Welcome to another spring fish wrap. A break from expansion talk – finally – as we take a look at opponent number eight of the Cougs’ 2010 season, the Smilin’ Harbaugh’s from Palo Alto. How do the Cardinal look after a big breakthrough 2009 season? Was last year’s success only the beginning, or are they due for a cooling-off period in ’10? Let’s take a look…..
2006 seems like so long ago, doesn’t it? At the time, the Cardinal were widely considered one of the worst Pac-10 teams of the modern era, laying down a 1-11 egg and looking awful in the process. They had an 11-game losing streak dating back to 2005, worst stretch for the program since 1959-60. They were outgained by an average of 168 yards per game, hands down the worst in the conference. Hard to believe that just three short years later, they would be a physical, successful eight-win program??
It’s not hard to see the primary reason for the turnaround:
Jim Harbaugh has brought them out of the fog and into relevancy, and the rapid success is pretty stunning when you think about it. Again, that ’06 team was awful (but now that we’ve seen ’08 UW, ’08 WSU and well, ’09 WSU, maybe Stanford ’06 wasn’t all THAT bad??). But Harbaugh has brought something special to the program. His approach is this – Stanford shall bow to no one, not even the sacred superpower in SC, and that they will recruit with and play with any program in the country – PERIOD. He has made them all believe in what he’s selling, and has completely flipped a culture of losing in amazing style.
2009: After showing some steady improvement in the prior two years of the Harbaugh era, the Cardinal finally kicked down the post-season door last year, storming to eight wins and an impressive 6-3 record in the Pac-10. They bagged some big ones along the way, beating Oregon, USC and Notre Dame last year. They did have a tough loss in the Sun Bowl, falling to Oklahoma 31-27. Stanford was without QB Andrew Luck in that game, as he broke a finger vs. Notre Dame, and they sputtered offensively for much of the second half. Overall they were outgained 477-262, as Oklahoma pulled away late.
The Cougs did make it somewhat interesting, cutting the lead to 22-10 in the third quarter, but a kickoff return for a TD by Chris Owusu would push the lead to 29-10, and it was pretty much done at that point.
FANS ARE: What do you think?? Wouldn’t you be flippin’ THRILLED right now if you were in Cardinal shoes?? Thrilled might be an understatement…..but maybe, just maybe, a wee bit nervous about their charismatic, successful coach eyeing “greener pastures”? Last year the rumor mill was churning out a few whoppers, including Harbaugh to….Kansas?
Much was made about the pic of Harbaugh rocking the KU pullover while embracing his sweetie. Turns out that Harbaugh’s significant other is from KC, so there you go. Anyway, it was much ado about nothing as Harbaugh officially signed a three-year contract extension, keeping him in Palo Alto until at least 2014.
But it’s the nature of the beast folks. Young, successful coaches from non-traditional NCAA superpowers are going to be desired by many who seek out their next program savior, and Harbaugh’s name is going to be at the top of the list of every athletic director in the country.
Trust us on this one, coming from a WSU point-of-view…..
’09 OFFENSIVE RATINGS: #11 in the nation and 2nd in the conference in scoring offense, averaging 35.5 points per game. They were #2 in the Pac and #11 in rushing offense too, averaging 218.2 yards per game (not a surprise, given Toby Gerhart’s presence in the backfield). But the passing offense sputtered a bit, at 209.4 yards per game (8th in the conference, #70 in the country). But overall, Stanford was the number one offense in the conference, averaging 427.6 yards per game.
OFFENSIVE SYSTEM: They are best classified as a west coast offense type of scheme, with a running back, fullback, tight end and two wide receivers among the starting skill guys.
2010 RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS: While they do lose Toby Gerhart, Stanford still brings back eight starters on offense.
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: With Gerhart gone, this one’s easy. QB Andrew Luck is the choice.
Luck was a highly touted recruit from Texas back in ’07, regarded as a top-ten QB nationally by all the recruiting services and a huge “get” for Captain Comeback. After a redshirt season in ’08, Luck didn’t disappoint, throwing for 2,575 yards and an extremely efficient 13-4 TD to INT ratio. To think that a redshirt frosh QB would only throw four INT’s on 288 passing attempts is absolutely remarkable, and you can see why NFL scouts are so gaga for Luck. Heck, Mel Kiper already has Luck as a serious threat to be the top pick in the NFL draft next year, right there with Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett of Arkansas as the top QB prospects in the college game! Luck led the Pac-10 in passing efficiency, and even ran for 354 yards, showing excellent mobility for a guy who is 6-4, 234. He looks great on tape too:
Great arm, size, excellent feet, he’s pretty much everything. With Gerhart gone, and with a full stable of receivers coming back in ’10, it isn’t hard to project over 3,000 yards and TD passes well into the 20’s before it’s all said and done. But Stanford fans may want to enjoy him while they can, because this could be it for the third-year sophomore.
’09 DEFENSIVE RATINGS: #69 in the country and 8th in the conference in scoring D, at 26.5 ppg allowed. OK against the run, #55 in the country and 7th in the conference at 137.9 yards per game on the ground. But it was a struggle through the air, #110 in the nation and 8th in the conference at 264.8 yards per game in the air. Overall, the total defense numbers weren’t great either – #90 in the nation, and 9th in the conference with 402.7 yards per game. Ouch.
DEFENSIVE SCHEME: After struggling so badly on D last year, Harbaugh shook things up. Stanford will make big changes this year, going to a 3-4 defense with new d-coordinator Vic Fangio among five new assistants. Fangio has a ton of NFL experience, 24 years in the league and his last gig was the linebackers coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Needless to say, the guy knows a little something about the 3-4!
2010 DEFENSIVE RETURNING STARTERS: Seven starters return on D.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: While safety Delano Howell returns as the number two tackler on the team, and should be an all-conference candidate, the top player on D for 2010 has to be junior linebacker Thomas Keiser.
Keiser is well put-together at 6-5, 249, and he led the Cardinal D in tackles for loss (15) and sacks (nine). Keiser was first-team All-Pac-10 last year, and was a headache rushing the passer from the outside. However, last year Keiser had his hand down as a defensive end. This year, Keiser moves to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme. But they will still cut him loose on the outside, and he should be one of the top pass rushers in the Pac-10 for 2010.
TOP THREE POST-SPRING QUESTIONS:
1) WILL 2010 BE A TOBY TERRIFIC HANGOVER? Let’s face it, Toby Gerhart was really, really special last year. 1871 rushing yards, 28 TD’s, and nearly won the Heisman fergawdsakes. You just don’t know what will happen without big #7 sledgehammering his way through Pac-10 defenses on a weekly basis. And it’s hard to know what they’ll get from the projected senior starter as Gerhart’s replacement, Jeremy Stewart. Stewart did have 303 yards rushing last year, on 5.4 yards per carry, but he’s not exactly Gerhart.
But there is hope. Obviously Luck is big-time, and has some good tools to work with. And he’ll have a lot of help, as six of the top eight pass-catchers from 2009 back in ’10. But maybe the biggest reason for optimism on offense is the offensive line. Stanford allowed just seven sacks – ALL YEAR – last season, and they were regarded as one of the top offensive lines in the country. They lose just one starter from up front, and are led by all-conference candidates in Bellevue’s David DeCastro at guard and tackle Jonathan Martin. While Gerhart is a big loss, well, it’s hard to imagine a team better equipped to handle the loss of a superstar like Stanford!
2) IS THERE REALLY HOPE THE DEFENSE WILL BE BETTER? Sure. I mean they are coming off a year in which they were 90th in the nation, so there is nowhere to go but up. But the new 3-4 scheme should be something to watch, but then again, there could be a real transition period. Keiser of course moves to outside linebacker, and there could be some early struggles to pick things up. But on the other side of Keiser will be another converted player, as defensive end Chase Thomas from last year moves to outside linebacker as well. They are also moving some guys around, as fullback Owen Marecic will play some inside linebacker. But there is some good news – Shayne Skov is back at inside linebacker after a breakthrough frosh season last year (62 tackles as a true frosh).
Skov is a real darkhorse all-conference candidate for 2010 and is definitely a guy to watch in this new 3-4 attack.
3) AND THE SCHEDULE? Dicey. Six home, six away, and the start looks tough. After a tuneup game vs. Sac State on 9/4, they go to UCLA to open Pac-10 play. They get Wake Forest at home, looking for revenge after a weird loss to the Demon Decons last year, where they had a big lead get away from them late in a 24-17 loss. But then they go to Notre Dame and to Oregon over the next two weeks, before hosting SC on 10/9! Phil Steele ranks Stanford’s schedule the 34th most difficult in the country, but those first six games are going to a long way to how things play out in ’10.
WSU FB SEZ DOT-DOT-DOT…..So much has changed since ’06, but one of the biggest things is how strong Stanford has become at home. Stanford is now 10-2 the last two seasons in front of the home crowd, losing just one home game in each of the last two years. They have beaten some good ones at home too in that span, including Oregon State and Arizona in ’08, and UW, UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame in ’09…..While everything is lining up for Stanford to have a winning season, the very idea of consecutive winning seasons is pretty foreign to the Cardinal faithful. Stanford hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons in 15 years (’95-’96)…..Stanford’s been a tough opponent for the Cougs under Paul Wulff. The Cardinal have outscored WSU 97-13 the last two years, including a nightmare 58-0 loss the last time the Cougs traveled to Palo Alto……One thing you have to give credit to Harbaugh has been his approach to SC. Of course, they shocked the world when they beat SC in ’07, regarded as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport when they won 24-23 in LA as a 41-point underdog! But overall, Harbaugh finished with a 2-1 record over Pete Carroll, which includes a humiliating 55-21 win in LA last season. The 55 points allowed by SC was the most points allowed in school history…..Recruiting has been fantastic under Harbaugh, and they are out in front of the game this year with the early commits. Stanford already has 18 verbal commits, none worse than the 3-star variety, and they are from all over the country, including California and Washington in the west to across the country in states like Texas, Oklahoma, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Stanford has finished 24th or better nationally the last two years (24th in 2010, 15th in 2009). Not only is Harbaugh delivering a strong pitch, but it’s well-received across the country. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have that Ivy League of the west-style education in your arsenal when you walk into living rooms from coast to coast, but still, Harbaugh’s pitch has to be as good as any recruiter in the country.
For more 2010 spring fish wraps, profiling the 2010 opponents on the WSU schedule, check out this link.
All for now. Enjoy your day, and GO COUGS!