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.

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