as much from the Stanford staff’s good coaching as the Arizona staff’s bad coaching. For instance. If you have a 6’6” 250 tight end, a guy who, when you finally decided to pass to him, was so hard to tackle that the first tackler simply slid off of him, and, if you have trouble scoring in the red zone, would it not make sense to pass to him in the red zone? I’m just saying, guys, think about it.
That said, whatever you can say about Rick Neuheisel—and it’s been said, though the NCAA bracket gambling thing is yet another instance of the NCAA’s bureaucratic octopus sticking its tentacles into every place it doesn’t belong—he is not a bad coach. Nor can you say that about Norm Chow, or DeWayne Walker. Fortunately, we’re dealing with a third-string QB who does not look nearly so poised as Alex Loukas. Unfortunately, we are apparently dealing with one of the most fearsome pair of defensive tackles in the Pac-10. However, the statistics don’t bear it out—171 rush yards/game—so I feel confident in Gerhardt’s and Kimble’s ability to run over the UCLA defense. Pritchard will be back, and he’s been looking better the last few weeks, and rotating Loukas in will provide some added wrinkles. UCLA will be good. Just not yet. Stanford 28 UCLA 20.