Jim Harbaugh refused to call them "bye weeks." Instead, they were always "improvement weeks."
That reminder is ever-present in the long red-and-white sign on the Stanford practice field that says, "You're either getting better or you're getting worse. You never stay the same."
Now that improvement week is over, Stanford travels north to Seattle to take on Washington in the Cardinal's first road test of the year. While the upset over USC did prove that that the Cardinal is not going to fade away from the spotlight in the post-Luck era, there still is ample room for improvement on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field.
1. The continued development of Josh Nunes. The redshirt senior has looked confident and capable at times (the second half against USC), but has also looked cluttered and inconsistent for stretches (the first half against USC). How will Nunes handle his first road start, playing at an NFL stadium in front of "The Blackout of the Century?" (It's okay, I laughed at that too.)
Nunes needs to continue to show that he has command of the offense and he must be able to step into his leadership role if the Cardinal finds itself trailing. That stadium can get loud if things don't go Stanford's way. Also, I'd like to see him improve his chemistry with Levine Toilolo on the fade routes that have now become a substantial part of the Stanford air attack. Surely it can't be that hard to complete a pass to a guy who is 6-foot-8.
2. Clock management, play-calling and chemistry: This week is a big test for Stanford's coaches to make sure they keep the team focused. They've obviously done a good job of preparing and putting the players in position to succeed during the first three weeks, but once again, a road trip is much different. After a big win over a highly-ranked team, any drop off in intensity the next week could spell disaster. (For example: In 2010, South Carolina beat No. 1 Alabama, then lost to Kentucky the next week. A Kentucky team that won two SEC games that year.)
The thing that concerns me the most through the first three weeks is the four delay of game penalties that have gone against the Cardinal - it's profoundly foolish to throw away five yard chunks (or timeouts) because you aren't paying attention to the clock. Ideally, that poor clock management that has showed up too often in the early going won't happen again this week, and there will be no self-inflicted bullets in feet.
3. Jordan Williamson: The kicker had a tough week last against USC with three missed field goals, including one that was blocked. Now, the Stanford coaches are having Williamson go through a pretty intense regimen in order to prepare him to, you know, make kicks. From Monday's press conference:
Jordan Williamson will be on the spot after missing three field-goal tries against USC, including one that was blocked. But Shaw reports his kicker has looked good since.
"The field goal is all about timing and technique," Shaw said. "When he's on, he's as good as anybody in the country. When he's not, then he's not. He knows that. It's all about consistency.
"He's coming off a great week of practice. We've just got to make sure it transfers to the game."
The team can't fully simulate a game situation in practice, but it can try. Williamson has kicked against a live rush and with a play clock running down. In addition, coaches have simulated timeouts, so that Williamson repeatedly had to leave the field and return, and recalibrate his step pattern.
Well, okay. Hopefully this does the trick and Williamson starts making kicks. Maybe the Cardinal coaching staff can just have him clench his left hand while he kicks?
4. The Stanford defense: Okay, so they don't really need to improve, but there's a different question facing the Cardinal. The run defense, pass defense and pass rush all functioned in perfect harmony against USC - can the defense now sustain its high level of play? Another good week will inspire a lot of confidence as the Cardinal heads into the heart of its schedule.
But let me suggest one area for improvement - perhaps a good way to add an X-factor to the defense lies in nickel cornerback Usua Amanam, who was favorably compared to (former) LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu this week. It's an interesting comparison, as Derek Mason has used Amanam as a weapon to attack offenses from his nickel position this season, racking up 17 tackles (second-most on the team), two sacks and four and a half tackles for loss.
While the Amanam-Mathieu overlap isn't entirely perfect - Mathieu is indeed a rare talent - Mason should review LSU's film and see if an expanded role for Amanam might be a good thing for an already-good defense. Like Stanford, the Tigers run a 3-4 defense, so perhaps there's a way for the Cardinal to spawn their own Honey Badger - without the herbal issues, of course.
Improvement week is over. Now it's time to see if it worked.