I woke up to a loud crack of thunder on Saturday morning. I could hear the rain tapping against the window as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and drew back the blinds in my friend's Hyde Park condo. I couldn't help but feel that there was something auspicious about the downpour on the other side of the glass. After all, the opening kick-off to Stanford's 2015 season was only a few hours away. Perhaps it was fitting that a team which has built its ethos on the back of the kind of football you expect to see in backyard mud bowls would be going punch-for-punch in the pouring rain. As I drove to Evanston, though, the rain gave way to a hot, muggy high noon in Chicago, and it only took a few series to realize that perhaps this was going to be more like escaping the fly-paper air than an afternoon of deadly flashes of brilliance.
It's been a strange business, being a fan of Stanford football over the last few years. Ever since Jim Harbaugh took off for greener pastures and Stanford golden boys like Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart moved forward to ply their trade in the NFL, each season has been preceded by both a feeling of gritty determination and a feeling of impending dread. On the one hand, there's this belief that seems woven into preseason media each year that Stanford will continue to prove that top-flight football can be sustained, despite the university's incredible academic demands. On the other hand, lurking more in the shadows, is an idea, no matter how many wins Stanford racks up, and no matter how much positive sentiment is heaped on the team and on its bold leader in this new era, David Shaw, that Stanford has begun an inexorable fall back into mediocrity, that the nearly mind-boggling rise to national acclaim and success achieved under Harbaugh is mere years away from being cast into the past, if it hasn't been already.
That's what makes days like this so difficult.
As I sat in the south end zone of Ryan Field, the sun and air weighing heavily on me as I watched the Cardinal offense flail about like a blind man who's lost his cane, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by that infamous sense of dread, that the sun was finally setting on a storied few years for Stanford Football.
Now, I do want to give credit to Pat Fitzgerald and his team. To use some very canned coach-speak, they came in with a game plan, and they executed to perfection. Against what is still a very tough Cardinal defense, Northwestern managed to find success to the tune of 16 points and a very big win to start the season, despite graduating a number of talented players, playing a new starting quarterback, and having the weight of Kain Colter's labor dispute still swirling around them. They adopted the spread, no-huddle offense that has become so very vogue over the past few years (thanks, Oregon), and it worked very well against a Cardinal defense that often seemed to lack to the speed and strength to contain it.
However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge just how much of a role Stanford played in its own defeat. For that, though, I'm still baffled. Even as I sit here typing, hours after the game ended, I still cannot decide whether Stanford's fatal flaw is startling inconsistency, or startling incompetence.
The Cardinal defense offer the best case for maddening inconsistency. If we put aside their complete inability to get after the quarterback, the Stanford defense still looks surprisingly formidable on a macro level. They play well in coverage, they clog running lanes well, and they pursue and tackle consistently, all things that make for great defenses. It's that level of play that makes it hard for me to understand how they can pass up so many opportunities. For example, off the top of my head, I can think of four moments in Saturday's game where a Stanford player had the opportunity to make an interception, only to drop the ball. I guess, as they say, that's why they're on defense and not on offense, but the potency of a defense can really be judged by how effective they are at creating turnovers, so I wouldn't call it misguided to worry about this. That said, they limited Northwestern to 12-22 on third downs, and gave up only 16 points in almost 32 minutes of defensive action. Ultimately, the lion's share of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of the offense, and that is where questions of incompetence really beg to be asked.
Late on in the game, I remember the players taking the field after receiving a punt, and I turned to my friend and said, half-jokingly, "I can almost guarantee you that they three-and-out this." As impressed as I should be with my skills at prognostication, I find it disturbing that they did exactly that. The Cardinal offense, which I swear was once capable of scoring touchdowns, has this now maddeningly inability to move the football, despite a plethora of talent to work with. When you have Christian McCaffrey, a great offensive line, and wide receivers like Devon Cajuste to play with, not to mention a refreshed lineup of giants at the tight end position, there really should be no excuse for three-and-outs. And yet I watched, as series after series ended this way. All told, Stanford had 11 offensive series in the game. Four ended in three-and-outs. I could run rail on that stat alone, but what I really want to show you is my favorite stat line of the whole game:
28:08 - 31:52
That was the time of possession comparison. Northwestern is on the right.
I don't often find myself at a loss for words, but, for the life of me, I cannot figure out how to explain that. Northwestern, operating a no-huddle, fast-paced, spread offense, out-possessed a Stanford team that purports to still run the same hard-nosed, Bo Schembechler/Jim Harbaugh ‘three yards and a cloud of dust' kind of offense that is supposed to eat the clock and suck the life force out of a team. Yet here they stand, controlling the ball almost four full minutes less than a team oriented around the idea of striking as quickly as possible.
It's shameful, and it speaks volumes about just what is wrong with this Stanford Cardinal team. You can point fingers at the defense if you want, but that would make you an idiot. You can ask a lot from a defense, but you just can't keep legs fresh when you hand them that kind of workload. It's truly a Sisyphean task given to this defense, only it's not the gods sending the boulder back to the bottom of the hill, but the astonishing incompetency of the Cardinal offense.
I thought long and hard about a more fitting word than incompetence, but I really don't see another fitting explanation. The basic numbers tell a good story: 3-15 (20%) conversion rate on third down. Two turnovers. Two illegal substitution penalties in the last four series of the game, both of which, directly or indirectly, led to failed third down conversions. Two dropped passes that had serious touchdown potential. This is pure, down-home, god's honest ineptitude on a system level.
On an individual level, it's hard not to call out Kevin Hogan. I really wanted to rally behind the guy, because I think he really struggled last year as a result of everything that was happening with his dad. Watching him on the field today, though, I couldn't help but be struck by just how out of his depth he looked. He didn't move well in the pocket, his accuracy was questionable at best, and he failed to make even some very basic pre-snap reads. He doesn't have to be Andrew Luck, but you wonder how he can look at nine men stacked in the box, with man-to-man coverage against 6-4, 4.6 40-yard running Devon Cajuste, and not at least consider checking into a deep play-action.
Fingers can certainly be pointed in other directions. I can talk about some rather egregious drops, or the incredible amount of uninspired play calling, but you, loyal readers, have likely figured this all out for yourselves. All I can tell you right now is that, on an afternoon that seemed ripe for possibilities, the Cardinal offense looked a little bit like it had never seen a football before.
The ultimate question I'm left with here is about identity. On this muggy Chicago day, Stanford was weighed, measured, and found wanting, not just by the fans, or the media, but by the hard-nosed identity that Stanford is trying to desperately to cling to.
I recently rewatched Jurassic Park, and I was struck by a bizarre parallel between the fantastical park and the story that unfolded before us all on Saturday. Just as John Hammond's team tried to resurrect dinosaurs from blood trapped in amber, Shaw and his team of football-scientists are desperately trying to recreate the success of a bygone era by extracting what they can from what is frozen in time and replacing the rest with frog DNA. The only problem here is that, in the words of the great Ian Malcolm, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they failed to consider whether or not they should. Stanford is, plain and simple, not built to be the rough-‘em-up team of old anymore. It's time to adapt or die, and right now Stanford seems to be doing a whole lot more dying than adapting.
Is it unfair for me to pass judgment like this so early? Perhaps. And I hold out optimism for the rest of the season, truly. A comfortable home opener next week could be exactly what the Cardinal need to find their form again. However, as I look over the Chicago sky line, reflecting on what I saw today, I can't help but be struck by the poeticism of the moment. I can't reach into the future and tell you all, dear readers, whether this is truly the end, but I can tell you that a new era is dawning for Stanford football. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, well, I suppose that remains to be seen. All I know is that I'm sitting here in Chicago watching the sun set on the West.