NCF Nation: Ben Gardner

As much as USC coach Steve Sarkisian and Stanford coach David Shaw would like to downplay their very public back-and-forth last season stemming from Sarkisian’s accusation that Stanford faked injuries, there is no avoiding the lingering effects.

Former Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner -- one of two players Sarkisian accused of faking injuries -- made that clear with a not-so-subtle joke on Twitter in the aftermath of the Josh Shaw fake-hero saga.



Clearly some tension remains.

Moments after Stanford's 31-28 win went final, Sarkisian told KJR 950-am in Seattle: "Their defensive line coach [Randy Hart] was telling them to sit down. I guess that's how we play here at Stanford, so we'll have to prepare for that next time."

Next time is this week.

When contacted by ESPN.com, Gardner said, more than anything, he was surprised by Sarkisian’s comments.

“Obviously, all of this is in the past, but we always pride ourselves at Stanford in doing things the right way and we try speak positively about our opponents and give credit where credit is due,” he said. “It was disappointing. To call out senior captains, guys like had been there a long time, and our coaches ... I felt like he was questioning our character and our integrity without really the background knowledge about us.”

The shoulder injury he suffered against the Huskies didn’t immediately hold Gardner out of any games, but it progressively got worse and eventually required season-ending surgery. Despite missing the final six games of the season, Gardner was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection and was drafted in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He'll miss this season, too, after dislocating his shoulder twice in training camp, which also required season-ending surgery.

To their credit, Shaw and Sarkisian have both seemingly moved on.

"We never talked about it again. It was over. It was in the past," Shaw said Tuesday. "[Sarkisian] and I sat together at lunch and breakfast a couple times and talked about a bunch of other things. Our wives are getting to become good friends; they know each other well. There’s no animosity whatsoever."

When asked if he and Shaw had patched things up, Sarkisian echoed what Shaw said.

"I think, first of all, I have a great deal of respect for David as a coach and as a person," Sarkisian said. "We had a disagreement in the heat of the moment and I think both of us have moved on. We’ve seen each other on different occasions since then. We were in Hawaii together at an event. We haven’t spoken on it and I think our relationship is fine. We’ve moved on."

Kickoff for Saturday's matchup between No. 14 USC at No. 13 Stanford is set for 3:30 p.m., ET on ABC.

Stanford looks to sustain success

February, 25, 2014
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STANFORD, Calif. -- As Stanford players jogged off the practice field Monday evening, nothing stood out in particular. Significant only because it marked the first spring practice of the year, and it had the look and feel of just another day on the Farm.

Maybe temperatures don't always hover around 70 degrees until just past sunset in late February, but there was no fanfare or anything ceremonious about the day.

In that respect, nothing has changed over the past five years.

[+] EnlargeJames Vaughters
AP Photo/Rob HoltJames Vaughters spurned the SEC to join a Stanford team that, at the time of his commitment, was just beginning its upswing.
"It was a good start. The tempo I thought was outstanding for a first day, which is always what you're looking for when you lose so many seniors," coach David Shaw said. "It wasn't perfect, of course, but it was fast and that's what we were looking for Day 1."

As the only program to play in BCS bowls the past four seasons, there is no denying Stanford's place in the current hierarchy of college football. Any list of the nation's elite must include the Cardinal or it would be incomplete.

In that respect, everything has changed.

Former coach Jim Harbaugh recruited with an offer for a world-class education and the chance to turn things around. When Stanford signed outgoing fifth-year seniors such as Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Ryan Hewitt in 2009, it did so following a 5-7 season.

That group leaves Stanford not knowing what it's like to be a part of a losing team.

Only the 13 fifth-year seniors on the spring roster were on the 2010 team, Harbaugh's last season, and only defensive end Blake Leuders saw action that season. They're the last group that bought into a program that had yet to play in a major bowl game and, as a byproduct of that, the first not to miss one.

Senior outside linebacker James Vaughters is in a different boat. He spurned several SEC offers and left his home state of Georgia to sign with Stanford following its Orange Bowl victory to cap the 2010 season.

"They showed me they were just as committed to winning as the schools that were recruiting me from the South," Vaughters said.

He got what he signed up for.

"If you see success, it's a challenge to sustain it," Vaughters said. "It's a matter of finding a formula that works. When you have so many guys that started for so many years, we just have to find our way to be successful."

One could worry about a sense of entitlement creeping into a program with as much success as the Cardinal has experienced over the past four years, but both Vaughters and Shaw didn't seem to think that it would be a problem.

Shaw pointed to senior running back Ricky Seale as an example.

"[Last year] he would just be on the sidelines on his toes," Shaw said. "So now we have the anxiety and that energy because they all want a chance to play. I think we're in a great spot because we're going to get their best because they all want to get on the field."

Senior receiver Ty Montgomery (knee) and senior nose tackle David Parry (midsection) will both miss the first session of two spring sessions with minor injuries.

Backup quarterback Ryan Burns will miss the first session to due a disciplinary reason, according to Shaw.

Shaw has still not hired a defensive backs coach, but he said it "should be solved in the next week or so." For the time being, graduate assistant Marc Mattioli will coach defensive backs.
Get this. Stanford’s Lance Anderson actually wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Crazy, right? Biletnikoff winners to lose sleep over; Doak Walker finalists dashing and gashing for 20 yards a pop; and All-American offensive linemen that must be displaced. Oh, the humanity.

“There are some pretty good quarterbacks, too,” says Anderson.

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeLance Anderson
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesLance Anderson, who has been on Stanford's staff since 2007, will have to replace some big names on the Cardinal's 2014 defense.
Anderson has his wish. With the departure of Derek Mason, who was named the head coach of Vanderbilt last month, Anderson takes over one of the most respected defensive outfits in all of college football. The Cardinal have led the conference in scoring defense and been ranked in the top 15 nationally in three of the last four years. They live by the mantra #partyinthebackfield and have put the brakes on some of the nation’s top offenses.

Now it’s Anderson’s turn to add his own flavor to the scheme -- however minor it might be.

“Every year we tweak a little bit no matter what,” said Anderson, who first came to Stanford in 2007 with Jim Harbaugh. “We go back and watch film and do all of our self-scouting and analysis. We try to find places where we can get better and improve and that’s naturally going to lead to tweaking. I think every coordinator has a different feel and some stuff you might like a little better than the other guy.

“We’ve been in a system for a few years now and I think the kids are really comfortable with that. They like it. And I think the systems we’re in on both sides of the ball suit our personnel really well. Vic Fangio came in in 2010, installed the system at that point and we’ve kept it pretty similar ever since.”

That includes transitions from Fangio to the co-defensive coordinator team of Jason Tarver and Mason to just Mason and now to Anderson, who will continue to work with the outside linebackers after coaching the defensive tackles his first two seasons on The Farm.

Equally known as a top-flight recruiter, Anderson must now help the Cardinal transition to life without some of their marquee players. Gone next year are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds. All were major contributors in one form or another to Stanford’s appearances in four straight BCS bowl games.

Despite those losses, Anderson is confident the Cardinal have the depth -- both in and out of the locker room -- to stay atop the defensive standings.

“I look at guys like A.J. Tarpley and Jordan Richards who have played a lot of football and they really stand out,” Anderson said. “Both guys display some natural leadership and they are well-respected by their teammates. Henry Anderson and David Parry are a couple of other guys who are really looked up to among the defensive players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 has seen the defensive coordinators from the top five scoring defenses move on after the 2013 season. Mason went to Vanderbilt, Nick Aliotti retired at Oregon, Justin Wilcox moved to USC with Steve Sarkisian, Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Clancy Pendergast was not retained with the Trojans after Sarkisian came in. Three of those were replaced internally, with Anderson, Don Pellum (Oregon) and Jeff Ulbrich (UCLA) all being promoted. Pete Kwiatkowski joins Chris Petersen in Washington by way of Boise State and Wilcox followed Sark. So despite the transitions, the continuity among coaching staffs remains relatively unscathed.

However, that combination of coordinator shuffling, along with some A-list offensive players returning in 2014, makes for an interesting setup. The Pac-12 is known for its offensive diversity, and when you factor in the possibility of nine teams returning their starting quarterback, the dice seem loaded to the offensive side of the ball.

“There is a lot of offensive talent in this league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down,” Anderson said. “The quarterbacks all have experience. It’s not going to be easy.

“We know that every week we are going to be tested. All we can do is try to go out and learn the techniques and the fundamentals and get the physical and mental mastery of the position. Once we get that in spring ball and the preseason, it’s just matter of going out and applying what we’ve learned during the season. Every week is going to be different. All we can do is prepare the best we can, master the position and try to apply it on Saturdays in the fall.”
LOS ANGELES -- Michigan State's defense is preparing vigorously for Stanford's offense as well as for life without its leader, middle linebacker Max Bullough.

Despite Bullough's shocking suspension, the standards haven't changed for the "Spartan Dawgs," who, as linebacker Denicos Allen noted Sunday, want to show everyone why they're the nation's No. 1 defense.

[+] EnlargeMax Bullough
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsHow will Michigan State's defense adjust without Max Bullough?
But before the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, MSU's defenders might want to set aside some time to examine Stanford's defense, specifically the way the unit adjusted without one of its best players. The Cardinal lost defensive end Ben Gardner to a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in late October.

Like Bullough, Gardner is a captain and one of the defense's top performers, racking up 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits, the most on the team at the time. He's so good that he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors despite missing Stanford's final five games.

Twelve days after Gardner's injury, Stanford held Oregon's dynamic offense scoreless for three quarters in a 26-20 win. The Cardinal surrendered just 62 rush yards and 312 total yards and recorded three sacks.

Stanford's defensive statistics without Gardner weren't dramatically different than they were with Gardner. The Cardinal allowed less than 75 rush yards in four of the final five games and finished with an outstanding effort against Arizona State's explosive offense in the Pac-12 championship. Arizona State had just 14 points and 311 yards, well below its season averages (41.0 ppg, 460.8 ypg).

"You feel for your teammates, but at the same time, you have to keep your vision on what the team goal is," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "You recognize that, unfortunately, somebody is gone, is no longer an active participant, but you have to keep moving forward.

"Whenever you lose someone as talented and as important a leader and integrated into your team, as I'm sure Max was and Ben [are], you have to find ways to, not replace them, but work and make an adaptation."

The circumstances of the losses are different -- Gardner was injured and remains with his teammates for the Rose Bowl; Bullough was suspended right before the team left for California and will not attend the game. But the realities are the same: There's shock and disappointment, and then there's another tough game to play.

"I kept a coldblooded approach," Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy said, "and kept moving forward and knew there were still games to be played and work to be done. Then, at the senior banquet, [Gardner] spoke and got everyone choked up a little bit and then it was like, oh man.

"Other than that, I kept moving forward."

Stanford benefited from replacing Garnder with Henry Anderson, a senior who had earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. Anderson suffered a knee injury in September but returned for the Oregon showdown, Stanford's first game without Gardner.

Michigan State's Kyler Elsworth isn't as decorated as Anderson, but the fifth-year senior who could start in Bullough's place brings experience and familiarity to the role. He's not Bullough in terms of system knowledge and communication -- no one is -- but he understands the scheme and the personnel around him.

"We've won because of chemistry here," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday. "There's an opportunity for somebody else to lead."

Elsworth, primarily a special-teams player during his career, embraces that opportunity "ten-fold."

"[Stanford] lost a player, and that's an adverse situation, that's something you've got to overcome," Elsworth said. "Our team has been doing that for a while now."

He mentioned safety RJ Williamson stepping in for safety Isaiah Lewis because of injury and a targeting ejection against Northwestern, and the way the coaching staff handled Dantonio's health-related absence during the 2010 season.

"There's countless times where our team has rallied around everybody," Elsworth said, "stepped up and came into the game with the mind-set that, 'Hey, no matter what is thrown at us, we can handle it.'

"This is no different. It's another curveball. Guys have stepped up their leadership, I'm stepping up my leadership, and we're very prepared for this game."

Cardinal ball requires white knuckles

November, 6, 2013
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When the Andrew Luck era ended at Stanford, coach David Shaw knew for his team to maintain the high standard of play, it would have to commit to the old evolutionary adage of adapt to survive.

Gone were the 43 points per game the team enjoyed during Luck’s senior year -- Shaw’s first year as head coach. With the graduation of a player like Luck, Stanford’s offensive production was expected to take a step back.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireStanford coach David Shaw credits his team's record in close games to the players' resilience.
And it did.

Since the start of the 2012 season, the Cardinal have averaged just 29.6 points per game -- two touchdowns fewer on average per contest than when Luck was running the show. And yet during that stretch, Stanford has still gone 19-3 against opponents that boast a 62.6 winning percentage. That ranks 10th among all FBS teams over the last year and a half.

The Cardinal have adapted and survived behind a brutalizing defense and power-running game. Though they aren’t scoring as many points, they are speeding the game up by slowing it down. And they are winning.

Good enough has been good enough for Stanford.

Since the start of the 2012 season the Cardinal are 10-3 in games decided by one possession (eight points). In those 22 games, their margin of victory is 11.6 points. As Shaw is fond of saying, football isn’t a beauty contest.

“We expect to be in tight games,” Shaw said. “We practice it. We spend a lot of time working on red zone. A lot of time working on overtime, two-minute offense, two-minute defense, the things that happen at the end of the game, so when we get in those times during the game, we just act and react.”

Compare that to No. 3 Oregon, Stanford’s opponent Thursday night in Palo Alto in a game that is sure to have a massive impact on the Pac-12 and BCS pecking order. Over that same stretch, the Ducks have enjoyed a margin of victory of 32.1 points per game. While the Cardinal have been in 13 one-possession games, Oregon has been in one. Just one. For those with a short memory, it was last year’s 17-14 overtime loss to the Cardinal at Autzen.

“All it really means is we’re doing our job and executing,” said Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. “We don’t look at something like that as a bad thing. You execute and you win a ball game. That’s what the main intent is. In any situation we have confidence the coaches will do an awesome job preparing us and we’ll go out there with confidence and be comfortable in whatever situation.”

This year could present another close situation. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said he’s expecting another tight, drag’em-out showdown with the veteran Cardinal defense.

“When you look at their defense and their two-deep, 15 or 16 are seniors,” Helfrich said. “And there is so much depth. So much continuity. It feels like we’ve been playing against Trent Murphy and [Shayne] Skov and [A.J.] Tarpley for 20 years. They are obviously very confident in what they do, and I think their offense will grind it out and create some situations. But I know at the end of the game they are going to have confidence. Hopefully so will we.”

Maturity and experience is obviously a big reason for Stanford’s success in close games. Take the last win -- a 20-12 victory over Oregon State in Corvallis. A late fumble could have swung the momentum to OSU’s favor. But the veteran Cardinal defense stiffened and preserved the win.

“They played us well not only physically, but they played a very smart game,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “I think the combination of what they have, which is physical talent and lots of experience, is a positive for them.”

The Cardinal, however, will be without one of their veteran leaders in defensive end Ben Gardner, who is out of the rest of the year with a pectoral injury. The fifth-year senior was a team captain and has been an integral part of Stanford’s defensive success for not only his pass-rushing abilities, but also for his ability to occupy blockers which opens things up for the outside linebackers. However, the Cardinal will get defensive end Henry Anderson back, who has been out since September with a knee injury. Josh Mauro, who has been filling in for Anderson, will replace Gardner.

Despite Gardner’s absence, there isn’t much this Cardinal team hasn’t seen. And it’s that experience they’ll draw from against an Oregon team that averages more than 55 points per game.

“When things don’t go our way during the game, we don’t lament over it,” Shaw said. “I think our maturity helps that. When you don’t play your best football and end up in a tight game, we don’t have a lot of guys spending a lot of time being upset how they didn’t play well in the first or second or third quarter. They know it’s a tight game. They know they have a chance to win it so let’s go out and win it.”

And the Cardinal also know they are going to have to get their offense moving more efficiently than it has in the last three games -- two of which were decided by eight or fewer points. Stanford has averaged slightly more than three touchdowns per game. And a lot of that falls on the shoulders of quarterback Kevin Hogan.

“When Kevin has a not-great game, it’s mechanics, and we’ve got to keep working on that and get him to be consistent and he’s working extremely hard,” Shaw said. “Everybody hates when I say it, but he’s still young. We don’t have a huge sample size of him playing football. He played so well early that everyone is shocked when he doesn’t have a great game. But I think the arrow is still pointing up. He’s got a chance to be a great college quarterback and we hope that surfaces again this week coming up.”

Calm before Oregon-Stanford hype

October, 31, 2013
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Apologies to the eight Pac-12 teams playing this trick-or-treat week, but this slate of games really is a light murmur before the hype volume is turned up to 11 next week.

The conference's two highest-ranked teams -- No. 2 Oregon and No. 5 Stanford -- are not only off this week, they square off next Thursday in what should be the Pac-12 game of the year.

That doesn't mean there aren't games worth watching over the next three days. Arizona State will try to prove it can beat a solid team on the road Thursday night at Washington State. USC's visit to Oregon State is intriguing on Friday night. And there are always upset possibilities as Arizona and UCLA are heavy favorites at California and Colorado, respectively.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will have the opportunity to make a Heisman Trophy statement as well as put the Ducks in the top position in the Pac-12 race next Thursday at Stanford.
But those games won't attract eyeballs from all areas of the country the way the Ducks-Cardinal showdown will. Oregon will be trying to polish its national championship contender bona fides with its toughest test yet -- Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota also could make a Heisman Trophy statement, and Stanford will be trying to take control of the Pac-12's North Division, as it did last year when it shocked the heavily favored Ducks 17-14 in overtime in Autzen Stadium.

Still, the primary focus for both teams was and will be more on themselves this week. There's recruiting calls to make and injured guys needing to get treatment. Both teams have banged-up players whose presence could be critical for the matchup, most notably Stanford with defensive end Henry Anderson and receiver Devon Cajuste. Stanford already announced that defensive end Ben Gardner is out for the season with a pectoral injury.

Earnest game preparation won't begin until the weekend, as both teams are trying to stick to a typical game-week schedule.

Even though both coaches want to keep the emotions contained and treat the matchup like any other, there's no question that the buzz started on their respective campuses not long after each dispatched a tough opponent last Saturday, with the Cardinal winning 20-12 at Oregon State and Oregon running away from UCLA in the fourth quarter for a 42-14 victory.

"We know that it's there," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "The guys know what the game is going to be about."

The teams have split their last four meetings, with Stanford winning in 2009 and 2012. Shaw is 1-1 as the Cardinal head coach against the Ducks and he was 1-1 as the team's offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh. This will be Mark Helfrich's first taste as the Oregon head coach; he was the Ducks' offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly the previous four meetings.

While the game will be heated and the stakes high, Shaw and Helfrich seem to get along well. They chatted frequently during the Pac-12 meetings in May. They certainly have a lot in common, as both replaced charismatic former head coaches credited with creating a national power before bolting for the NFL.

And, yes, they talked about exactly that.

"Mark and I talked about that a couple of times," Shaw said. "I think he's done it perfectly. You have to completely take your ego out of it. So many people say from the outside, 'How are you going to make this your program?' You look at it and say, 'This is not my program, it's the kids' program.' Every decision you make is what's best for the kids. And if the scheme is great, who cares if they call it Chip Kelly's scheme? Or Jim Harbaugh's scheme? Whoever, it doesn't matter. The things that work, you don't change. The things that don't work, you take them out."

However, they won't be chatting much over the next six days.

Both coaches subscribed to the notion of nameless, faceless opponents and every game being equally big. That's what elite programs do. Preparation is always the same. Every game is big when conference and national titles are the chief goal.

But the fact is the Oregon-Stanford game is bigger, and has been now for going on four years. We know this because all of the college football nation will be tuning in a week from now, just as it did last year, and in 2011 and 2010.
1. Michigan’s feuds with Ohio State and Notre Dame always drew more attention than its games with Michigan State. But that has changed, and not, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said Wednesday on the ESPNU College Football Podcast, because the Spartans won four in a row from 2008-11. “I think some of the changes with the divisional races puts a little more emphasis on this football game,” Hoke said. “But from a passion standpoint … it’s always been a very physical game. It’s always a game that been played through the whistle. The intensity of the rivalry is there. It’s real.”

2. Florida Atlantic head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis resigned, a source told my colleague Brett McMurphy, because they attended a party where people used marijuana. I guess the coaches picked the wrong state in which to attend the party. According to Governing magazine, 21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of marijuana usage. No, Florida is not one of them. But still this story, in 2013, is a stunner. Maybe FAU wanted Pelini (5-15 in two seasons) out?

3. Stanford senior defensive end and team captain Ben Gardner's season-ending pectoral injury means that the Cardinal will have started only two games with their preseason starting defensive line. Senior Henry Anderson hurt his knee in the second game against Army. That the line has remained a strength for the Cardinal is a credit to fifth-year senior Josh Mauro, who pretty much turned Anderson into Wally Pipp. But it’s a shame that the three seniors will have played together so little in their final season.


When California defensive lineman Aaron Tipoti theatrically flopped to the ground on Oct. 13, 2010, during a tight game against Oregon, suffering an injury that was notably similar to the heart attacks comedian Redd Foxx used to experience as Fred Sanford in the 1970s -- "This is the big one!" -- a new trope entered the college football lexicon on a national level: The Fake Injury.

Tipoti wasn't the first to woefully grab himself and shout "I'm coming, Elizabeth!" and topple over against the Ducks' up-tempo offense. Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict notoriously couldn't recall which leg he'd hurt against Oregon, so he tried limping on both.

And, of course, there was Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas, also in 2010. Thomas looked like he might require amputation in Autzen Stadium in 2010, yet a play later he theatrically sprinted onto the field, seeming to enjoy the boos that rained down upon him.

So, apologies to an outraged coach David Shaw, who ripped into Washington coach Steve Sarkisian on Tuesday for accusing Stanford of faking injuries during the Huskies' 31-28 defeat over the weekend, but the Cardinal do, in fact, have a history of faking injuries against up-tempo teams. Of course, Shaw was the offensive coordinator for the Cardinal in 2010. He worked for head coach Jim Harbaugh and had nothing to do with -- wink-wink -- defensive strategies.

[+] EnlargeSarkisian/Shaw
Stephen Lam/Getty ImagesStanford's David Shaw (left) and Washington's Steve Sarkisian aren't exactly seeing eye to eye lately.
Said Shaw, "We don’t fake injuries. We never have and we never will. I don’t condone it, we don’t teach it, I don’t allow it. And I don’t care what Steve Sarkisian thinks that he saw. We’ve never done it. We didn’t do it against Oregon. So why in the world would we do it against Washington?"

Replied Sarkisian an hour later on the Pac-12 conference call, "We saw what we saw. We'll leave it at that. I think two reasonable people can disagree on something and move forward, which is what we've done. We're getting ready to play the Ducks."

So we have a kerfuffle between Pac-12 coaches. A he-said, he-said emerging from a fantastically compelling game between highly ranked Pac-12 teams, one that essentially ended with a controversial reversal in the replay booth of a pass that would have converted a fourth-and-10 in Stanford territory.

No, Sarkisian and Shaw don't see eye to eye on that play either. Said Shaw, "Obviously the ball hit the ground. I don't even know why it's even a controversial call. The ball hit the ground." Countered Sarkisian, "I don’t think that was conclusive."

There is some genuine ill feeling here. When asked if they had chatted on the phone in an attempt to settle their differences on this, both Shaw and Sarkisian said, "No comment." While it's dangerous to read too much into a refusal to comment, there's a hint of "Yeah, we talked and it didn't go well," there.

While Shaw is unhappy with Sarkisian's accusation in general, it's clear he particularly didn't like Sarkisian naming Cardinal defensive line coach Randy Hart as "telling them to sit down," and then adding, "I guess that's how we play here at Stanford," in his postgame interview with Huskies flagship station KJR 950-AM.

That not only provoked Shaw to call Sarkisian "unprofessional," it also opened up Sarkisian for a valid tweak.

"The only defensive line coach that I know of that has ever instructed players to fake injuries works at Washington, not Stanford," Shaw said.

That, of course, would be Huskies assistant Tosh Lupoi, the man chiefly blamed for Tipoti's poor acting. Lupoi was suspended for a game after he admitted using fake injuries against the Ducks.

Shaw went on to point out that the two players accused of faking injuries, linebacker Shayne Skov and defensive end Ben Gardner, had legitimate injuries that required treatment after the game. Skov, in fact, had an MRI on his knee.

Skov and Gardner also took to Twitter after the game to assert they didn't fake an injury and that Hart never instructed any Cardinal to take a fall.

So what to make of all this?

As for the big picture, little can be done about teams faking injuries unless rules are changed, requiring injured players to sit out a specific number of plays. Officials cannot -- and should not -- be asked to figure out if an injury is real or not.

As for the Stanford-Washington game specifically, Shaw made an impassioned defense of his team, but there's still the simple fact both Skov and Gardner quickly returned to the game and seemed no worse for wear. At the very least, that allows room for some suspicion, particularly when your team lost a close game.

If there is a clear mistake here, it's Sarkisian specifically calling out Hart, who coached 21 seasons at Washington before being hired at Stanford. Sarkisian wouldn't clarify what he saw across the field -- or heard secondhand -- but it's reasonable to believe he or someone else might have misinterpreted a gesticulation. I've known Hart since 1999, and I know he's too smart and too experienced to do something so patently obvious that it might get picked up by another team or, even worse, on camera.

Sarkisian would have been better off, if he felt strongly enough to go public with his complaint, as he obviously did, making a general criticism -- perhaps a joke? -- out of his perception of fake injuries, and then formally bringing it up with the Pac-12 afterward. And then, in the offseason, agitating for a rule change.

As for a rule change, Sarkisian didn't seem eager to endorse that.

"For our guys, when our players go down it's a pretty extensive process to get evaluated by our doctors," he said. "That would be more of a medical expert question of how long it takes to examine somebody before they can be put back in the game."

The Stanford counter to that would be that Skov and Gardner were evaluated on the field. You know -- when play was being held up.

It's not difficult for a team to fake injuries and to retain plausible deniability. It's also difficult to not find Shaw's adamant response here compelling. Further, it's a bit surprising that it's Shaw and Sarkisian at loggerheads. They are both articulate, polished, outgoing guys. They seem like they could be college roommates.

But there is one takeaway that we can assert without ambiguity.

The Stanford-Washington game in Husky Stadium in 2014 should be great fun.

Instant Analysis: Stanford 42, ASU 28

September, 21, 2013
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STANFORD, Calif. -- In the weekend's only matchup of ranked teams, No. 5 Stanford jumped out to a big lead and coasted to a 42-28 win against No. 23 Arizona State. Here's how it went down:

It was over when: Stanford DE Ben Gardner blocked a pooch-punt attempt from ASU QB Taylor Kelly with the Cardinal leading 32-7 late in the third quarter. One play later, RB Tyler Gaffney scored from 16 yards out to give Stanford a 39-7 lead with 37 seconds left in the quarter.

The Sun Devils turned in a valiant comeback attempt, but the deficit was too big to overcome.

Game ball goes to: Stanford DE Josh Mauro. Making his first career start, the fifth-year senior had an interception and 25-yard return and a sack.

Stat of the game: Arizona State players who had punts blocked: Two. In addition to Kelly's blocked pooch, punter Matt Haack had one blocked, too. His, however, was unique in that it wasn't touched by a Stanford player.

Haack punted it into the back of a teammate, then proceeded to kick it out of the back of the end zone for a safety.

What Stanford learned: Keeping the play calling simple was a good plan. The Cardinal was vanilla in wins against San Jose State and Army to begin the year, only to breakout several unseen looks against Arizona State. Stanford moved the ball at will in the first half before sitting on it for most of the second half.

What Arizona State learned: The Sun Devils aren't ready to be considered serious challengers in the Pac-12. They need to find a cure for the "dropsies" and, at least against a team like Stanford, have to find more balance offensively. The loss did nothing to diminish their chances at winning the South, but does show how far they have to go long-term.

Reynolds ejected: Stanford All-American S Ed Reynolds was ejected in the fourth quarter for targeting. He will be forced to sit out the first half of Stanford's game next week against Washington State in Seattle.

What it means: Stanford is every bit the national title contender it was billed as before the year began. The final score isn't a clear indicator of just how dominant the Cardinal was. Stanford led 29-0 at halftime and was in run-out-the-clock mode with reserves rotating in on both sides of the ball for most of the second half.

Best/Worst of the Pac-12 bowl season

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
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We're taking a look at the best and worst of the Pac-12 bowl season.

Best player, offense: Washington RB Bishop Sankey was the best player on the field in the Huskies' 28-26 defeat in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. He gained 205 yards on 30 carries with a TD. He also caught six passes for 74 yards, giving him 279 of Washington's 447 yards from scrimmage.

Best player, defense: Arizona State DT Will Sutton had 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss in the Sun Devils' 62-28 domination of Navy.

Best player, special teams: De'Anthony Thomas' 94-yard return of the opening kickoff of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl set the tone for Oregon's 35-17 triumph over Kansas State. We'll also slip in that his 23-yard TD on a screen pass was perhaps even more spectacular.

Best game: It's still difficult to wrap one's mind around Arizona's comeback against Nevada in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. The Wolf Pack led 48-35 with 1:48 remaining, but the Wildcats scored two touchdowns and recovered an onside kick in the final 46 seconds to steal a 49-48 victory. Arizona trailed 21-0 in the first quarter and was down 45-28 entering the final period, but still won.

Worst game: USC's 21-7 loss to a Georgia Tech team with seven defeats in the Hyundai Sun Bowl was not only the worst performance of the Pac-12's bowl season, it was the worst bowl performance in USC history. The Trojans, the preseason No. 1 team, managed to gain just 205 yards against a bad defense, one that had been shredded in a 49-28 loss to Middle Tennessee.

Best play: Arizona linebacker Marquis Flowers recovered the onside kick that set up the Wildcats' go-ahead drive against Nevada. He also grabbed the interception with 13 seconds left that ended the high drama.

Best goal-line stand: Stanford dominated Wisconsin's offense in the second half of the Rose Bowl, but that wasn't the case in the second quarter, when the Badgers scored 14 points and were gashing the Cardinal. Gashing, other than one critical play. On fourth-and-goal at the Stanford 1-yard line, Badgers RB James White was stonewalled by DE Ben Gardner.

Worst play: Baylor led UCLA 14-0, but UCLA looked poised to make a defensive stop in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl. The Bears faced a third-and-9 from their 45-yard line. UCLA decided to blitz, and Bears QB Nick Florence made them pay with a 55-yard TD pass to Tevin Reese. It was a beautiful pass and catch for Baylor. But it was a crushing blow to the Bruins, who never mounted much of a challenge the rest of the evening.

Best stat(s): Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly was nearly perfect against Navy. He completed 17 of 19 passes for 277 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. That's a pass efficiency rating of 277.43. Alabama's AJ McCarron led the nation with a pass efficiency rating of 175.28 this season. Oh, and Kelly also rushed for 81 yards on seven carries -- 11.6 yards per rush -- and a TD.

Best stat(s) II: Stanford's defense shut out Wisconsin in the second half of the Rose Bowl, holding the Badgers to just four first downs and 82 total yards, including 13 yards rushing from All-American RB Montee Ball.

Worst stat: UCLA's feckless performance against Baylor was best summed up by the Bruins going 1-for-17 on third downs. That's bad against any defense, but making matters worse is this: Baylor ranked 119th in the nation in third-down conversions allowed.

Crazy stat: Texas' defense posted an Alamo Bowl-record 10 sacks for minus-81 yards against Oregon State. Alex Okafor alone set a bowl record with 4.5 sacks. Here's a guess that Beavers fans were wondering how a team that gave up 23 sacks in its previous 12 games couldn't make an adjustment, because Okafor doesn't rank in the top five of defensive linemen/outside linebackers Oregon State faced during the regular season.

Pac-12 All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
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Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for your 2012 Pac-12 All-Bowl team.

OFFENSE

QB: Taylor Kelly, Arizona State -- 17-of-19, 267 yards with four touchdowns and no picks. Outstanding performance.

RB: Bishop Sankey, Washington -- The lone player from a losing team on the all-bowl squad, but he was too good to ignore -- 30 carries for 205 yards and a touchdown.

RB: Marion Grice, Arizona State -- With a heavy heart, he earned offensive MVP by piling up 159 yards on just 14 carries for a robust 11.4-yard average. He also had a pair of rushing touchdowns in ASU's blowout win.

WR: Austin Hill, Arizona -- His 175 yards broke an Arizona record for receiving yards in a bowl game and his two touchdowns matched a school high.

[+] EnlargeArizona State's Rashad Ross
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsRashad Ross had four catches for 139 yards and three touchdowns against Navy.
WR: Rashad Ross, Arizona State -- Had a huge day with four catches for 139 yards and three touchdowns.

TE: Colt Lyerla, Oregon -- He's not here for his three catches and 52 yards. He's here because those three catches for 52 yards changed the way Kansas State played defense and it opened everything up for the Ducks.

OL: David Yankey, Stanford -- The Morris Trophy winner helped keep quarterback Kevin Hogan sack-free and QB hit-free.

OL: Kyle Quinn, Arizona -- Paved the way for Carey's record-setting performance.

OL: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon -- Kept a good Kansas State front at bay and delivered a knockout block on De'Anthony Thomas' touchdown reception.

OL: Evan Finkenberg, Arizona State -- Key player in Marion Grice's big day.

OL: Kyle Long, Oregon -- Helped limit Kansas State's aggressive front to just one sack.

K: Jordan Williamson, Stanford -- Shook off the Fiesta cobwebs and calmly drilled both field goal attempts, including a 47-yarder. His six points were the difference in the 20-14 outcome.

DEFENSE

DL: Ben Gardner, Stanford -- Fourth-and-goal at the 1. James White, prepare to meet the mullet.

DL: Will Sutton, Arizona State -- Defensive MVP of Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Hungry for more next season.

DL: Carl Bradford, Arizona State -- Three tackles for a loss, plus a sack, make him the perfect complement to Sutton.

LB: Kiko Alonso, Oregon -- Run blitzed the Wildcats all night and was as effective as he was punishing.

LB: Michael Clay, Oregon -- Your defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl had nine tackles, two for a loss, plus a sack. He was prolific.

LB: A.J. Tarpley, Stanford -- The leading tackler in the Rose Bowl helped the Cardinal to a second-half shutout.

LB: Marquis Flowers, Arizona -- The defensive MVP of the New Mexico Bowl posted 10 tackles, one for a loss, and an interception. He also recovered the onside kick that sparked Arizona's comeback.

DB: Jordan Richards, Stanford -- Seven tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack and one very, very nasty (yet clean) hit.

DB: Erick Dargan, Oregon -- Two picks off a Heisman Trophy finalist is two picks off a Heisman Trophy finalist -- whether it's the end of the half or end of the game. He also had eight tackles, second only to Clay.

DB: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon -- Posted five tackles and a pass breakup. Kansas State challenged him. He responded.

DB: Shaquille Richardson, Arizona -- Nabbed his first interception of the season at the Arizona 2-yard line and returned it 27 yards. That kicked off a nine-play, 71-yard touchdown drive for the Wildcats.

KR: De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon -- DAT did what DAT does. And he did it great.

Cardinal win with Cardinal ball

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
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PASADENA, Calif. -- Beauty is in the eye of whichever team has more points at the end of the game. Beholder be damned.

This is 2012 Stanford football -- white knuckles and all. If you want pretty, the Getty Museum is on the other side of the 405.

Anyone expecting anything different in the 99th Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio probably hasn’t watched much Cardinal ball this season. Stanford did what it does best: get a lead, hold a lead and win the game in the fourth quarter. It was what guided Stanford (12-2) to a Pac-12 championship, and it’s what enabled the Cardinal to beat Wisconsin 20-14 on Tuesday night.

“We’re not built for style points and we don’t blow teams out,” said Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, who tallied six tackles, including a critical stop on a Wisconsin fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. “It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight and this one was no different. It’s going to be a four-quarter game with us. Wisconsin played very hard. They didn’t make it easy on us. It’s one of those things where at each pivotal moment someone new stepped up and made a play.”

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsStanford limited Wisconsin running back Montee Ball to just 13 yards in the second half.
After jumping out to a 14-0 lead and a 17-14 halftime lead, the Cardinal defense pitched a second-half shutout -- holding the Badgers (8-6) to 82 total yards in the second half. Running back Montee Ball, the Doak Walker Award winner, rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown, but was held to just 13 yards in the second half.

“We pride ourselves on being able to drag teams into the deep water in the fourth quarter,” linebacker Chase Thomas said. “We’ve been there plenty of times. … We’re used to making the big stops when we have to. That’s how we’re built.”

Indeed. This is the 10th time this year Stanford has been involved in a game that was decided by a touchdown or less. And they’ve won eight of those.

“We were prepared for this,” said running back Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown. “We were ready for this kind of game. We’ve seen it before and we’re a mature enough team to be able to handle the close games.”

But it’s the Notre Dame game -- a 20-13 loss in overtime in South Bend on Oct. 13 (the last time Stanford lost) -- that head coach David Shaw singled out as the turning point for the season. You may remember a critical instant replay involving Taylor that didn’t go Stanford’s way at the end of that game.

“We could sit, sulk and think about what could have been,” Shaw said, recalling how he addressed the team. “Or we can say, 'From now on, we’re going to finish games. Don’t leave it up to officials. Finish games.' … That was kind of a galvanizing moment for us. We lost that game and it was so heartfelt and so devastating. It was right in front of us. We made a collective decision that we were not going to let games slip away from us. So we went on a tear. Eight games in a row. We kept the same mentality. We never got too high, we never got too low. That game really propelled us to this one.”

And now the Cardinal have their first Rose Bowl title since 1972 and their second victory in a BCS bowl game in the past three years. It would be three in a row except for a loss in overtime last year to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Don’t think this win doesn’t wash a bit of the bad taste out of their mouths from last season.

“Oh yeah, more than a little bit,” Gardner said. “This is pretty darn sweet. We know what it’s like to be in tight games and we never had a doubt.”

Stanford has drawn comparisons to a Big Ten team for its physical style of play and run-first, stop-the-run mentality. And it was on full display Tuesday night -- much as it’s been all season.

“It’s football,” Shaw said. “It’s really, really physical football. There were guys that were tired. Every play you could hear the pads popping. It’s the kind of football that I grew up watching. And I’m proud that our guys played that style of football.”

Anything less wouldn’t be Stanford.

More to Gardner than the mullet

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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LOS ANGELES -- “Business in the front, party in the back.” That, of course, is the battle cry of those who proudly sport the mullet.

Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner brings a new twist to the old saying: “Business in the front, party in the backfield.”

[+] EnlargeBen Gardner
AP Photo/Jesse BealsStanford's Ben Gardner will keep his mullet for the Rose Bowl.
Known as much for his mullet as his ability register sacks and tackles for a loss, Gardner caught a lot of flak last season from teammates when he decided to chop off the mullet before the Fiesta Bowl -- which turned out to be a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State.

There are a lot of different reasons why Stanford lost last season (you can start with Justin Blackmon’s eight catches, 186 yards and three touchdowns). But Gardner cutting his hair wasn’t one of them.

And to prove a point, he almost did it again this year. Almost.

“I wanted to prove that it was an aberration last year and it wasn’t actually my fault,” Gardner said. “But they wouldn’t let me do it. I think an uprising would have started in the locker room. So I’m rocking it for this game.”

Superstitions die hard this time of year.

Stanford’s lone representative from the Badger State will square off against Wisconsin when the Cardinal and Badgers meet on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl presented by Vizio. Coming out of Homestead High School in Mequon, Wisc., about 90 miles East of Madison on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Gardner received only tepid attention as a high school player. He had some offers from smaller schools, but none from Wisconsin; other than a “preferred” walk-on invitation.

“I didn’t necessarily feel disrespected,” he said. “I just wasn’t interested in being a walk-on. Even though I did get an offer from Stanford, it was late and I was the lowest-rated recruit in my class coming in. You definitely come in looking to prove yourself. But after a year or two, once you are integrated into the team and you are so immersed in the team goals, the motivating factor has been to get to this game … I think it might have motivated me early on, but I don’t think about it much anymore.”

The two-time second-team All-Pac-12 performer is tied for second on the team in tackles for a loss (14.5) and sacks (7.5), and has been a catalyst for one of the top defenses in the country.

“I remember when he came in as a freshman, he said he was going to be a starter by the time he left,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov. “He’s a quiet guy, but he likes to have fun. He’s definitely the leader of our defensive line.”

And as the hair grew, so did his defensive production.

“It’s his blessing and his curse,” said linebacker Trent Murphy. “I think the mullet itself speaks a ton about Ben's personality. He's a tough, kind of nitty-gritty guy. … That's kind of how he plays on the field. He's just a tough guy.”

He’s come up big in key games this season for the Pac-12 champion Cardinal (11-2), tallying 3.5 tackles for a loss against USC and sacks against Oregon State and UCLA. He’ll look to add to his tally against the team he grew up watching.

He thinks it’s funny that his hair garners so much attention. But it doesn’t define him. And yes, he’s probably going to cut it again.

After the game.

“I think I'm probably a classic, classic guy that you find from Wisconsin,” Gardner said. “Just an average Midwest guy trying to make it out in California.”

Best case/worst case: Pac-12 bowls

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
9:00
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Our assignment is to pose a best-case and a worst-case scenario for every Pac-12 bowl team.

So here goes.

Arizona

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque, N.M., Dec. 15: Arizona (7-5) vs. Nevada (7-5), 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Arizona rolls 40-28, as quarterback Matt Scott goes out with a bang that raises NFL eyebrows, and running back Ka'Deem Carey rushes for 195 yards to sew up the national rushing title.

Worst case: Scott gets knocked out of the game early and backup B.J. Denker looks overwhelmed, raising questions about the future at QB. Carey rushes for 35 yards and loses the rushing title as Nevada rolls 42-21. Michigan fans hit the message boards with a litany of "I told you so" about Rich Rodriguez.

Washington

MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Dec. 22: Washington (7-5) vs. Boise State (10-2), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: In a "Welcome back!" performance, QB Keith Price throws for 295 yards and three touchdowns -- matching the total TD passes the Broncos have yielded all season -- and runs for another score as the Huskies end 2012 with a statement victory that bodes well for 2013. The Huskies' hot offseason topic is how high the preseason ranking will be.

Worst case: Washington starts slowly as it has much of the season, then gives up a double-digit fourth-quarter lead as Price throws multiple interceptions. Boise State wins going away 38-17, and the Huskies' hot offseason topic is whether coach Steve Sarkisian has plateaued.

UCLA

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, San Diego, Dec. 27: UCLA (9-4) vs. Baylor (7-5), 9:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: That the Bruins score 45 points is not unexpected. That Baylor is held to just 17 points is unexpected. UCLA dominates on both sides of the ball, and quarterback Brett Hundley looks like a budding Heisman Trophy candidate. After the game, linebacker Anthony Barr and guard Xavier Su'a-Filo both announce they are returning for the 2013 season. Says Barr, "Unfinished business? Naaah. I just like playing with these guys."

Worst case: Baylor rolls over UCLA in a 55-30 win, as the Bruins' defense can do nothing to slow the Bears, while Hundley throws three picks. Barr and Su'a-Filo opt to leave for the NFL, as does coach Jim Mora, who is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Oregon State

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, Dec. 29: Oregon State (9-3) vs. Texas (8-4), 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Oregon State throttles the Longhorns 31-13 with stifling defense, but the big story is Cody Mannion -- or is it Sean Vaz? -- throwing four touchdown passes and making a strong case to be the 2013 starter.

Worst case: The Beavers become the only team that couldn't run on Texas this year, and Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz both throw two interceptions in a 30-10 defeat. Meanwhile, Oregon State makes both Case McCoy and David Ash look like superstars. "Well," say all the national commentators. "This makes a strong case for the Big 12's superiority over the Pac-12. But we've still got to see the Fiesta Bowl."

Arizona State

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, San Francisco, Dec. 29: Arizona State (7-5) vs. Navy (7-4), 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Best case: Arizona State uses its superior speed on both sides of the ball to throttle Navy 48-17. After the game, consensus All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton announces he's returning for his senior year.

Worst case: Navy's triple option wears down the Sun Devils in a 28-17 victory. Even worse, the Sun Devils turn the ball over five times and commit 12 penalties for 105 yards, including two personal fouls. They look like the 2011 team, not the 2012 version under new coach Todd Graham.

USC

Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31: USC (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7), 2 p.m. ET, CBS

Best case: Matt Barkley looks like, well, Matt Barkley, throwing five touchdown passes as the Trojans roll 40-10. As for the defense, coordinator Monte Kiffin goes out in style, with the Trojans holding Georgia Tech's option to just 225 total yards. Head coach Lane Kiffin announces after the game that he has hired Bob Diaco away from Notre Dame to be his defensive coordinator.

Worst case: Barkley tries to play but reinjures his shoulder, and the Trojans fold thereafter, ending a horribly disappointing season with a 38-17 loss. After the game, receiver Robert Woods, running back Silas Redd and cornerback Nickell Robey announce they will enter the NFL draft. Lane Kiffin also announces the hiring of Nick Holt to run the Trojans' defense.

Stanford

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1: Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5), 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Stanford dominates on both sides of the ball in a 30-10 victory, holding the Badgers to just 79 yards rushing and 210 total yards. Quarterback Kevin Hogan throws two touchdown passes and runs for another, while running back Stepfan Taylor rushes for 145 yards and a score. After the game, linebacker Shayne Skov, defensive end Ben Gardner and tight end Zach Ertz announce they will be returning for their senior seasons.

Worst case: Montee Ball rushes for 197 yards and two scores as Wisconsin pushes the Cardinal around in a 24-17 win. The Badgers sack Hogan four times, overwhelming the Cardinal's offensive line. After the game, Skov, Gardner and Ertz announce they will enter the NFL draft. Coach David Shaw is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles, and Walt Harris is rehired.

Oregon

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz., Jan. 3: Oregon (11-1) vs. Kansas State (11-1), 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Oregon starts fast and never lets up in a 51-20 blowout, with running back Kenjon Barner rushing for 187 yards and two scores and quarterback Marcus Mariota throwing for three TDs. The Ducks sack Collin Klein five times and grab two interceptions. "I'm sure glad we didn't play them in the regular season," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder says afterward. Shortly after the game, Ducks coach Chip Kelly signs a lifetime contract, opens practices and promises to be more patient with hypotheticals and other sorts of irritating questions.

Worst case: The Kansas State defense throttles the Ducks' offense, and Klein throws three TD passes in a 30-13 victory. The Ducks rush for only 101 yards. "Oregon struggles in these big games," say the national commentators afterward. "And this really makes the Pac-12 look bad." Kelly is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Mariota quits football to become a professional surfer. John Mackovic is hired to replace Kelly.

Pac-12: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 16, 2012
11/16/12
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Stanford owns the nation's top-rated rushing defense. Oregon has the league's best rushing attack. The Ducks are the only team in FBS football that averages at least six yards per carry, so the pressure is on Stanford's front seven to slow down the Ducks.

The question Ted and I have been asked is why aren't any Stanford players in consideration for individual awards? The answer is simple -- the strength of the Cardinal defense is the sum of its parts. No one guy stands out, but all are exceptional and each of them play off of each other. Ben Gardner, Terrence Stephens, Josh Mauro, Trent Murphy, Chase Thomas, A.J. Tarpley, Shayne Skov, et al. have to be at their best against the Ducks.

This is truly a matchup of strength versus strength. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Stanford holds its opponents to no gain or negative yards 38 percent of the time. Running backs against Stanford are gaining less than a yard before contact. Oregon, however, averages almost four yards before its backs are even hit and they gain positive yards 80 percent of the time.

And what happens early in the game could be telling. Stanford has only allowed 13 points in the first quarter all season. The Ducks are outscoring opponents by 154 points in the first quarter.

Much of quarterback Marcus Mariota's success has come off of play action. Following a fake or misdirection, he has 13 touchdowns to just one interception and he's completing 63.3 percent of his throws. Without play-action, he's completing just 50 percent of his throws. So while stopping the run is priority No. 1 for Stanford, discipline in the secondary will also be key.

While we usually reserve this space on Friday mornings for individual players who could be difference-makers, that's not how Stanford's defense operates. So to stop the team everyone expects to playing for the national championship, it's going to take a complete effort.

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