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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Stanford vs Colorado

It was an early start to game day as I got up at 6am and took the first flight out of Vegas to SFO. When I arrived at my friend’s place, I was welcomed by the fresh smell of scrambled eggs, bacon and waffles, and the sight of Oklahoma’s 12-0 chances receiving a large boost as they destroyed Texas in the Red River Rivalry. Before we hit campus, it was off to his daughter’s soccer game in Cupertino where she dominated with 2 assists and a plus-minus of 4 as she dug her team out of a 0-1 hole in their 4-1 victory. We may also have gotten on the referee’s and an opposing parent’s nerves after some questionable calls but I’ll call a hand-ball when I see one and you shouldn’t be penalized for shielding the opponent from the ball just because you’re a head taller than them!

It was yet another beautiful day in Palo Alto as we pulled up to the stadium. After parking in Lot 2, we headed over to Chuck Taylor’s Grove for some food and alcohol. For the walk, we rocked our Shayne Skov tribute shirts which have his mohawk and face-painted visage on the front and “11 for 11” on the back - the latter referring to 11 more wins for #11 who was injured during our third game against Arizona. You do the math. The Martins whom I had seen at almost all the games this season stropped by after the walk armed with several copies of the program which had Moose on the cover ( They were extremely friendly but understandably coy when the topic of Moose declaring jokingly came up.

After some delicious Indian food and watching ASU take care of business against Utah, I left for Albert’s tailgate where I met up with some other friends. We then entered the stadium which was definitely not sold out no matter what the official numbers may say. I blame Fleet week and guess that a 7:30pm kickoff gets people in their seats since there isn’t too much else to do. Nevertheless, it was nice to see the student section filled to capacity and revved up for the game.

I was somewhat skeptical that we’d be able to cover the 30 point spread but our defense really stepped up despite some missed tackles (and aided by some drops and poor throws) and Luck looked effortless out there as Colorado’s defense really sold out to stop the run early on. Obviously Colorado was missing key contributors and isn’t that good a team even when at full strength, but it was nice to see the offense click and get contributions from multiple players. There was less questionable play calling by my accounts but I would have liked to see us go for it on 4th and 4 instead of attempting a 47 yard field goal, especially with Williamson’s struggles early on.

All in all, I was pleased by the win and even happier that the players weren’t satisfied by it. As I’ve been saying all season, we just need to keep on getting better so that we’ll be ready for the stretch run. While the performance of the other unbeaten teams isn’t something that Stanford can control, I would be lying if I claimed that I wasn’t scoreboard watching. Using projected spreads, I estimate that Stanford has a 15% of going 13-0. Probabilities for the other contenders are Alabama (37%), Oklahoma (33%), Wisconsin (24%), LSU (17%) and Oklahoma State (9%). I think an undefeated Stanford would get the nod ahead of Wisconsin thanks to Andrew Luck and overall strength of schedule, but finish behind an unbeaten SEC team and Big 12 team. The current likelihood of the SEC and Big 12 producing undefeated teams is about 23%. That number is growing by the week and hopefully carnage will happen soon. It will undoubtedly happen for some of the other unbeatens but the SEC and Big 12 are the only that really concern me. But ultimately, all that matters and I all can ask is for Stanford to take care of business as the schedule toughens up starting with Wazzu in Pullman.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Stanford vs UCLA

With some time off from work and a well-timed bye week for Stanford, I surveyed the various Week 4 match ups and decided to make a trip to Tuscaloosa for Arkansas vs Alabama and my first ever SEC game. To summarize, the atmosphere was absolutely electric, the fans couldn’t have been friendlier and the barbeque was to die for. I’ve definitely developed a soft spot for the South. Alabama rolled to a convincing victory but in evaluating their overall play and this could well be hubris speaking, I feel that Stanford matches up extremely well with them. Elite SEC defenses equipped with blazing speed are built to defend Oregon’s spread. Together with special teams, they put up a lot of points on the board but I’d be interested to see how they’d match up against Stanford or Wisconsin’s power offense in games where their defense isn’t generating points. I didn’t come away too impressed with Alabama’s offense (QB and play calling since Richardson is pretty damn good) and while one might give credit to Arkansas, the same defense gave up 35 points in the first half to Texas A&M’s strong running game. If anything, Oregon worries me much more and we actually have to play them.

While it was nice to have the week off and experience the South, I was definitely chomping at the bit for the UCLA game with the students finally back on campus and 40+ of my co-workers with a sizable UCLA presence making it to the game. I had a hunch we’d be wearing our black jerseys (night game, big recruiting visit, process of elimination) and expedite shipped a black Luck jersey in time for my Friday departure. For the first time since All-Star weekend in Las Vegas several years ago, my flight was delayed. Luckily I was in no particular hurry and counted my blessings that it wasn’t game day. After watching some of the most atrocious coaching by Texas A&M in the 2nd half when they chose to punt in several 4th and 1 situations in Arkansas territory when their running game was unstoppable (I estimate that the coaches reduced their team’s win probability by half), I headed over to campus with one of my coworkers and showed him around. It never fails to hit me how beautiful campus is and how fortunate I am to have attended Stanford.

It was a busier than usual pre-game for me as I headed dropped by various tailgates to say hi while making my way to the walk. I received confirmation through the grapevine that the team was going to be clad in black and got nicely lubricated with some MT3 black and blueberry tea. I had to tear myself away from my work tailgate to get into the stadium on time and was struck by how crowded it was. While we had been in a general admission lot which was UCLA heavy, the stadium featured a heavy dose of Cardinal and unlike previous sell outs such as USC last year and Cal and Notre Dame the year before, the visitors were not a huge driving force behind the sell out. The students were also out in full force. It was a joy to see.

I thought our offense was a significant improvement over previous games and it was good to see the line starting to jell and get their timing down. The highlight of course was Luck’s one-handed sideline catch which sparked off several Heisman poses from our section. We got a little too cute up 14-0 and I am not a fan of those empty back field 4 wide out sets that telegraph to defenses we are going to pass. Our strength is the 1WR, 2TE, 1FB, 1RB set where we have ultimate run-pass flexibility. Hopefully the coaches were just messing around and trying out new wrinkles because that’s what it felt like from the stands. A simple analysis of average yards per attempt on those empty background sets while controlling for down and yardage should tell them that it’s suboptimal. On defense, I think we did a decent job. There is obviously room for improvement and I would hope for a more aggressive defense in the Oregon and USC games where we try and increase variance (make a big play on defense or give up a big play on defense) since they have better offenses. Against UCLA, a low variance approach that keeps everything in front of you makes sense to me. The big early stop was extremely nice to see and I had to refrain from commenting when there was some chatter that those 3 points that UCLA gave up by going for it instead of kicking a field goal could be key. As a friend astutely pointed out, the fact that they were 21.4 point underdogs and we were able to march 99 yards down the field is all the more reason why you absolutely have to go for it on 4th and goal at the 2. Kudos to Slick Rick for going for it although the fact that he deserves credit for making the painfully obvious optimal play reflects the sad state of conventional wisdom that is pervasive in football.

All in all, I was extremely heartened by the team’s performance and if they can continue to improve, stay healthy and get some of the new guys playing experience (especially on defense), we will be prime for the stretch run against USC, Oregon, and Notre Dame.