NCF Nation: Chris Owusu

Last year’s Stanford-Oregon game didn’t just break the mold of the rivalry’s previous three matchups. It detonated it with an ordnance of smothering defense and glacial tempo.

Stanford’s 17-14 overtime win was a stark contrast to how the previous meetings had played out since 2009 -- the first game that featured both David Shaw and Mark Helfrich on their respective sidelines.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThe trend of high-scoring Stanford-Oregon games was halted last season, as Marcus Mariota and the Ducks couldn't get on track.
No. 3 Oregon takes its nation-leading 18-game road winning streak to No. 5 Stanford Thursday night in a true clash of schematic styles. And there are lessons to be learned from some of the recent matchups -- trends and themes that paint a picture of what could transpire Thursday night.

The teams have split their past four meetings, with Stanford winning at home in 2009 and on the road in 2012. Oregon won back-to-back games in 2010 in Eugene, Ore., and 2011 in Palo Alto, Calif.

In the three games prior to last season, the winning team had scored at least 51 points and the loser had scored at least 30. The margin of victory was at least nine points. It was an annual offensive feast worthy of a league known for putting up points.

But last year’s game flipped the script as the offenses took a backseat to trench warfare, making every point a premium.

“Each game is its own entity,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who was offensive coordinator for the previous four matchups. “One big thing is our programs are a lot more similar than they are different from a number of perspectives. Their offense is different from our offense. But we’re similar in the fact of playing with heart -- playing fundamentally sound. We recruit a lot of the same people.

“But at some point it’s going to come down to our best person and their best person in space or in tight.”

Clichés become clichés for a reason. Some coach somewhere once said “big-time players make big-time plays” and everyone thought it was a profound statement at the time. Then more and more coaches started saying it and the meaning dulled. And in the case of Stanford-Oregon, it’s cliché, but true.

The past four meetings have all been defined by outstanding individual performances. Some were statistically sensational: Toby Gerhart’s 223 rushing yards and three touchdowns in 2009; LaMichael James' 257 yards and three touchdowns a year later; James again in 2011; and Zach Ertz in 2012.

Others were more understated. But regardless of the total points scored, it still comes down to players making plays.

“The biggest one is, and I hate to put it on one side of the ball because it is a complete game, but when we make the open-field tackles and don’t miss them, we have a chance,” Shaw said. “And then the two wins, the common denominator is making big plays. Toby Gerhart ripping off some big runs. Chris Owusu had a huge touchdown pass. Ryan Whalen had a huge catch to get us in the end zone. Zach Ertz last year was huge. Then Kevin Hogan's mobility. He ran for a touchdown and could escape and slide and find Zach off schedule. Defensively, we have to make those open-field tackles and line up and not be out of position.”

Thursday’s showdown is a true struggle of strength versus strength when you consider the following:

  • Oregon hasn’t scored fewer than 35 points in its past 10 games -- the last time coming in the 17-14 loss to Stanford last season.
  • Stanford hasn’t allowed more than 30 points in its past 17 games, the nation’s second-longest active streak.
  • The Ducks have won 18 straight on the road -- their last loss coming to Stanford in 2009.
  • Stanford has won 13 straight at home, its last loss in Palo Alto coming to Oregon in 2011.

There are dozens of notable sidebars to this matchup. Obviously, Stanford’s defense versus Oregon’s offense is the storyline that garners the most attention. But this is also a Heisman showcase game for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, just as it was for Andrew Luck in the 2011 loss to the Ducks. There are the recent struggles of Stanford’s offense and the inconsistencies of Hogan, who made his first career road start last year at Autzen and was lauded as one of the game’s heroes for his poise on the grand stage. There is Oregon’s defense -- so smothering and so in the shadow of the offense.

Stanford’s top priority is and always will be to stop the run. But the Ducks have also developed a dangerous downfield passing attack that wasn’t as developed last season. No Oregon wide receiver had more than 500 receiving yards last season. This season Josh Huff (703) and Bralon Addison (609) give the Ducks' offense an added dimension that Stanford will have to account for. And then there is the always-accurate Mariota, who hasn’t thrown an interception since the first half of last season's Stanford game.

Defensively, the Cardinal are very good at getting to the quarterback without having to send extra blitzers. No team in the country has more sacks over the past two years when sending four or fewer rushers at the quarterback.

“They have some guys up front that really try to control the line of scrimmage,” Mariota said. “They have done an awesome job all year of being physical. But I think our offensive line is up to the challenge. They are going to go out and play their best and we’ll do our best at executing.”

The recent past between these teams might not be entirely prologue. But history tells us that big-time players will make big-time plays -- if you'll pardon the cliché.
While so much offseason drama has focused on who will be delivering passes at Stanford, there is also the question of who is going to be catching those passes.

Gone are leading wide receivers Griff Whalen (56 catches, 749 yards, four touchdowns) and Chris Owusu (35-376-2), who missed a lot of time last year anyway with injury. And we use the term "leading" accurately, but lightly, because often times last year head coach David Shaw was critical of the wide receiver contributions.

Then again, he didn't need the wide receivers to be great. Part of it was the tight end trio of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who accounted for 20 of Stanford's 38 passing touchdowns -- including 10 from the departed Fleener. Part of it was also quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw a pretty darn good ball, but was also very good at distributing to multiple receivers and position groups.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Drew Terrell
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireDrew Terrell is one of only two senior receivers on Stanford's roster this season.
Running backs/fullbacks caught nine touchdowns and the wide receivers accounted for the other nine. That's more than 23 percent. And let's be honest, maybe the best catch of the 2011 season was by the guy usually doing the throwing.

Translation, with a new quarterback and the top three pass-catchers gone -- the Cardinal are going to need stronger wide receiver play in 2012.

"It's vital," Shaw said. "It's vital to our success. We got a really good start. Jamal Rashad-Patterson is in the best shape of his life. Drew Terrell has really attacked his senior year much like Griff Whalen did the year before and Doug Baldwin the year before."

Terrell is an interesting prospect. Of the 15 wide receivers on Stanford's roster, Terrell is one of only two seniors along with Rashad-Patterson -- and ironically, the guy who threw the ball to Luck. He's a standout on special teams and with a very young receiving corps, he's going to have to be a standout in the locker room and on the field.

"It's a big year for him, no doubt," Shaw said of Terrell. "He's got such a great trust from the coaching staff. He knows all the plays and formations ... he's the leader in that room and of the group. How we use him will change week to week. He's a good route runner and he's been our best blocker for two years."

But he only caught eight balls for 81 yards and a score last year. That leaves sophomore Ty Montgomery -- with his 24 catches and two touchdowns -- as the No. 1 threat. As a true freshman, he emerged late in the season as Owusu's primary replacement and in a short time showed why Shaw is excited about him.

"I think Ty Montgomery is going to be a star in college football," Shaw said. "And we've brought in four new guys to compete. They've all shown flashes. We're excited about them. And the gauntlet is out there for these guys. We've proven over time that at every position, if you show us you can help us, we'll put you on the field to help us. The competition is there and we'll see who puts themselves in a position to play."
I was a little surprised last week at Chris Owusu's comments regarding concussions.

In an article in the San Jose Mercury News, Owusu, who suffered three concussions in a 13-month span that included the horrific scene in Corvallis, Ore., last season, distanced himself as much as possible from his history of head injuries.
"I just want to move forward. It's unfortunate that I'm part of this conversation. But hopefully in the next couple of months, I'll finally get to change that. I don't want to be known as someone who is surrounded by this topic."
[+] EnlargeChris Owusu
Jim Z. Rider/US PRESSWIREThe concussion he suffered at Oregon State ended Chris Owusu's senior season at Stanford.
Part of me understands where he's coming from. Owusu was an undrafted free agent and he's doing his best to impress his new employers -- the San Francisco 49ers and former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh -- and he's trying to make a team.

This isn't going to be a Owusu-should-hang-'em-up story. Because he shouldn't. He has a dream. He has the physical and mental faculties to live out that dream and, more importantly, he has the blessings of doctors to play. Go for it.

But why distance yourself from concussion talk? This is a time when it's most important to be talking about concussions.

Owusu -- clearly an intelligent individual, as Stanford grads tend to be -- could be at the forefront of change. Tell your story. Tell the doctors and the general managers that concussions are dangerous, but they aren't contagious. Owusu took some of the hardest hits I've ever seen in football. He was strapped to a gurney and taken off a football field via ambulance. And now he's fighting for a spot on an NFL roster. That's something he should be proud of, not running from. Some might even call it gritty and inspirational.

There will always be coaches and general managers who will dismiss Owusu regardless of what the doctors say. There are also GMs who won't take quarterbacks shorter than 6-foot-3, running backs taller than 6 feet and defensive ends less than 260 pounds. Doug Flutie, Eddie George and James Harrison would disagree.

In an interview last month with SI's Jim Trotter, Owusu talks about how he reluctantly agreed to be shut down for the rest of his senior season following the Oregon State incident.
"Did I put up a fight a couple of times to get back on the field? Yes, I did, because I love the game so much," says Owusu. "When you get the game taken away from you like that, it's something where it opens your eyes and it's frustrating. I respect what the coaches and the doctors and the medical staff did for me here at Stanford, I really do. They looked out for my overall well-being and did not take any chances. But could I have played? I felt that I could have. Did they do what they felt was in my best interest? In their eyes, I think they did. But it was a frustrating process."

Of course it was frustrating. Owusu is a football player. But cooler and less-concussed heads prevailed, and Owusu is clearly thankful for that.

I don't expect Owusu to change his style of play, nor do I expect his concussion history to affect his game in the future. He's healed and cleared. That should be that. But with so much talk about concussions and the lingering impact, this strikes me as something Owusu should be running toward, not from. Concussions are a scary part of the game and Owusu has shown tremendous courage by getting back out on the field. He can show the same kind of courage off the field by educating and informing from his past experience.
Some good news for fans of Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu. Evan Silva of NBC sports reported yesterday that Owusu has been medically cleared to continue his football career.

For many, the lasting image of Owusu's Stanford career will be a thumbs up as he was carted into an ambulance on the field at Oregon State. It was his second concussion of the season, his third in a 13-month span and one of the most chilling sights of the 2011 college football season.

[+] EnlargeChris Owusu
Chris Morrison/US PresswireChris Owusu has been cleared "to play football now" by a doctor with the NFL Head, Neck, and Spine Committee.
Others, at least those who noticed, watched him play the final snap of the regular season finale against Notre Dame after missing the previous two games -- a subtle, yet classy gesture by head coach David Shaw to get Owusu on the field one last time on Senior Night.

But it now appears that Owusu is moving forward. No doubt, he's received the best medical advice -- the article states Owusu was looked over by an NFL doctor. And in this concussion-conscious world, chances are a doctor wouldn't clear a potential player if he didn't pass the strict tests with flying colors.
From the article:

Per [Owusu's agent], Owusu has been symptom free since November 6 of 2011, one day after his last concussion. A doctor with the NFL Head, Neck, and Spine Committee has diagnosed Owusu as “perfectly normal” and cleared Owusu “to play football now.” The doctor also determined that Owusu is not at greater risk of concussions due to his history.

Up until his injuries, Owusu had been having an average season at best. On several occasions, Shaw stated that he had hoped Owusu would be more productive. He finished the 2011 season with 35 catches for 376 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a couple of drops that led to interceptions.

In 2010, he saw action in only seven games because of assorted injuries.

Owusu has been training at the Stanford campus along with Michael Thomas, Coby Fleener, Johnson Bademosi and Griff Whalen. He'll join Fleener, Jonathan Martin, Delano Howell, Andrew Luck and David DeCastro at the NFL combine in Indianapolis later this month.

You can guarantee when he gets there, he's going to have a massive "Fragile" stigma that he's going to have to work off. Owusu has the speed to impress and his return skills make him more marketable. But just because a doctor says his melon isn't busted, doesn't mean that some teams won't be wary about taking a flyer on him. And that could hurt his draft stock.

The few times I spoke with Owusu this year, I really enjoyed them. He was charismatic, funny and always had something good to say about someone else on the team, even when the story was about him. There's something to be said for not letting anything get in the way of following a dream. Here's hoping the doctors -- and Owusu -- are making the right call.
Michael Thomas is not one of them. He's one of those.

The former Stanford safety is one of those players spurned by the postseason bowl games and combines. Not one of them, the ones who get all of the draftnik attention and are perceived to be the next crop of elite NFL talent.

Thomas would be lying if he said that didn't bother him. And it should. Anyone who has spent 30 seconds with him knows he's a competitive guy.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
Kyle Terada/US PresswireMichael Thomas will try to draw the attention of NFL scouts during Stanford's pro day workout.
"It was frustrating at first, waiting for invitations that didn't come," Thomas said. "Especially when you feel like you are on par with some of those guys who are going. I feel like I can compete with the best of the best. But you can only play the hand you're dealt. So I'm training hard. But I was disappointed that I didn't at least get the opportunity to showcase myself."

Instead, he's relying on his game film from 2011 as his résumé. On that film, scouts will see 66 tackles -- 41 solo -- three interceptions and a 62-yard pick-six against Washington. They'll see a savvy, four-year player sitting underneath on a slant route and then taking it back with a good burst of speed. They'll see good ball instincts, a team-high eight passes broken up, smart angles and above average tackling.

But what they won't see is the size. At 5-11, 185 pounds, Thomas might have a heart and a brain for the NFL, but his physique is working against him.

"The feedback I've gotten so far is that I'm an interesting prospect," Thomas said. "But because of the height, that's going to affect me in a negative way."

But Thomas has something a lot of other NFL hopefuls don't have; a pro day that includes one of the best quarterback prospects in more than a decade in Andrew Luck; three probable first-round picks with Luck and offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro; and a possible fourth in tight end Coby Fleener.

"My pro day is going to be my Super Bowl," Thomas said. "That's a good thing for guys like me because you know everyone is going to be at our pro day because of Andrew and those other guys. Hopefully it will be a great opportunity for me to improve my stock and draft status. If not, I'll hopefully be a priority free agent."

And if Thomas has to claw his way into the league, he said he's OK doing that. At least for a little while. He's given himself a timetable of about three or four years to put everything he has into making it as an NFL player.

Unlike a lot of prospects who like a change of scenery after the season and go to other parts of the country to train, Thomas is staying on campus. The sociology major will have a Stanford degree at the end of the year, and in the meantime he's working out with teammates Fleener, wide receivers Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen and defensive back Johnson Bademosi in preparation for the March 22 pro day.

"I've had a lot of success with our offseason training program here," Thomas said. "I feel like I've always gotten faster and stronger working with those guys.

"I'm open to taking whatever route I can to accomplish my goals. If I don't make an active roster after a few years, I'll hang it up and try to figure out life after that. I've thought about coaching and I'll always have my Stanford connections."
Every team needs to hit every position group each recruiting season, but there are always priorities. It's not just positions where starters are lost or going to be seniors, it's about addressing weaknesses where a true freshman might be a better answer than a returning player.

Up next is the North Division.

: Zach Maynard will be a senior, and it says something about the depth behind him that he never lost his job during his midseason swoon.
WR: Keenan Allen is back, but that's it in terms of returning production and experience.
S: Three of the top four safeties from 2011 are gone.

In Chip Kelly's offense, you can never have enough fast guys. Sure, Kenjon Barner, De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff are back, but there's a lot of youth and uncertainty after that at running back and wide receiver.
TE: His name is David Paulson, but he's gone. Colt Lyerla was a productive backup -- at least in terms of finding the end zone -- but after him things are uncertain. Tight end is one of the most underrated positions in the Ducks offense, so having more than one Kelly trusts is significant.
S: Eddie Pleasant is gone and John Boyett is a senior. Avery Patterson, Erick Dargan and Brian Jackson are next in line, but the young talent isn't as certain as it is at corner.

Oregon State
Oregon State lost three starters from a line that led the worst rushing attack in the conference and surrendered 27 sacks. Quarterback Sean Mannion has potential, but he needs time. And a running game.
DT: The Beavers had the worst rushing defense in the Pac-12 in 2011. 'Nuff said.
LB: The Beavers had the worst rushing defense in the Pac-12 in 2011. Almost enough said. Cameron Collins is gone, and all the contributors on the two-deep will be seniors, other than junior Michael Doctor.

: Perhaps the weakest position for the Cardinal in 2011, this need is augmented by the loss of Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu and the lack of up-and-comers other than sophomore Ty Montgomery.
DB: Three of four starters are gone, including both safeties. In the Cardinal's two losses -- to Oregon and Oklahoma State -- an absence of top-end athleticism in the back half was exploited.
OL: Three starters are back, but the losses are huge: Tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro. And backup tackle Tyler Mabry and backup guard Matt Bentler also are gone. If coach David Shaw intends to remain a physical, downhill running team -- and he does -- he'll need to continuously stock up on linemen who can get the job done.

Lots of guys are back in the secondary, but the Huskies gave up 284.6 yards passing per game, which ranked 11th in the Pac-12. They couldn't cover anybody and often seemed out of position. So new blood might help.
DL: (See if you can notice a theme here that ignores questions at wide receiver and running back). Two starters are gone from a line that consistently underperformed based on preseason expectations.
LB: Second-team All-Pac-12 middle linebacker Cort Dennison is the only one of the eight men on the depth chart who won't be back, but he was the team's only consistent linebacker.

Washington State
Three of four starters are back, but all three will be seniors.
OL: Three starters are back, but to make the next step on offense, the Cougars need to run the ball better. They ranked 10th in the conference in rushing offense. And that might reduce a conference-high 3.3 sacks per game. Mike Leach's quick-hit offense also might help.
RB: 170-pound sophomore Rickey Galvin is back, as is senior Carl Winston, but the backs need to share responsibility for a 3.1-yards-per-carry average, worst in the conference (of course, losing 237 yards to sacks doesn't help).

Fiesta about to kickoff

January, 2, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A couple of more observations from the sideline as we get ready to kickoff.

First, wide receiver Chris Owusu is dressed in full pads and went through the full warm up session -- but more than likely it's just so he can be part of the team experience -- similar to what happened against Notre Dame in the regular season finale. Owusu did not run any plays with either the first- or second-team offenses.

If there is a change to his status, I'll let you know.

Next, 100-yard American flags are very cool. Bald eagles trained to fly over them during the national anthem are even cooler. Might be better than the jet flyovers.

Enjoy the game. Going to be a good one.

Chess match setting up nicely

January, 1, 2012
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Stanford head coach David Shaw hit on a few strategic points looking ahead to tomorrow’s Fiesta Bowl following yesterday’s practice.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireCoach David Shaw and Stanford plan to stick to their strengths against Oklahoma State.
No doubt, this will be a chess match between two very different philosophies and styles of play.

Chief among Shaw’s concerns is striking a defensive balance between Oklahoma State’s short- and long-range passing games.

Consider the fact that OSU running back Joseph Randle has 38 catches for 238 yards this season -- that would rank him second on Stanford in total receptions, behind Griff Whalen (49) and ahead of Chris Owusu (35), who didn’t play the final three and a half games and won’t be available tomorrow.

OSU likes to use a lot of short swing passes to the backs to eventually set up bigger plays down the field. Some coaches call them “long handoffs,” and it’s something the Cardinal have to be wary of.

“We still treat them as passes because they start off as passes,” Shaw said. “When that ball is thrown in front of us we want to rally and gang tackle. But we don’t want to worry about it so much that that the ball goes over our heads. Coach [Derek] Mason calls it top-down. We want to be a top-down defense, protect deep to short.

“Then again, those guys they throw those short passes to have the ability to take them a long way, so we’ve got to have some integrity as far as how we attack those guys and make sure we have a noose around them and get a lot of hats to the ball carrier.”

On the other side of the ball, Shaw said the Cowboys will have a slight advantage when the Cardinal go into their “jumbo” package of seven offensive linemen. OSU has game film of how other teams have defended it.

“They’ve seen all of our games and they can see how other people have lined up to it and who had success and who didn’t,” Shaw said. “We won’t know what they are working on. We won’t know till game day. We’re a gap-scheme team and I’m sure they’ll try to line up different ways, and that’s fine. But we’ll also have some variance in how we line up and what plays we run.”

With such a long delay between Stanford’s regular-season finale and the bowl game, it’s easy for some teams to fall into the trap of over-tweaking their schemes and trying to do too much.

Not a problem with Stanford, Shaw said.

“We have a very narrowed scope as to what we like and what we feel good about,” he said. “We’ve got some variance off it, but for the most part we’re going to be who we are.”

Cardinal finally starting to heal

December, 27, 2011
A healthy Stanford is a happy Stanford. And for the first time since about the midway point of the regular season, the Cardinal are as close to 100 percent as they are going to be.

When Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, several key players will be moving quicker than they were in the final few games of the regular season. Understanding just how beat up his team was heading into the postseason, head coach David Shaw said repairs on both sides of the ball were a top priority.

[+] EnlargeZach Ertz
Steve Conner/Icon SMIStanford tight end Zach Ertz is expected to be near full strength for the Fiesta Bowl.
"We've got to get healthy," Shaw said after the Notre Dame victory in the regular season finale. "We played with our three tight ends and two of them were probably 80 percent. Our backs have been beaten up and bruised all year. We have to get them fresh."

Injuries, no doubt, took their toll on the Cardinal this year. It all started in the third game of the season when middle linebacker Shayne Skov -- arguably one of the top run stoppers in the country -- went down against Arizona and was lost for the year with a knee injury. Suddenly one of the best run defenses in the country looked a little thin. A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster filled in admirably -- better, in fact, than most expected -- but neither is at the level yet of Skov.

Still, they have endured, ranking fifth nationally in rush defense, allowing just 90.3 yards per game.

Like all teams, the Cardinal fell prey to the typical bumps and bruises. But a critical bump occurred against USC, when tight end Zach Ertz suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff and would go on to miss the next three games.

Why is Ertz so significant? About one-third of Stanford's offensive playbook involves three-tight-end formations. With Ertz, Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo on the field at the same time, the Cardinal offense was able to exploit numerous mismatches. Ryan Hewitt split time between fullback and tight end during that stretch. But even then, quarterback Andrew Luck would lose Hewitt out of the backfield, one of his most reliable and productive receivers coming out from behind the line of scrimmage.

Ertz returned for the season finale against Notre Dame. Nowhere near 100 percent, he caught one ball for no yards. But the fact that he was even on the field was a morale boost for his teammates. He's expected to be near full-strength -- if not at 100 percent -- for the Fiesta Bowl.

"It's exciting to have the tight ends back together and ready to go," said Fleener, who was recently named to the AP All-America third-team offense. "I think it's just exciting to know that we have a lot of guys back at full strength and hopefully we can be as good as we were before a lot of the injuries. It can only make us better as a team."

Obviously, Skov won't be back. Neither will wide receiver Chris Owusu, who has suffered at least three concussions in the past 14 months -- the scariest (as if they aren't all scary) coming against Oregon State when he was taken off the field in an ambulance.

There was some hope for Owusu's return because he's a senior and one of the emotional leaders of the offense, but head coach David Shaw told reporters last week "it's not going to happen."

"He's just been one of those guys," Shaw said following a practice last week. "And he's gotten beaten up and knocked out, and he comes back. He's been beaten up and knocked out, and he comes back. And the players recognize that as the guy that they look to for courage."

In Owusu's absence, true freshman Ty Montgomery has been filling in, giving Cardinal fans a glimpse of the future. In the final three games, Montgomery caught 10 balls (on 16 targets) for 130 yards and a touchdown in the finale against Notre Dame.

Still, they have endured, ranking 11th nationally in total offense while averaging almost 481 yards per game.

Offensive linemen Cameron Fleming and Jonathan Martin also had lingering lower leg injuries that forced Fleming to miss time. Both are expected to be back at or near full strength.

Offensive lineman David DeCastro offered a more glass-half-empty view of the Cardinal injury situation.

"We're never going to be injury-free," he said, "that's just part of college football."

On the opposite side of the ball -- aside from Skov -- one of the biggest temporary losses was safety Delano Howell. While he convalesced his injured hand for three games -- only to re-injure it in the first half against Oregon -- Michael Thomas stepped in and split time between free and strong safety.

Youngsters Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards got lots of playing experience that will aid the Cardinal in years to come, but Stanford is clearly a better defense when Howell is on the field. He too is expected to be at full strength.

And yet throughout the injury-plagued season, the players have never used injuries as an excuse.

"I think what it comes down to is no matter who is available, the coaches did an awesome job putting us in the best positions to succeed," Fleener said. "Whether it was Zach or Hewitt in there, ultimately our identity is running the football and being a physical team regardless of who is on the field. That shouldn't change with the personnel."

What we learned about Stanford

November, 27, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- Five things we learned about the Cardinal in their 28-14 win over Notre Dame Saturday night.

  1. [+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
    Kyle Terada/US Presswire Andrew Luck threw four touchdown passes in Stanford's win Saturday night.
    Stanford can start fast: Normally this is a question; phrased by swapping the "can" and "Stanford." It’s been an off-and-on issue for the Cardinal this season. But they came out, with the exception of one or two plays, and looked solid on both sides of the ball in the first half. Andrew Luck moved the ball efficiently through the air (save the interception), Stepfan Taylor rushed for 75 yards in the first half on nine carries (an average of 8.3 yards per carry) and the defense held the Irish to just 75 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes.
  2. Chris Owusu got his play: Classy move by Stanford head coach David Shaw to allow wide receiver Chris Owusu to take the field on the victory formation kneel down to end the game (more on this later today). Owusu’s tale of concussions has been well-documented, and for him to be able to be on the field -- on senior night -- and be a part of the victory was a special moment.
  3. The tight ends are back: Good to see the Tree Amigos reunited. Zach Ertz returned from a knee injury he suffered on the opening kickoff against USC. He didn’t do much statistically -- one catch for zero yards -- but his presence allowed things to open up down the field for Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo. Fleener had a monster game: four catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns, including a 55-yarder in the fourth quarter. Toilolo also had a 3-yard touchdown reception. Ertz simply being on the field impacts how teams defend the Cardinal.
  4. The Cardinal have a case: Probably not for a spot in the national championship, but certainly for a spot in one of the other BCS bowl games. An 11-1 record and a Heisman finalist should be enticing enough to get the Cardinal into one of college football’s red-carpet gatherings. Wherever they land, the Cardinal can make a case that they shouldn’t play again until 2012.
  5. The Farm’s farm system looks OK: There are several spectacular players and a once-in-a-generation college quarterback who played their final game at Stanford Stadium Saturday night. But the cupboards aren’t totally empty. Guys like Ty Montgomery (six catches, 77 yards, touchdown), Jarek Lancaster (six tackles, one for a loss) and A.J. Tarpley (two tackles, sack) provided a glance at what Stanford’s future will look like. And it looks promising. David Yankey and Cameron Fleming will continue to grow. James Vaughters (one tackle) will get bigger and faster. The foundation is there for a pretty good football team.

Kickoff: Stanford-Notre Dame

November, 26, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- Very cool to see Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu on the field for the pregame warmups. He's not expected to play, but he dressed out and took part in the pregame activities.

Owusu has been out of action since suffering a concussion at Oregon State -- his third in the last 13 months.

As part of the Senior Day celebrations there was a very cool video montage with a highlight of each of the fourth- and fifth-year seniors. Each was introduced and ran out on the field individually. Naturally, quarterback Andrew Luck drew the loudest ovation -- though it was nice to hear the crowd react to Owusu in uniform.

Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo participated in the full-dress pregame warmup and look like they will play for the Cardinal.

Prediction: Stanford vs. Notre Dame

November, 23, 2011
Senior Day. Nike Pro Combat uniforms. BCS bowl game implications (or more?) on the line. Storied Notre Dame coming to town. There is no lack of storylines heading into Saturday's matchup between the Cardinal and the Irish. Which means there is no lack of distractions either. The pageantry should be fun and exciting as the Cardinal look to close out the regular season with a signature win over a BCS top-25 team. And they will.

Prediction: Stanford 31, Notre Dame 21

Overall: 10-1

Why they'll win: Can anyone see Andrew Luck losing his final regular-season home game? Me neither. And when you take a team with a bad turnover margin (Notre Dame) and put it against a team with a good turnover margin (Stanford), the good usually outweighs the bad. Notre Dame's running depth took a hit with the loss of Jonas Gray, and Stanford might be getting injured tight end Zach Ertz back. Even if he doesn't catch a single ball, his presence forces defenses to significantly alter how they blitz and defend the Cardinal. And if Ertz doesn't return, we saw this past week what the Cardinal are capable of with Ryan Hewitt at the No. 3 tight end spot. Too many weapons and too many mismatches for the Irish to cover them all.

In the spotlight: Assuming Oregon takes care of business against Oregon State, this will be the final game in Stanford Stadium for the fourth- and fifth-year seniors who helped turn Stanford football from a Pac-10 afterthought to a national powerhouse in just a few short years. Not just Luck but also tireless workers such as Michael Thomas, Delano Howell, Griff Whalen, Corey Gatewood, Jeremy Stewart, David Green, Jonathan Martin, David DeCastro, Chris Owusu, Johnson Bademosi, Chase Thomas, Coby Fleener, Max Bergen, Matt Masifilo and others. All of them will have their chance to take a bow. Luck gets a lot of the credit, but these guys should, too.

Out on a limb: After David Shaw's fiery speech about Luck on Tuesday, my first out-on-a-limb thought was that Stanford would come out gunning and Luck would go for 375-plus and four touchdowns. He still might -- but only if that's how the game is being dictated. I'm going the other way. Stanford sticks with what it does best -- running the power, being balanced and using the play-action when the time is right. The Cardinal are more concerned about winning games than about Luck winning a Heisman. Shaw won't sabotage his game plan for an individual award. As always, that's just me going out on a limb ...

What to watch in college football

November, 17, 2011

Here are 10 things I’ll be watching in college football this weekend:

1. Is Baylor a threat to knock off Oklahoma?

The No. 5 Sooners have never lost to the Bears. But Baylor is a very good team at home, winning each of its five games and averaging 49 points at Floyd Casey Stadium. The Bears might have been looking ahead to OU in last week's game at Kansas, where they had to come back from a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Jayhawks, 31-30. The Bears lead the Big 12 in scoring with 40.3 points and in total offense with 567.9 yards per game. If this game turns into a shootout, can OU survive without receiver Ryan Broyles and running back Dominique Whaley?

2. Will Clemson suffer a letdown against NC State?

The No. 7 Tigers clinched the ACC's Atlantic Division and a spot in the Dec. 3 ACC championship game in Charlotte by beating Wake Forest 31-28 on a last-second field goal last week. Will the Tigers be ready for Saturday's game at NC State. The Wolfpack have to win their last two games to play in a bowl game because they have two victories against FCS opponents. Clemson might be without star receiver Sammy Watkins, who suffered a sprained AC joint in his shoulder against the Demon Deacons. Coach Dabo Swinney said Watkins will be a game-time decision on Saturday.

3. Should No. 6 Arkansas be on upset alert against Mississippi State?

The Hogs might have their sights set on their Nov. 25 showdown at No. 1 LSU, but they can't look past the Bulldogs, who have played very good defense lately. While Hogs quarterback Tyler Wilson and his deep receiving corps have lit up foes, MSU hasn't allowed an opponent to throw for more than 200 yards in each of its past six games. In fact, the Bulldogs have yielded only two touchdown passes in their past five games.

4. Can Stanford recover from its hangover?

The No. 9 Cardinal saw its Pac-12 and BCS title hopes dashed with last week's loss to Oregon. But Stanford still has a shot at playing in a BCS bowl game, possibly the Rose Bowl if Oregon plays its way into the Allstate BCS National Championship Game or the Fiesta or Sugar bowls as an at-large selection. The Cardinal will have to rebound quickly to be mentally ready for the Big Game against rival California on Saturday. Stanford will probably be without tight end Zach Ertz (knee) and receiver Chris Owusu (concussion), two of quarterback Andrew Luck's favorite targets.

5. Can No. 10 Houston handle the bright spotlight?

The Cougars have the inside track to earn a BCS at-large spot, after Boise State's loss to TCU last week. The undefeated Cougars will welcome ESPN's College GameDay show to Houston for Saturday's game against SMU, and quarterback Case Keenum will have a great opportunity to showcase his talents for Heisman Trophy voters. The Mustangs have lost three of their past four games. Houston will have to beat SMU, Tulsa at home next week and then possibly Southern Miss in the Dec. 3 Conference USA championship game to have a chance at playing in a BCS bowl game.

6. Can USC slow down Oregon’s running game?

The No. 4 Ducks can clinch the Pac-12 North title with their 10th straight victory and stay alive in the BCS national championship race. Oregon tailback LaMichael James leads the country in rushing with 150.9 yards per game, and the Ducks had 232 rushing yards in last week’s 53-30 victory at then-No. 4 Stanford. The Trojans have been stout against the run lately, holding Washington to only 46 rushing yards in last week’s 40-17 victory. USC ranks No. 8 nationally in run defense, giving up only 100.4 yards per game.

7. Will Texas slow down Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein?

The Longhorns have made strides under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, holding opponents to 21 points per game. But Texas will get a major test from Klein, who has run for more than 1,500 yards, passed for more than 1,000 and accounted for 34 touchdowns in 10 games. In last week’s 53-50 victory against Texas A&M in four overtimes, Klein had a career-high 281 passing yards, ran for 103 yards and had six total touchdowns.

8. Will Michigan or Nebraska remain in the Big Ten Legends race?

The No. 16 Cornhuskers and No. 18 Wolverines both trail No. 15 Michigan State by one-game in the division standings. Michigan will be eliminated from the race if the Spartans beat lowly Indiana. But Nebraska can stay in the hunt by beating the Wolverines. The outcome might be decided by which quarterback takes care of the football. Michigan’s Denard Robinson is going to play with a sprained wrist, after throwing seven interceptions in the past five games. Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez has thrown seven interceptions, second-most in the Big Ten behind Robinson’s 13.

9. Can Penn State regain its focus at Ohio State?

The Nittany Lions still have a one-game lead against No. 17 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Leaders Division standings, but they’ll have to win at Ohio State or beat Wisconsin on the road next week to win the division and earn a trip to the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3. The Nittany Lions are still reeling from coach Joe Paterno’s firing last week, and they’ve never had much success at OSU, winning in the Horseshoe only once since becoming a Big Ten member.

10. Will Cincinnati survive without its quarterback?

The Bearcats still have a one-game lead over four teams for first place in the Big East standings heading into Saturday’s game at Rutgers, but they’ll have to go the rest of the way without star quarterback Zach Collaros, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in last week’s 24-21 loss to Louisville. Sophomore Munchie Legaux completed 10 of 21 passes for 144 yards with one interception against the Cardinals and will start against the Scarlet Knights.
STANFORD Calif. -- Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck speaks in black and white. The Stanford Cardinal lost 53-30 to Oregon Saturday night. Therefore it must have been his worst game of the season.

“Not good enough to win,” Luck said when asked about his performance. “Worst game of the year, I guess, in that category.”

Yeah, probably.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Paul SakumaLuck's recent slide has opened the door for Weeden.
But there are elements of gray that he won’t say that shouldn’t get overlooked. Like the fact that his tight ends let him down for the first time this season -- with five dropped balls that could have extended drives or possibly gone for scores. Or that his third pick-six of the season once again came off the hands of a receiver.

Those are gray areas he’s either choosing to overlook or choosing not to acknowledge.

When Luck decided to pass on the NFL last season and return to Stanford for another year, it was pretty obvious that he thought the Cardinal had a good enough team to make a run at the national championship. And for nine games, a lot of people believed.

But that wasn’t the only reason he came back, which he’s also made evident many times over. He enjoys his teammates and the camaraderie. But he enjoys winning even more.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk, though,” he said. “I had no grand illusions of just showing up and things fall in for our team because we show up on Saturdays. We still have football left. For that, I’m grateful … there are still goals out there for us to accomplish.”

And then there is the inevitable Heisman fallout from his performance, which ended up 27-of-41 for 271 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. With the drops, an argument can be made that he’d have 33 or 34 completions, more than 300 yards passing, a fourth touchdown and one fewer interception. But Heisman voters usually prefer raw data to what-ifs. And the raw data says in the biggest game in school history, Luck didn’t perform particularly well.

“I thought he was good, but I thought Oregon made it tough,” said head coach David Shaw. “They get a lot of credit for their front four because they have the tackles for a loss and all of the sacks. But coverage-wise, they do a good job coverage-wise. They made Andrew pull the ball down a couple of times. They make you hold it for an extra split second and then the rush gets to you. I give them all of the credit in the world.”

But with some credit also comes blame. The offensive line collapsed on several occasions and Luck was sacked three times -- almost doubling the four times he’s been sacked in the previous nine games.

And Luck didn’t want to talk about the fact that his favorite tight end target Zach Ertz or favorite wide receiver target Chris Owusu weren’t in the game.

“We’re not going to be sitting here and saying 'what if,’” Luck said when asked about Owusu and Ertz. “It’s part of the game. They had injured guys, too, I’m sure. It’s mid-November in a football season. Guys go down and attrition [occurs]. I’m not going to sit here and talk about those guys.”

Black and white.

Was it his worst game of the season? Probably. Did he lose the Heisman Saturday night? Maybe. But there is a lot more gray to it than the raw data suggests.
1. No. 4 Stanford’s 38-13 victory in a cold rain at Oregon State came at a cost. Both wide receiver Chris Owusu (concussion) and tight end Levine Toilolo went out of the game with injuries, one week after Stanford lost tight end Zach Ertz. It reminds me of Florida State in 1991, which won its first 10 games, the eighth a 27-16 victory in the rain at LSU. The Seminoles suffered so many injuries that night that they didn’t have the juice to beat Miami or Florida at season’s end. This beat-up Stanford team must play No. 7 Oregon.

2. The only two teams among the top eight that don’t play another team in the top eight are No. 3 Alabama and No. 5 Boise State. The Broncos need No. 15 Georgia to keep winning, starting with No. 20 Auburn on Saturday. The Tide must have No. 8 Arkansas win at No. 1 LSU on Nov. 25, and even then would have to negotiate their way through a three-way tie for first in the SEC West with the Tigers and the Hogs to get to the SEC championship game. I just don’t see a non-champion playing for the crystal football.

3. Oklahoma wide receiver Ryan Broyles’ season ends with him atop the FBS in receiving yards (1,157 yards) and second in yards per game (128.56). Broyles suffered a torn ACL in the Sooners’ 41-25 victory over Texas A&M. The Sooners have had an uncanny number of injuries over the past few seasons. Coach Bob Stoops says it’s nothing more than bad luck. Strength coach Jerry Schmitt is considered one of the best in the business. But you have to wonder.