Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Stanford questions worth asking
By Kevin Gemmell
A few questions kicking around my head as we look to the final regular-season game.
Can the Cardinal finish what they started? Anything less than a BCS bowl game at the end of the year would be a letdown -- based on the expectations this team had going into the season. We always knew the national championship would be a difficult achievement -- it's supposed to be hard, and it's supposed to separate the very elite teams. Whether Stanford is an elite team, several notches below or somewhere in the middle remains to be seen. But a win over a ranked Notre Dame team can restore a lot of the national confidence lost against Oregon.
Will the Tree Amigos reunite? It's questionable, at this point. Tight end Zach Ertz might return this week after going down with a knee injury on the opening kickoff of the USC game. Stanford's offense -- though getting by with the versatile Ryan Hewitt, is far more explosive with Ertz. If he can get a few snaps in and get some live work, Stanford's chances of moving the ball successfully against a pretty stingy Notre Dame defense (20.3 points per game) increase significantly.
Is the pressure on Stanford's equipment/grounds-keeping staff? I understand that when it rains, footing becomes less stable. But we're not talking about one or two slip-ups over the last two games. There have been a lot of Cardinal players struggling for traction when it seems to only have a minor impact on opposing teams. Longer cleats? Shorter grass? Longer grass? Had it not been for a penalty, one of those slips would have cost the Cardinal a pick-six (though Cal scored anyway). It's something to keep an eye on Saturday.
Is the kickoff situation set? Despite kicker Jordan Williamson's return after missing three games with an injury, it was Ben Rhyne who handled the kickoff duties last week against Cal. With 58 kicks on the year (66.3 average) Williamson has been the primary kicker. Though in his absence, Eric Whitaker (57.9 average) filled in. Rhyne has 13 kicks on the year for an average of 62.4 with one touchback. It will be interesting to see if Williamson returns to kickoffs or if this is a permanent change for the remainder of the season.
How much emotion can these teams handle? The loss of Notre Dame running back Jonas Gray hurts from a team morale standpoint. Though Cierre Wood is the primary back, Gray was an emotional leader for the Irish -- who barely squeaked by Boston College last week. The Irish could rally -- or the lack of running back depth could hurt them against an aggressive Stanford front seven. Stanford has its own emotional issues at work. Already coming off back-to-back games rife with emotion, Saturday will be senior day -- and more than likely (pending the outcome of Oregon-Oregon State) -- the final home game for Andrew Luck and a cast of fourth- and -fifth-year seniors who turned the program around.