Saturday, December 3, 2011

Stanford vs Notre Dame

With a week off for Thanksgiving, I racked up the air miles by heading to New York to catch the men’s basketball team in action at Madison Square Garden. Having never been to the famed MSG, I planned a trip to New York even before the team clinched a semi-finals appearance. Luckily, they came through even though it looked pretty dicey in the early going against Colorado State. It was fun trip to the East Coast. I landed in Newark on Sunday night, visited Yale on Monday, Harvard on Tuesday and stayed in New York for the rest of the week.

Alex heard about a pre-game chalk talk an hour before it started and my friend’s place which was a couple of blocks from MSG came in handy. Coach Payne talked about the game plan and answered a few questions while we feasted on chicken tenders and an open bar. After a back and forth first 15 min, we pulled away against an up-tempo OK State team and the game was never really in doubt in the second half. Unfortunately, I was only able to watch the 3rd/4th consolation game between Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech as I had to catch a flight back for the Notre Dame game and didn’t want to risk leaving on Saturday morning and running into delays. I ran into Robbie Lemon’s mum at a sportsbar in the airport who corrected my guess of 35 points/game during his senior year of high school (it was 37 ppg). Wearing my Stanford basketball #15 jersey, I caught the Stanford-Syracuse game on my JetBlue flight. It was a shame we couldn’t hold on but I think it’ll be a good learning experience for the team. I got into San Jose a good 45 min ahead of schedule and crashed at a friend’s place for the night.

After a delicious lunch, we headed to campus and got to Chuck Taylor’s Grove in time for the walk. CTG felt much quieter than the previous week but I guess it was the Thanksgiving + Cal factor. Speaking of which, I heard that the area was trashed by some Cal students last week and security was needed. The walk didn’t feel particularly different from other walks. Luck and Martin led the way and a couple of guys were donning “My Last Walk” shirts. After Albert put the finishing touches on some deep fried turkey, we headed into the stadium. By finishing in the top 8 of a Stanford Fan of the Season essay competition (you can read the entry in the previous post), we won pre-game field passes and were recognized during head time.

Being on the field during warm-ups and the honoring of the seniors was an absolutely amazing experience. Coach Shaw seemed tremendously relaxed as he strode on the field and it was cool to see the O-linemen warm up right in front of us. They were big and a couple of guys really went at it with each other. The honoring of the seniors before the team took the field was a nice touch by Shaw and well received by some of the seniors as evident by their comments after the game. We also got the chance to chat with some of the other winners who were equally excited at the privilege of being up close. It was great to see the Helmet Head guy (Greg) who sat a couple of rows in front of us at the Orange Bowl last year again. Apparently, that was the day that his look was first created.

With 7 minutes to go before half time, we were told to meet outside the stadium by the entrance to the field. That unfortunately meant missing a good part of the drive which resulted in Luck’s record breaking TD to Fleener but we figured out what was going on by the roar in the stadium. Ironically, that’s the only 2 minutes out of Luck’s entire career that I’ve missed. We entered the stadium in time for the ensuing kickoff and had a great sideline view of the action. I was able to see Corey Gatewood’s pick up close as well as the 2 minute drill that Luck ran to perfection. On one of the 3rd down conversions, Montgomery ran out of bounds right by us and it definitely made me appreciate game speed a lot more. Ex-Olinemen James McGillicuddy, Chase Beeler and Allen Smith were all hanging out on the sidelines and I snapped a picture of Greg with Cuddy or rather Cuddy with Greg who was quite the fan favorite. At half time, we walked to the center of the field where clumps of turf seemed to materialize from nowhere. Against Notre Dame, the field was an extra defender so I can’t really complain.

We didn’t put the game away until the play-action TD from Luck to Fleener in the fourth quarter but our defense really held up and we got some pressure on the QB which seemed missing in our past few games. We were surprisingly conservative with our play calling in the 2nd half but if the goal was to win the game rather than pad Luck’s Heisman stats, I can see merit to running the ball since interceptions for big returns have been a problem these past few weeks and it seemed like that was the only way for Notre Dame to come back into the game. It also set up play action which we pulled off to perfection. My other observation was that I think the coaches dialed up the aggression on the last defensive series to increase our chances of taking a knee to end the game (either by forcing a turnover or giving up a TD). I guess we’ll never know if that was their intention but it was a nice move to have Owusu on the field for the last play.

What a season! It looks like we’re heading for a 2nd consecutive BCS bowl if nothing too crazy happens. Albert and I have our reservations for the Fiesta Bowl set and some contingencies in place for the Sugar Bowl. Fiesta against a Big 12 champion would be a lot less expensive but New Year’s in New Orleans would be quite the experience and frankly, I don’t care about the cost or preference of other Stanford fans. There were tons of folks who grumbled last year when we ended up in the Orange Bowl instead of the Fiesta Bowl but I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. Besides, I would travel anywhere to catch Andrew Luck’s last game in a Stanford uniform!

P.S.: If anyone has a DVD of the Stanford-Notre Dame game, please let me know. I was unable to record it because I left home too far in advance and I still haven’t seen those two minutes I missed in their entirety.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fan of the Season Entry

30 games and counting

Since Stanford played Arizona State at home on 10/24/2009, my friend Albert Thomas and I have not missed a single Stanford football game. In this streak of 30 consecutive games, we’ve logged thousands of miles and countless hours on the road, and have been fortunate enough to witness one of the greatest stretches in Stanford football history. It all started when we were seniors (Class of 2008) and attended 166 Stanford sporting events. However, in a season where Stanford basketball reached the Sweet 16, it was not a basketball game that stood out. Despite going through 3 football coaches in our 4 years on the Farm, we believed in Stanford football and made that 5 hour drive down to the Coliseum to see Stanford play #2 ranked USC. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to a couple of years after graduation and with a little more discretionary income at our disposal, Albert and I decided that we wanted to visit every single Pac-10 stadium. That is how the streak began. Fittingly enough, the first road trip was to a place where we harbored our fondest memories and once again, we triumphantly strode out of the Coliseum after a 55-21 victory. We followed that up with El Paso, Pasadena, South Bend, Eugene, Seattle, Tempe, Berkeley, Miami, Durham, Tucson, Pullman, Los Angeles again where we are now 3-0, and last but not least Corvallis. With the formation of the Pac-12, Boulder and Salt Lake City are up next.

This season has been a little more trying on my bank account as I’ve relocated to Las Vegas from the Bay Area but that was never going to get in the way of our travels which we’ve chronicled in our blog: Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Life is a journey, not a destination”. This journey has been one hell of a ride. The team has gone 26-4 in those 30 games, beaten every Pac-10 team at least once, owned the nation’s longest active winning streak and won a BCS bowl. We’ve seen the country and met alums as passionate as us from classes that span multiple decades whom we would have otherwise never met. Stanford football has brought us together but these friendships go beyond the score of a football game. They will last a lifetime.

As many players from the recruiting Class of 2008 – guys who committed when we were seniors and represented the future of Stanford football – make their last walk and play their last game in Stanford stadium, it would be an absolute honor to be on the sidelines because our journey would not be as meaningful without the hard work and dedication of the student athletes. And it was this recruiting class in particular that took a leap of faith which contributed to the football program’s turnaround. For that, we are eternally grateful. Go Card! Beat the Irish!

Big Game

Far removed from the Bay Area and nursing a slight hangover from the Oregon game, Big Game crept up on me. Before I knew it, it was late in the week and the realization that Big Game was here finally dawned on me. It would be the last for many of the seniors in the recruiting class of 2008 whom I’m sure still had the bitter taste of the 2009 Big Game in their mouths. Not one to break from tradition, I had my Cal Sucks T-shirt on all day Friday as I’ve done every year since graduation. With forecasts of rain on Friday night, I anticipated delays getting into SFO but fortunately, we were only held up for half an hour. Unfortunately, I missed the dramatic Oklahoma State – Iowa State finish which was the first act of the craziness that was about to ensue during the weekend, but I was made well aware of it the moment I turned on my cell phone upon landing. I was picked up by some former colleagues who gave me a full recap and we headed to a poker home game.

I crashed with a friend pretty close to campus and was up bright and early on Saturday morning in time to catch the tail-end of College Game Day where Corso said “Fuck it” on national TV as he threw away the Mustang prop he was hoisting around and donned a Cougar head while Fowler and Herbstreit looked on in bemused disbelief. I found the ensuing contrite apology 20 minutes later equally amusing: With choices of Wisconsin-Illinois and Michigan-Nebraska, I was probably the only person on the West Coast tuned in to Georgia-Kentucky as I had placed a $500 pre-season bet on Georgia to win the SEC East at 3-1. Georgia had a favorable schedule – avoiding Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, and playing South Carolina at home and the worst SEC teams on the road. They were also being offered at 2-1 or worse in most places. After their close loss to South Carolina at the start of the season, things looked pretty bleak but I got extremely lucky and had it seemingly in the bag as they were in position to clinch it as 30 point favorites at home to Kentucky. The game was excruciating as Georgia was completely inept on offense – turning the ball over and settling for 4 field goals to lead 12-10 at the half despite their defense repeatedly getting them the ball in great field position. Thankfully, Kentucky’s offense was equally bad but I didn’t feel comfortable until Georgia opened up a 19-10 lead at the beginning of the 4th quarter. My other big championship bet for the season (besides Stanford to win it all at 29-1) was $250 on Ohio to win the MAC at 7-1. They were 2-1 to win the MAC East at most books and so I saw some value. I wrote the bet off after they dropped two conference games but they’ve somehow managed to win the MAC East in spite of that. They’ve also won multiple games that could have gone either way. Ideally, they’ll play Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game as 3 point underdogs. I could roll the dice but will probably end up fully hedging the bet. After watching them for several weeks, I don’t think they’re that good and they have definitely gotten their fair share of kind bounces. Or maybe it’s those black jerseys:

I got a late start to tailgating as we met up with a mutual friend for coffee on University Avenue and got to Lot 2 just in time to see the band in the middle of a rally. By the time I got to Chuck Taylor’s Grove, the Walk was over but it was jam-packed with people. There were folks who had just come to tailgate and weren’t even going to the game. I caught the end of the first half of the Oregon-SC game where I was firmly rooting for USC. Back door our way to the Rose Bowl and play some uninspiring Big 10 competition? I think I’ll pass and take a shot at a Big 12 team in the Fiesta Bowl. The overall atmosphere was tremendous and I met a couple more young alumni by Gate 13 in Lot 2. Despite the late start and weather, Big Game definitely brought a large crowd out – even if they were in the concourse for the majority of the game. It’s a great spot to watch a football game and I did it myself the last time it poured at a home game (Wazzu in 2008) when I was ill-prepared. This time I came better equipped with my therma-fit Pro Combat Luck hoodie which did a decent job of keeping me dry.

Outside of the opening drive, I thought our offensive game plan was somewhat curious for the first few drives as we barely ran the ball and it seemed that because of Cal’s run defense, we had given up on the run without even trying and were trying to use the pass to set up the run. The worst part was outside of a couple of play action passes out of the I formation, there were a lot of 4 wide sets with short patterns that telegraphed what we were doing and had the upside of a run in terms of yards gained. We were fortunate to keep it close in the first half thanks to Tedford’s trademark conservative play of kicking field goals when facing 4th and 2 deep in our territory. The difference between Chip Kelly and him is night and day. My favorite Tedford moment is when he centered the ball on 3rd and goal for a field goal with a 3 point lead during the last Big Game at Stanford, giving us the opportunity to drive down for a win if not for poor play calling at the end of the game. Sign the man up for a lifetime contract! In the second half, we ran the ball more which opened up passes to Hewitt who was absolutely money. Luck also finally got in rhythm and hit some long passes to the tight ends and while the game got pretty dicey at the end, Williamson was absolutely clutch when we needed him to be. Kudos to him for fighting through his injuries as well as Corey Gatewood stepping up at corner.

In a weekend of crazy upsets where the odds of Oklahoma St, Oregon and Oklahoma losing was 0.12%, gutting out a 3 point Big Game victory in the rain was huge. While the pundits have basically written off Stanford’s chances of playing in the National Championship game, the odds of Stanford beating Notre Dame, LSU beating Arkansas, Auburn beating Alabama, Oklahoma beating Oklahoma State and either Virginia or Clemson beating Virginia Tech are 1.4% which while tiny, are 10 times more likely than what happened this past weekend. At the very least, Stanford is almost guaranteed a BCS bowl game with a win over the Irish on Saturday. Hopefully the weather will be nicer and the uniforms bring out the best in them. It will be interesting to see if Shaw honors the seniors in front of the fans before the game. I have no inside knowledge but I’d lean towards yes given what I’ve seen out of Shaw so far. In the meantime, I’m off to New York to catch the pre-season NIT at Madison Square Garden featuring Syracuse, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and Stanford, which might as well serve as a BCS tiebreaker!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Stanford vs Oregon

After 9 weeks of build up, it was finally here: 9-0 Stanford vs 8-1 Oregon. It doesn’t get any better than that! The trip got off to a shaky start when my 7:30pm flight on Friday got pushed back to 8pm. With the possibility of further delays, I considered flying in to San Jose but didn’t feel that it was worth it given that I had someone picking me up from SFO. I settled into conversation with a fellow alum when the Southwest attendant announced that there was some bad news. Before she could finish her sentence, I bolted out of my seat and was second in a long line of passengers who didn’t want to wait for our new departure time of 11pm. The San Jose flight had just left and the next flight to Oakland was in 15 minutes. With the prospect of not making it out to SFO that night and missing College Game Day, I half sprinted, half jogged to the other terminal. Boy am I out of shape!

Luckily, everything went pretty smoothly from then on and I even managed to get a friend to pick me up from the Oakland airport. While waiting, I was approached by an alum who was picking up his son and instantly knew what my allegiances were from my Shayne Skov 11 for 11 shirt. On the way to campus, we stopped at the Fed Ex along California Avenue and bumped into than Ty Montgomery’s mum whom I’d met at the Stanford Scrimmage 3 months ago. One of his teachers was in tow as they printed out several signs for Game Day. I congratulated her on Ty’s success and upcoming first career start at WR and also let her know what a great gunner he was as she explained his special teams role to some other fans. Unfortunately, I forgot to compliment her on her role in The Program:

After that short detour, it was off to campus where we parked in the new GSB parking lot which was much closer to the stadium than the usual Wilbur spot. We decided to swing by the Oval to do some scouting of the Game Day set up. With sleeping bag in tow, we expected to be warned that we couldn’t camp out as stated in several university press releases but the security guards didn’t mention a thing and let us scope out our desired spot. It was then off to the RV where Albert had expanded the sleeping quarters to fit 7 but with the amount of adrenaline I had and an early wake up call to boot, there was no way I was going to be able to sleep. Instead, I met up with another friend who was coming for Game Day and we walked around the campus and made a stop at the Oval where a handful of people were in line – the first person being a UCLA fan. An hour later we were back with reinforcements. It was about 3:30am and there were about 50 people there. The first sign of note unfortunately did not make it past the sign Nazis.

It was a little after 4am when they started letting people into the Pit – the area directly behind the stage where the Game Day guys were – but not after a strict search to make sure they weren’t carrying any contraband items like markers to write offensive signs. We opted to be off to the side in front of the side stage and video screen thanks to the advice of the following blog post: The preparation came in handy as it meant no waiting in line or being searched and ample TV time, especially on ESPNU. In retrospect, we could probably have shown up at 5:30 and gotten the same spot. By the time it was 6am, a sizable crowd had formed. It was hard to tell from our vantage point how many people there were but it felt respectable especially after an ESPN article the day before predicted the smallest College Game Day turn out ever. As I’m sure was its intention, the article galvanized the student body which to be fair, has only 6,200 undergrads to work with. Chris Fowler thanked the crowd for showing up very genuinely and implored us to stay classy when they talked about Penn State. I was pleasantly surprised that it was heeded given the tremendous amount of time devoted to the matter. To be perfectly honest, most of College Game Day was a blur. Coach Shaw came on in a nice Stanford Football leather coat to chants of “Shaw has swag”; Plunkett was well received although it was obvious that he had not done much prep on the teams he was picking but ended up getting them mostly right; Erin Andrews was amused by a sign that mistakenly called Kirk Herbstreit “Curt”; Shayne Skov posted a picture of my favorite sign on twitter (the one to the right of it is pretty good too); and we caught a glimpse of both the BCS Championship trophy and the Pac-12 championship trophy.

After Game Day ended, it was time for a nap but even in my sleep deprived state, the most I could muster was an hour. I got up feeling great. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. While at Chuck Taylor’s Grove, I got pulled aside by a CNN reporter who tried to bait me with the “Is Stanford’s recent success a result of relaxed admission standards” question. If he was hoping that I would give him something juicy, he picked the wrong guy. After I bored him with Stanford’s new approach to recruiting under Harbaugh –encouraging underclassmen in high school to take AP classes if they were serious about Stanford and the resulting signaling effect of how serious they were that told us if we should devote more resources to recruiting them – my buddy knocked his next question out of the park by talking about how Stanford football brings people together and creates a community of both alums and non-alums. I’m guessing we won’t make it to TV since we didn’t admit to writing papers for football players. Just like College Game Day, the pre-game festivities were a blur too as I met several friends and some people who I hadn’t seen in ages.
It was beautiful night in Stanford stadium and the electricity was palpable. I was fortunate to sit next to my economic honors thesis advisor who I could discuss the strategic aspect of football with while yelling my head off. The game itself was of course disappointing. We were out-coached and out executed. Oregon was the superior team and had the better game plan. Our play calling was predictably bad and it felt like we had more drops in this one game than all the other games this season combined. Even if we had brought our A game in terms of execution, it would have been a coin flip. When we beat Oregon 2 years ago, we played what felt like the perfect game. We needed something like that to win and even then, the coaches might have given it away. I honestly thought that they had a plan for this game and that a lot of the earlier stuff they had shown this season was misdirection. I guess I gave them too much credit or perhaps the injury to Ertz was a lot more impactful than realized. In any case, we were beaten convincingly and you can’t play the what-if game after being beaten so thoroughly, especially when every break and call seemed to go our way.

After I good night’s rest, I felt refreshed and it was nice to see the 49ers win a big game against the Giants. With extra credit freed up by cancelled Southwest flights and inspired by a friend who is a huge Packers fan (he’s from Milwaukee), I decided that a Packers-49ers NFC championship game would be a fitting first NFL game for me to attend in person. On my flight home, a stewardess stowed a walking stick in the compartment above me right before we took off and warned us to be careful when we opened it. Of course, no one else paid any attention and when the clueless guy in front of me opened it when we landed, the walking stick came hurtling down towards my head. Crisis was adverted when I grabbed it in the nick of time and after he recovered from the shock, he said “Nice catch”. If only I could say the same thing to our receivers.

Thanks to Boise’s loss, we are still very much in the BCS Bowl conversation and to tell you the truth, if we can’t play in New Orleans, I’d rather play Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl than a Big-10 team in the Rose Bowl. Not only do I think we have a better shot at beating Oklahoma than Wisconsin (irrespective of what the spread will be), we have much more to gain and less to lose by playing Oklahoma than a Big-10 team. But now, there’s absolutely no more margin for error. Big Game will be a bigger challenge than previously thought now that Cal has some momentum and Notre Dame was always going to be tough. We’ll need to play our A game from here on out.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Post #100 - The Game We Have Been Waiting For

Reser stadium capped off our journey to all the Pac-10 stadiums. That was our main goal when we started our endeavor to travel to away football games and we’ve been fortunate enough to witness a tremendous resurgence in Stanford football. Would we have continued going to game after game if the team was more reminiscent of those when we were back in college? I’d like to say yes but winning definitely has made these road trips easier. With 28 consecutive Stanford games under our belt, it feels like we’ve come full circle as the Oregon game approaches. Game #2 of our streak was the last time we beat Oregon and that stretch of games – beating a highly ranked Oregon at home, demolishing USC on the road, losing to Cal (boy that one hurt), beating Notre Dame at home and losing narrowly to Oklahoma without Luck in our first Bowl game in 8 years – thrust Toby to the front of the Heisman race and proved that Stanford could compete with the big boys in the conference and nation. The team has built on that success and while the SC game last year was the one I had circled in my calendar as College Game Day’s introduction to the Farm, better late than never.

Hyperbole permeates the world we live in. Phrases like “Game of the Century” and “Greatest of All Time” get bandied around with reckless abandon and before the season started, I might have sounded hyperbolic myself as I told anyone who would listen that this was a once in a generation team and in our lifetimes, we might not see a Stanford team with this potential ever again. How often has Stanford had a consensus #1 pick QB and several first round picks on offense? How often has Stanford had a tremendous defense in just their first year of a new defensive scheme? Add that to a dream schedule which slowly ramps up in difficulty and has 7 home games (including Oregon), I felt that this was the year that the stars could be aligned.

But even with all that we had going for us, it was never a sure thing that we would be 9-0 even though everyone predicted a Stanford-Oregon showdown of this magnitude when the schedules were first released. Looking at the 9 games we’ve won, the point spreads translate to a 36% chance of going unbeaten which is coincidentally roughly equal to the chances of us winning our next 4 games. You could argue that we’ve covered the spread every single time and that number is an underestimate but my point is that it wasn’t the most likely scenario coming into a season where Vegas set the over-under on Stanford’s regular season win total at 9 games. Where we are today is all I could have ever asked for – winning the games we’re supposed to win so that we have a chance to play in a game of this magnitude.

With Pac-12 championship, National Championship and Heisman trophy implications, this could very well be the biggest game in Stanford’s history especially if you combine magnitude with difficulty (obviously if we win on Saturday then Big Game is as important if not more important). And with everything on the line, it’s easy to succumb to the idea that the success of this season or even Andrew Luck’s legacy hinges on this single game. After watching the World Series of Poker final table where a virtual coin flip determined who won $8.7 million and the fates of both players were completely out of their control, I would argue that a close football game against two evenly matched teams shares some similarities. As much as there is an illusion of complete control in the final outcome of the game, the bounce of the ball before a fumble is recovered, the deflection of a Hail Mary pass into a receiver’s hands or the referee’s ruling on an interception versus catch on the 1 yard line is in essence a coin flip. And that recovery or interception could be the difference between a win and a loss. Obviously I want us to play our best football and beat Oregon but if the two teams are as evenly matched as many think they are, it could come down to a coin flip like situation. The runner up in the main event took home $5.3 million. There’s no shame in losing a coin flip if you play your best and give it your all.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Life is a journey, not a destination”. Stanford is 9-0, #2 in the Coaches Poll, #3 in the AP/Harris Poll, #4 in the BCS standings and has the leading Heisman candidate. While I dream that this will be a staple of Stanford football, a lot has come together to make this happen and I may never see this again in my lifetime. And so we are renting an RV, driving out on Friday, lining up for Game Day in the morning with our signs and Duck Hunting Caps, and tailgating all day till kick off. No matter what happens on Saturday, it’s been one hell of a journey and nowhere close to ending.

Stanford @ OSU

The 12:30pm kick off made my Saturday morning Southwest flight a little too close for comfort. It also elicited some choice words in the middle of a crowded employment center when I first found out. Luckily no one knew me and I had also booked a Friday night flight – my standard practice when faced with a TBD kickoff on the road. It did mean that I had to find accommodation for an extra night but Albert took care of it as usual and once again, we were staying at the Ramada. Albert would join me the next morning since he managed to get an Alaskan flight from SFO that got in at 9am. There was a 45 minute delay due to our flight crew arriving late because of rain in Las Vegas but I was in no particular hurry and didn’t mind too much. Upon arriving in Portland, I was greeted by the lovely Ducks and Beavers logos at the airport. I don’t have particularly fond memories of the Portland airport where I had quite a bit of time to kill after last year’s game. The same can be said of the Eugene airport where I lamented our basketball team’s loss to the Ducks in the Pit. I guess unlike Los Angeles or more specifically the Coliseum, Oregon hasn’t been too kind to me over the years.

With the weather forecast predicting rain all day Saturday and memories of being soaking wet in Husky stadium last year which were mitigated in part by our absolutely dominant performance, staying as dry as possible was a point of emphasis this week and so I travelled a little less light than usual. While it didn’t rain nearly as hard as the previous year and even stopped midway in the second quarter, the extra clothing sure came in handy. It also made me appreciate how fortunate we’ve been with the weather at Stanford. The last time I remember it raining was when we played Washington State in 2008. Boy did it rain hard that day. The drive to Corvallis went smoothly and the scenery a little more appealing than the journey from Spokane to Pullman. We got to the stadium an hour before kickoff and seeing as there wasn’t too much to do and the rain was already starting, just headed inside and ordered some hot chocolate. The stadium had a small intimate field and our seats behind the goal but at the left most edge were great - probably the best away seats all year. We talked to some the Stanford fans sitting close to us and a group had driven up from San Jose the day before. There was also a former football player living in Portland who had his 6 and 8 year old sons in tow.

It was yet another slow start on offense with Luck having an off day. Granted there were a few drops but he could definitely have thrown some better balls. Luckily the defense was solid, as it has been all year on the road. It’s frightening how easily we could have fallen behind in all of our road games if the other team had been able to put some points on the board. Unlike Albert who felt pretty confident that we would pull away, I definitely entertained the notion that we might trip up when the score was close in the third – not because it was a trap game but because we were just having an off day. Eerily similar to the last time we were in Oregon was the hit on Owusu. Can’t help but wonder what would have happened last year if there had been a flag or this year if there hadn’t. Albert believes that it would have just delayed the inevitable and we would have pulled away anyway. I’m not as convinced. The crowd reaction as the Stanford player’s themselves even commented was disappointing. The refrain I heard repeatedly from the Stanford fans around us was “They [Oregon State fans] were so nice before the game”. I attribute it to a mob mentality and it probably doesn’t help that your coach is going ballistic on the sidelines either.

Thankfully we pulled away and even covered the 21 point spread without any further injuries after losing Levine earlier. After the game, Albert and I had wasted no time in getting out of Corvallis as we wanted to catch as much of the Alabama-LSU game as possible, or so we thought. We listened to it on the radio and shortly after we got back to our hotel to dry off, the first half had ended. We located a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant nearby and were in heaven albeit somewhat exhausted. They had every game of interest on, solid food and a cute waitress. The Kansas State-OK State ended up being much more interesting than the LSU-Bama game for multiple reasons and gave us a glimmer of home that it could be a truly special day. If only Kansas State had run the ball at the 5 yard line with 11 seconds left and 1 time out instead of throwing it 3 times. It’s hard to say if they would have gone for 2 points if they had scored. It would clearly have been the right play but since when do coaches make the right play anyway? The Oregon-Washington game was interesting for a while but then Oregon started pulling away and we headed back to our hotel to get some sleep before our 8am flights. It wasn’t even 11pm but we were absolutely exhausted.

Fortunately we are done with road games and hopefully that means no more slow starts for the offense. We definitely can’t afford one against Oregon. Our kickoff coverage team also needs to get its act together. Williamson’s ability to directionally kick it on kick offs has spoiled them and it feels like Skov may have been a bigger part of kickoff coverage than we realize. On the injury front, fingers crossed that Fleming and Williamson can play but I’d say we’re doing as well as we could have hoped for given the past few weeks with Ertz and Owusu being the main casualties. There are bound to be injuries and player’s playing hurt by this time of the season anyway. This is it. The game that everyone’s had circled in their calendar for months. Saturday can’t come sooner enough.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stanford @ USC

I woke up on Saturday just in time to catch Corso flail around in the tree costume. I was somewhat disappointed as I had him picking SC to win at 3-1 but I loved the bet especially since the line moved to 2-1 shortly after I placed it. One thing I’ve learned from sports betting and poker is that you can’t be results orientated. One thing I’ve learned from sports is that no one cares about the quality of the decision - only the results. In a decision analysis seminar, David Shaw responded to my question about applying Moneyball-like statistical analysis to decision making in football by commenting that when you are judged purely on outcomes, job preservation is a consideration and you have to go with conventional wisdom unless you have the credibility of a Bill Belichick or Steve Spurrier. Sad but true, and completely rational on his part although hopefully one day he will have the credibility do so. Based on my anecdotal observations of fourth down decision making, I would say that Chip Kelly best personifies that screw the conventional wisdom, let’s increases our win probability mentality.

But I digress. The flight to LA went smoothly and I met former Stanford DB Chris Young who was proudly donning his Gator Bowl ring. Albert met me at the airport around noon and we picked up a car and headed straight to the Coliseum. First stop was the Nine-O bar where we met up with some LA-based folks. The bar had a nice selection of football games going on and a decent Stanford contingent. The next stop after some travel snafus was a transplanted Chuck Taylor Grove tailgate which had delicious appetizers, gracious hosts, great company and some potent alcohol affectionately known as Tonga. Next up was the alumni tailgate which was considerably larger than 2009 but lacked the Bowlsby address or band entrance although it’s completely possible that we just missed it. The ribs and grilled chicken were absolutely delicious. Finally, it was back to the first tailgate for a final cup of Tonga en route to the Coliseum – a place where I’ve been fortunate to have nothing but fond memories…

What a game! USC has definitely improved since their season opener when they struggled to beat Minnesota and full credit to our guys who persevered every time the game felt like it was slipping away. The atmosphere in the Coliseum was absolutely electric from the raucous USC student section swaying from side to side to the noise during 3rd downs to the unbridled joy in the Stanford section at the end of the third overtime. It was an amazing experience to be a part of and while the 2007 win was pretty memorable, this undoubtedly tops it for the sheer drama of triple overtime and the significance of the game. The last Stanford football overtime I remember was sophomore year when UCLA came back from 21 points down with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. I guess this makes up for it.

Now turning to some end game analysis, I thought Luck’s pick 6 was the next best thing that could have happened on that play other than a first down since it gave us the ball back instead of having to punt it and allow USC to run the clock down and kick a game winning field goal. Instead of throwing it, however, I think we should have run it on third and 3 and potentially gone for it on fourth down as well (although I doubt the latter is in Shaw’s playbook for obvious reasons). Even if we’d been stopped twice which I don’t think would have been too likely given the element of surprise and our running game’s success in short yardage situations, we would have been able to get the ball back with some time to work with down 3 or 7. As much as I like our defense, there’s no worse feeling than having your best player on the sidelines as the clock winds down with the score tied. In fact, I’d feel more comfortable with the score tied and the ball in Luck’s hand with 2 minutes left than up less than a touchdown with the same amount of time and our defense on the field.

The next break we got was the Fleener catch being ruled incomplete. Why we didn’t run it at second and 2 on the 4 yard line and instead burned 2 times outs befuddles me and is reminiscent of the games against Cal and Notre Dame in 2010 when we tried to score too quickly and give the opposing team time to march down the field. Perhaps the stigma surrounding letting the clock expire without getting a play off is so much greater than leaving time for the other team’s offense (since you can blame it on the defense or give credit to the other team’s offense) that coaches aggressively avoid the former. Fortunately, we managed to burn just enough clock that USC wasn’t able to attempt a field goal. Not sure why they didn’t use an additional time out earlier in the drive to save some clock or instruct Woods to go down. We definitely dodged a bullet on that one.

Not surprisingly, the only heat Shaw received about his decision making was the third and 8 wildcat play where we settled for the game tying field goal. While I didn’t like it too much either (a draw or QB keeper option would probably have worked much better given the element of surprise), it was not his worst play call by a long shot. It just went against the conventional wisdom that you need to have the ball in your best player’s hands. If anything, the decision to have Whitaker try directional kick offs and give USC great field position time and time again was much more detrimental.

At the end of the day, we’re at the point of the season where style points count for naught and winning is all that matters. We are not surpassing Oklahoma State in the BCS if both teams win out and Boise State is not going to edge us out either. Unfortunately, injuries are beginning to take their toll and hopefully we can get a couple of guys healthy before the Oregon showdown but injuries are part of the game and to be fair, Oregon has had its fair share and have a tougher upcoming game to boot. Finally, I’ll leave you with a parting shot of the Coliseum – the backdrop for some of the most memorable football moments I’ve had in my life.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stanford vs Washington

I was grinding out a session of video poker at Green Valley Ranch on Friday night when I got a call from a friend. She had planned on dropping by the ticket office after attending the Reunion festivities to pick up a ticket to the Washington game but much to her chagrin, she had just found out that the game was sold out. Like me, she’s from the Class of 2008 and we are most definitely in a whole new world of Stanford football. Luckily for her, she called the right person and I was able to get her a free ticket thanks to the generosity of an alum who had a couple of extras. Upon returning to video poker, I hit a Royal Flush which occurs once every 45281 hands. The weekend was off to a good start. To be fair, I put in about 16000 hands over a two day period so it wasn’t a complete shot in the dark but perhaps it was an omen of the long shots to come.
I pretty much have my travel routine down to a science. Wake up 2 hours before my flight, drive to the bus terminal where they have a free park and ride, take the bus to the airport for $2, pick up a couple of magazines and hope that my flight isn’t delayed. Saturday morning went off without a hitch and I met a friend for brunch in San Carlos after which I headed over to Albert’s place where we (mostly Albert) prepped for the tailgate. We got to campus where it became a game of running around to meet people, deliver tickets, pick up tickets and drink some MT3 tea. My friend who thinks Fleener now knows who he is just because he took a picture with him at the kick off dinner saw him during the walk and yelled “Catch a touchdown today” to which Fleener answered “Ok”. I called the text message (“Just like I told him”) even before it came when Fleener scored. Oh yeah, we also ran into Mark Madsen and David Moseley who absolutely loved the Shayne Skov Tribute shirts and happily took a picture with the crew in the photo that I like to call Madsen, Moseley and the Misfits!

Two weeks ago, I would have told you that I wasn’t worried about Washington but as game time approaches, anxiety always starts to creep in especially with our penchant for slow starts. One of my theories is that in previous games Stanford has experimented to some extent. Putting different looks on film so that defenses have to prepare for them like throwing deep to Patterson to establish him as a credible threat even if we don’t really expect to throw deep to him much and the infuriating fades in the end zone that never work. We can’t always run screens or run the ball when Patterson and Terrell are our two receivers. To borrow from game theory, we need a mixed strategy even if they payoff from our lesser used options is small to enhance the payoff from our strong options. Against Washington, it felt like we stopped messing around. Before we started going vanilla, we ran tons of plays that looked exactly like plays we had run before but countered with a new twist. That’s been a hallmark of the offense these past few years and hopefully we have more wrinkles in our playbook in the upcoming games. On defense, it definitely felt like we missed Howell and Skov early on with the missed tackles that were reminiscent of the Harris era but we cleaned things up in the second half and MT3’s pick 6 felt like the game clincher.

In another sign of how far Stanford has come, the crowd around us which consisted of lots of young alumni was frantically checking the Wisconsin game and they even announced the final score over the loudspeakers to cheers from those who were still in the stadium. It brought to mind a scene I saw on youtube when it was announced at LSU or somewhere in the South that we had beaten SC in 2007 (minus the packed stadium). Speaking of long shots, that last hail mary after Michigan State managed to recover their own fumble earlier in the drive was pretty incredible but to be honest, I was more intrigued by the early rumblings out of Norman than Wisconsin who I’ve always felt that we would pass by the end of the season.

After the game, we decided to hit up The Counter on California Avenue because they had TVs and would be showing the Oklahoma-Texas Tech game, or so we thought. When we got in, it was filled with students but they only had some football highlights and a MLS game going on. Fortunately, the bartender accommodated my request and we got the game on one and later at the request of some others both TVs. By the end, Fleener was in the house and everyone was living and dying with every single play. Thank you Texas Tech for overcoming the 28 point spread and Tuberville for his gusty play calling – going for it twice on fourth and goal (TD on the first, turnover on downs on the second but I believe they got it back on a pick). I couldn’t even begrudge the fake punt which would have been successful if the guy held his block. Would the extra 30 yards a punt might have gained stopped Oklahoma from scoring that drive? Perhaps but I think it’s the better call in terms of maximizing win probability and love seeing coaches play to win and not be risk averse or worry what the so called experts think. Hopefully the Texas A&M coaches and their pathetic performance against Oklahoma State won’t come back to haunt us.

With SC’s win over Notre Dame which took me completely by surprise and College Game Day going down for the game, it’s going to be a huge one. As a friend commented to me, we’re not sneaking up on them this time. This is arguably their biggest home game this season (bigger than UCLA) and I think it’s going to come down to the wire. The real season is about to begin. Halloween can’t come any sooner.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Stanford @ WSU

The flight to Spokane on Friday evening was pretty uneventful. A Stanford alum boarded at the very last minute but I didn’t get a chance to talk to him and there were a couple of WSU alums who were trying to chat up an energy drink promoter girl who was friendly but far more interested in figuring out the place to be on a Friday night in downtown Spokane. Upon arrival, I strolled across the street to the conveniently located Ramada which Albert had booked. I love travelling with Albert. I just need to show up and he takes care of everything else. Albert got in much later that night and the plan was to watch the 9am Michigan-Michigan State game in the hotel and then head down to Pullman after it ended.

We got to Pullman about 2.5 hours before kick-off and it was surprisingly quiet for homecoming weekend. We walked past their band and a smash a car(dinal) fundraiser before finding a sportsbar on the fringes of campus where we caught some of the afternoon games. After watching Texas fail in their attempt to cover the spread, we headed to the stadium where there was a small contingent of about 60 Stanford fans tucked away in the visitor’s section including an alum whom I had met on my Alabama trip. The gentlemen sitting next to me informed me that for some reason he had “next to Zhang” scribbled on his tickets. I guess the ticket office must know who I am. For all my initial worries of rain, it was as beautiful a day as one could ask for in Pullman. The last time I was here to watch Stanford beat WSU in overtime (senior year basketball), a snow storm had just passed and another one was on its way so there were no complaints from me. The Martin stadium was pretty small and took a while to fill up but it started to get pretty rowdy at the end of the first half and when their mascot drove in on an ATV – which if anything seems like a safety hazard to me. By the fourth quarter, however, the most interesting thing going on was the fight that broke out in the tailgating section which security did a poor job trying to keep under control.

It was yet another one of our patented slow offensive starts on the road but our defense kept us in the game as the front 4 got pressure and the DBs wrapped up. We were also extremely sloppy, especially on special teams, and dodged a couple of bullets when we recovered our own fumbles. Fortunately, we turned it around in the second half and took the crowd out of the game. I guess it’s good that we’ve had to face some adversity while still blowing teams out and in my opinion there aren’t many teams in the country that are playing complete games no matter what the final score or Sportscenter might tell you, but it would be nice if we could put everything together in the next few games, especially Oregon and Notre Dame. I also got the sense that the staff was experimenting with some plays and by throwing so much in the 4th quarter when we typically run the ball sending a message to future teams that they can’t just completely sell out to stop power.

After the game, we headed back to the sportsbar to watch Oregon-ASU. ASU really blew it at the end of the first half – giving up what was at least a 10 if not 14 point swing with the unsportsmanlike conduct followed by the pick and Oregon touchdown. Full credit to Oregon, however, for not losing a beat with their backups coming in. It’s going to be a great matchup come November 12. Hopefully we can take care of business these next few games to set up a game that is worthy of College Game Day.