Jaffe: Spring Game, though inexact, reveals questions about Cardinal offense

April 15, 2012, 1:45 a.m.

April is the time of the year when nearly every sport has something major going on. College basketball has its championship, playoffs begin in the NBA and NHL, the MLB season gets underway and the NFL has its draft. The Masters brought golf back to the limelight, and European soccer is reaching its pinnacle with leagues and tournaments coming down to the wire. If there was ever a time to forget about college football, it would be now.

Except you can’t forget about college football. Ever. And just to make extra sure that college football doesn’t leave your mind three months after the season ends, we have a divine invention known as the spring game.

Stanford, realizing that it suddenly has a good (and more importantly, profitable) football team, has taken full advantage of its spring game, making tweaks year after year to what is — and always will be — simply a scrimmage.

The big move, of course, was taking the game off-campus, which changed the game from “a scrimmage we have every year that, if you’re really bored and have nothing better to do, maybe kinda sorta drop by if you happen to be in the neighborhood and see some guys on the team play” to The Cardinal and White Spring Game at Historic Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

Pretending the game is important was bold, pretending Stanford is really connected to San Francisco is bolder and pretending that it’s worth expansive media coverage (ESPN covered it last year) is just downright impressive.

The fact is that it’s a scrimmage. It’s a scrimmage where absolutely nothing is at stake, where the scoring system and format are completely arbitrary and ridiculous, where incoming freshmen don’t play, where outgoing seniors don’t play, where many players with minor injuries don’t play and where the team is still almost five months away from participating in a meaningful game. Logic states that there is nothing to possibly read into about this “game.”

But I read into it. I, like so many fans and media members around the country, put way too much stock into this little exercise. Last year, despite being in Los Angeles calling Stanford’s baseball game at USC on the radio, I still found myself glued to my computer screen, watching Andrew Luck dissect his own defense. I was convinced that he could beat any defense and that we wouldn’t miss our graduating receivers. I was convinced that the holes in our secondary would be our only issues. I was convinced that we’d be one of the best teams in the country. And all it took was a silly scrimmage in April that I didn’t even go to!

This year, I was actually able to attend the game, and my convictions are just as strong, albeit not as positive. I came in expecting to see a team that missed Luck and was still searching for its starting quarterback. I came in expecting to see a dominant linebacker corps that would be the best group on the field by far. I came in expecting to see some fun plays that would get me excited for Stanford football.

Well, I was somewhat right. The linebackers were overpowering, getting touch-sacks (no one was allowed to hit the quarterbacks) so often that I honestly wondered if they were ever told to back off just to give the offense a chance to run from time to time. The quarterback competition still looks very much up in the air, but none of the choices looked nearly as promising as I’d hoped.

As for the excitement…well, that was a little lacking. There were a couple nice plays (Ty Montgomery’s first touchdown catch and Jordan Richards’ interception come to mind), but I found myself employing more facepalms than rounds of applause.

The offense had more drops than any roller coaster I’ve ever been on, and the rest of the plays seemed to be either a sack or a bad pass. It’s hard to read too much into the running backs considering Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney weren’t playing, Jeremy Stewart is gone and Barry J. Sanders hasn’t joined the team yet, but no one particularly stood out.

The defense certainly deserved to win, but it’s hard to tell if that’s due more to the stingy defense or the mediocre offense. Has the defense really improved from the squad that struggled against the better teams Stanford played last year? It’s hard to know, but the biggest difference between January and April was clearly the loss of Luck. That will clearly be the big story of the offseason, and it’s up to Stanford to make sure that isn’t the big story of the whole season as well.

Even with the lackluster performance on Saturday, my expectations for Stanford football haven’t really changed. The Cardinal will definitely experience a drop-off from the success of the past couple seasons. Yes, Luck is gone, but so are several other cornerstones of the team. Still, there is a heck of a lot of talent on this squad, and Stanford can absolutely be one of the better teams in the Pac-12 in 2012. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait several more months to see just how good the Cardinal will be.

Jacob Jaffe didn’t pay nearly enough attention to The Daily’s delegation at the Spring Game, which looked in tip-top shape for next year’s Ink Bowl. Submit your projected depth charts at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

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