So it's August, and football withdrawal is reaching a frenzy. As productive as the limited media access to Fall Camp will be for the players, it leaves us in an echo chamber to. . . well, I'm hearing predictions of 10-win seasons and maybe even better.
As I've said elsewhere on MGoBlog, I'm tempering my expectations of results. The coaching staff clearly knows their stuff, but they're making a lot of changes and to an extent that compromises some short-term gains. Consider it a young team in spirit, with the inevitable goofs and gaffes that will lose us some games until they figure it out. And yet, it's also time to be really excited. Because starting next month, no team is safe. Ask Pete Carroll.
With that in mind, I'm back to pick on Borges again (sorry Al), but in a more positive light -- looking ahead to the upcoming season. No, this isn't a preview of San Jose State, but a comparison to highlight what is to me the most undercovered and yet profound shift in program philosophy. In anticipation of what Michigan 2015 will look like, I revisited Stanford's 2007 upset of #1 USC.
"There was never a sense of, like, oh, it's the fourth quarter; oh, there's 85,000 people here; oh, this is the #1 team in the country; oh, we can drive down and beat 'em. All I'm thinking is, we've gotta make this drive down, we gotta go score. . ."
To be clear, the Stanford offense did NOT have a good game. 5-17 on third downs, 11/30 passing with a pick, and 2.2ypc rushing usually means you go home with your head down. And while there's been no shortage of words written or spoken about the improbable comeback, for as bad as the offense did that day, something struck me about the last drive. I find myself compulsively re-watching from 1:20:00 of this clip, not because it's exciting, but to compare it with a very different program philosphy:
"If you don't understand read progressions, footwork, timing and all that, you get paralysis through analysis. So there's carryover is what I'm saying. I don't care how much offense you decide to run, they're still running the same defenses, so unless you can talk the other guys into running the same defense every time, which I've never been able to do, it's always going to be somewhat difficult for the quarterback no matter how much you scale back the offense."
-Al Borges on backup QB Shane Morris
Hold that thought. Late in the fourth quarter, down a TD, Pritchard was facing 4th and 20. Harbaugh's calling in the play. And then this happens:
"I just remember being across the field, and [Harbaugh] yelling something to me. And I don't remember being able to hear it. . . I knew there could only be a couple of things, so I went back to the huddle, and I was like, 'OK, here's what we're going to do.'"
-Tavita Pritchard, Stanford backup QB
Let that sink in: In Stanford's do-or-die play of the game, their unheralded backup QB didn't have Harbaugh to tell him what to do. It was just him, in the middle of a deafening Coliseum, 41-point underdog against the #1 team in the country, effectively alone. This is basically the worst-case scenario for a Borges QB (worst-case scenario in general, really), but this is what a Harbaugh QB does in that situation:
"[Pritchard] comes back. . . 'Guys, I couldn't hear him; I don't got the play, but. . . we're gonna run double go.' . . . Man, we don't even got the play??"
"I remember keeping in an extra blocker. . . I was gonna make sure I could get this thing off."
"Tavita eventually put it together with the information that he had, and was able to call the play."
Sherman caught Pritchard's pass just beyond the first-down marker.
Maybe Pritchard is just the sort of cocky bastard (I mean that in a good way) to relish the situation, but he has to know he has the autonomy when he needs it. That comes from the head coach, which makes it an unfathomable outcome for a Hoke/Borges offense. Harbaugh is widely considered an innovative game-caller, but what I'm most geeked about is a program that will put the players in a position to dictate the game as needed -- not through talent, but through understanding of the game.
Stanford wasn't done, nor was USC. 1st-and-goal quickly became 4th-and-goal, Stanford's gains in the series rolled back by a substitution penalty. Well, we've been there before. What's the call, Al?
"We were pretty much going to stick with the plan. There was not going to be a lot of audibling in this game. . . we had designed the plan to block up to handle most of what they did, so we did not want to turn this into a chess game on the line of scrimmage."
Needless to say, Stanford went in the exact opposite direction. With everything on the line against the #1 team in the country, the players changed the play again.
"Mark Bradford, me and Evan Moore, we're trying to fit it in the hole, but [USC] kept their three best defenders over there for three plays. "Mark is like, 'Man, I'm gonna switch to the other side,' because Ryan Whalen, a walk-on, was on the other side. We don't even look on the other side; we're just trying to fit it in the hole. So. . . we're like, 'All right.' You know. . . why not? This hasn't been working, so he switched to the other side."
USC defended Bradford one-on-one in the corner, and he pulled in the game-winning TD.
If you're looking for the single biggest change from Hoke to Harbaugh, it's not the scheme, or the MANBALL, or the crazy plays or toughness or four-hour practices or a goddamn headset. Well, that's all part of it, but it's going to be guys who look like they're lost to guys who know what the hell they're doing. No, Al, it's not a chess match on the line of scrimmage because football players aren't pawns. They're people with brains, and those brains can be a huge on-field advantage. I liken the shift from guys who memorize sheets of music to musicians. I'm not looking forward to Harbaugh micromanaging the offense; I'm hoping that he'll do the exact opposite and field a team that opposing DCs won't be able to keep up with.
So tonight is the epic MNF showdown that looked so good on paper a few weeks ago, the Bears @ the 49ers, but with both Alex Smith and Jay Cutler suffering concussions and missing tonight's game, this looks like it is going to be a defensive slugfest between two powerhouse Ds and two horrible offenses under the backup QBs. If there are a lot of punts, this might wind up in the Bears favor with Hester liable to break one for a big return or even a TD if the Niners are foolish enough to punt to him. But I'm thinking tonight's game is going to look a lot like the Bama-LSU game from 2011 (the regular season one) with a very low score.
I'm thinking Bears 13, 49ers 15, but with the backup QBs in, who knows?