Thoughts on Arizona State vs. Stanford, winning ugly and winning championships

September 25, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 25, 2013

Stanford’s 42-28 home win over 23rd-ranked Arizona State on Saturday night left many Cardinal football fans with an unpleasant aftertaste.

The reason wasn’t the margin of victory — 14 points, the same as in Stanford’s 34-20 win the week before at Army — so much as it was the contrast between the home team’s play in the first and second halves. Specifically, the problem was how ragged the Cardinal looked during the final quarter, in which ASU strung together three straight touchdowns. Stanford had leaped out to a 29-0 lead after the opening half and a 39-7 advantage after 45 minutes. After three quarters, ASU was just 3-13 on third-down conversions, compared to 7-11 for Stanford, and had held the ball for a little more than 19 minutes.

The Sun Devils faced third down five times in the final period. They made three of them and converted on fourth down the other two times. ASU had 417 yards on offense for the game; a fairly astounding 195 of them came on their trio of fourth-quarter touchdown drives, per my count.

By contrast, the Cardinal had three possessions in the final quarter and punted on all of them. The first two of those Stanford drives were led by backup play-caller Evan Crower, who handed off six times for a net gain of 13 yards. The team’s final drive, led by starter Kevin Hogan, covered 40 yards and led to Jordan Williamson’s successful 24-yard kick; despite that, the hosts missed on all four of their third-down tries in the final stanza. Ultimately, 87 percent of Stanford’s offensive yards came over the first three-quarters of the game.

Understandably, the fourth quarter prompted great concern among the excellent KZSU student broadcast team and among Cardinal fans on Twitter. The student broadcasters and fans complained that Stanford head coach David Shaw had all but thrown in the towel by putting in second-stringers too soon.

Shaw addressed this issue at his postgame press conference. “First of all, I’m not going to apologize for winning a football game,” he said immediately after sitting down behind the microphone. “I could care less about style points; I could care less about what it looks like. We played one great half and a solid third quarter and a bad fourth quarter. That’s bottom line.”

I saw some complaints on Twitter that Shaw doesn’t own up to his mistakes. Frankly, the press conference gave ammunition to those who feel that way as well as to those more favorably inclined toward the coach.

First, for the critics. “Some of it was just the guys that were in the game,” Shaw said of the fourth-quarter quasi-meltdown. “We were out of position offensively, defensively. We didn’t make as many plays in the first half as we did in the second half.”

“The composure wasn’t the issue,” Shaw said later. “It was the technique. It was the specifics of our positions and our job. Guys doing their job, jamming receivers, guys staying in their lanes, safeties getting enough width on deep balls, you know, and let’s not take the offense off the hook.”

Here’s some material for Shaw sympathizers. When asked whether the Cardinal’s dominant first half led to some second-half complacency, the coach replied: “Absolutely. That’s human nature. That is the coach’s responsibility, to fight human nature. Human nature says we’re winning by a lot, let’s back off. I’ll take some heat, and I’m fine. I’ll take some heat for switching the quarterback.”

There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, college athletics — especially big-time college athletics — is an inherently exploitative situation. Many universities make a lot of money from football and men’s basketball. Many college coaches are very highly paid. College athletes, however, are minimally compensated; they receive a free education but otherwise very little in the way of tangible benefits. Coaches are tasked with preparing teams to play at the highest level. So for a coach to blame players smacks highly of the powerful pointing fingers at the not-so-powerful.

On the other hand, coaches don’t make tackles or carry the football. Isn’t it realistic for them to acknowledge that poor play by players affects the game?

KZSU broadcasters said that the mark of a good young coach isn’t that he never makes mistakes, but that he never makes the same mistake twice. Despite the remark cited above, Shaw really wasn’t interested in entertaining criticism that he inserted the backup, Crower, too soon; he offered a terse two-sentence response when specifically queried about that move.

Shaw also rejected the suggestion that he had put in subs at other positions too early. “It wasn’t substitution,” he said in his opening statement Saturday night. “We substituted minimally. Guys earned the right to play. We had guys that were out of position, and it wasn’t necessarily guys that we substituted.”

Maybe — probably, in retrospect — Shaw put in too many subs too soon. Maybe those players weren’t adequately prepared by coaches to play. Maybe a Stanford team of this caliber will never surrender three straight touchdowns again.

Maybe. But college football is a game of nearly constant turnover, as Shaw discussed during his press conference. “This is a junior-senior sport,” the coach said, referring to oft-recited wisdom by his football-coach father. “Sometimes you have [a] kid who is athletic and talented, [and] you get them in early. But most of them come into their own in junior and senior years.”

Like it or not, those juniors and seniors rarely come into their own without getting playing time when they’re underclassmen. And like it or not, time on the field for novices goes hand in hand with those young players being in position to excel — or to make mistakes.

Years ago, I read an anecdote about Pete Newell, the legendary California Golden Bears men’s basketball coach. I searched in vain for specifics on what happened, so I’ll have to rely on memory. The story I recall (bolstered by referring to Cal’s record book) is that Newell inserted substitutes late in the Dec. 12, 1958, game in which the Bears held a lead against a ranked Kansas State squad. The visiting Wildcats came back to tag the Bears with a 68-65 loss, one of only four Cal sustained that year.

Flash forward three months to see Cal matched up with ranked teams boasting two of the greatest players in college hoops history: Cincinnati, starring Oscar “The Big O” Robertson, and West Virginia, featuring Jerry West. Newell’s squad claimed twin victories — 64-58 over the Bearcats on March 20 and 71-70 over the Mountaineers the very next day — to earn the Bears’ lone national basketball championship.

Here’s the nut. Newell (if my mind isn’t playing tricks on me) said that the only reason the Bears were able to win the NCAA tournament is because his bench players got invaluable experience in that loss to Kansas State.

Either Shaw needs to learn from his mistakes or Stanford’s backups do; or, perhaps, both do. The Farm is overflowing with very smart and dedicated individuals, and the football team is no exception. I’m not a betting man, but my hunch is that that ugly fourth quarter against Arizona State is only going to help the Cardinal get better.

One Response to “Thoughts on Arizona State vs. Stanford, winning ugly and winning championships”

  1. Brendan Says:

    My issue with Shaw wasn’t so much putting in backups as it was going ultra-conservative way too early. He ran straight into a stacked defensive front 6 straight times and got no first downs. That resulted in the defense being on the field constantly. Predictably, the defense wore down.

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