Clumsy catching by once nimble-fingered receivers might be the most visible signs of Stanford's recent woes. Chris Owusu and Doug Baldwin dropped game-changing passes in the past two weeks as the Cardinal lost on the road to Oregon State and Arizona.
But the deflating plays seem symptomatic of something greater: the Cardinal isn't quite ready to join the Pacific-10 Conference's elite teams because little mistakes keep sabotaging its chances.
"This ball club is so close," coach Jim Harbaugh said Tuesday, two days after his team squandered a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter at Arizona. "We should be 6-1 at this point."
The Cardinal (4-3, 3-2 Pac-10) held fourth-quarter leads over Wake Forest and Arizona but succumbed each time.
"We're in the game, and we just have to find a way to finish," tailback Toby Gerhart said.
Stanford will be looking for salvation Saturday at home against Arizona State, a team that finished strongly last weekend with a last-seconds victory over Washington.
Will the Cardinal continue to drop easy passes, miss tackles, allow too much room to run and come unglued on crucial downs as it has in two consecutive defeats?
"We've got to make the plays when they count the most," quarterback Andrew Luck said.
Stanford failed to do that on the opening play from scrimmage in its game at Corvallis, Ore., where Owusu dropped Luck's deep pass after getting behind the secondary. Owusu and
Stanford's leading receiver, Ryan Whalen, trusts his teammates will correct the situation.
"I don't have any doubt of any of the abilities of any of our receivers," he said.
The Pac-10's leading ballcarrier will face his brother Garth, an offensive lineman for Arizona State who has struggled with a toe injury but told his older brother he also will play Saturday.
Because they both play on offense, the Gerharts won't directly compete. The last time they faced each other, Garth was snapping the ball to their younger brother back in Norco, where they grew up. Garth, an ASU sophomore at the time, asked Toby to rush.
"He snapped the ball, stepped back and punched me right in the middle of my chest," Toby said. "That's the last time I tried to go against him."
Harbaugh said his coaches initially decided to decline the penalty but "the more we thought about it, we wanted the ball on the 40." A game official wouldn't let them change their minds, he said.