NCF Nation: Delano Howell

Stanford's secondary is going to be young next season. Not exactly breaking news, but that's the reality when four seniors, three of them starters, graduate. But the players returning also have some experience and quality playing time, which should help compensate for their youth.

In other words, there no excuses.

"I think [defensive coordinator Derek] Mason might have been a little more tolerant with us last year, a little more patient," said safety Jordan Richards. "Not anymore. We've all been here and have a full season under our belts. This is on us -- and coach Mason is making sure we know that."

[+] EnlargeJordan Richards
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireJordan Richards is one of many young Cardinal defensive backs that will have to replace three senior starters.
The back four -- two cornerbacks and two safeties -- have to be getting tired of hearing how good the front seven is going to be. They are so experienced. This guy is back and that guy is back. It gets old. And if the front seven is considered Stanford's defensive strength, by virtue of elimination, the back four can't be.

That perception is something the group is looking to alter. But first they'll need to settle some competition. Gone are safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas. Gone are cornerbacks Johnson Bademosi and Corey Gatewood.

Terrence Brown and Barry Browning are back at cornerback, along with the highly-touted Wayne Lyons who is returning from a foot injury. Usua Amanam should also be in the mix and don't be surprised if Alex Carter makes an immediate impact when he arrives in the summer. Also returning are Richards and Devon Carrington at the safety spot along with Ed Reynolds, who is also returning from injury. Kyle Olugbode has also seen reps this spring.

Richards was one of the true freshman called into action when Howell went down for several games with a hand injury. He started three games for Stanford last year -- the most brutal stretch of the season that included at USC, at Oregon State and home to Oregon. Tough detail.

"It was, at times, a blur," Richards said. "And other times, I felt like I was in control and the game slowed."

The telling part of that quote is the "at times" portion. Richards notched eight tackles in his first start against USC. Then a couple of games later he watched Oregon run all over the Cardinal. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. In his second year, he's striving for more consistency. And having had the chance to learn behind Thomas and Howell, he thinks he's found it.

"I learned how to see the game from those guys," Richards said. "As a freshman, you come in with tunnel vision. You need to learn to see how things move around. Now it's a transition. You've been here for a year, you learn to read formational cues and the game slows down a lot more. You know what the offensive tendencies are. That's the biggest difference. You're not a deer in the headlights anymore. You just go out and play and try not to over think it."

Brown has the most experience at cornerback, followed by Browning who started three games last season. According to Richards, Brown and Reynolds have taken on the leadership roles vacated by the departed seniors.

"As a group, it's been TB and Ed," Richards said. "Those guys have been around. But we all know what's at stake, and we're all trying to be leaders and be on our game as a group because we know that we are going to be young and people are going to try to come after us."

Like in Week 3, when the Cardinal host USC -- a pass happy offense with the Heisman front-runner at quarterback, the top wide receiving duo in the country and possibly the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. So this group is going to have to find a way to come together quickly.

"That's what the spring is all about," Richards said. "We're working hard to be a cohesive group. Coach Mason is pushing us and I think we're going to come together."
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.

Rankings aren't the end all, be all

January, 31, 2012
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Last week we saw in an analysis by ESPN The Magazine and RecruitingNation that Stanford was the best school in the nation at getting the most production from out-of-state recruiting.

Well, there's a flipside to that coin.

As good as Stanford has been looking outside of the Golden State, it hasn't been too productive at landing California's finest. A similar analysis shows Stanford is the third-worst program at getting ESPNU 150 athletes from its own state.

From 2007 to 2011, Stanford landed just 2-of-73 ESPNU 150 athletes from California -- Anthony Wilkerson out of Tustin in 2010 and Josh Nunes from Upland in 2009.
Here's what LaRue Cook says about Stanford:

We gave Stanford props for its ability to go out of state to sign top prospects, but there's no ignoring the program's inability to create an elite pipeline in its state. (Meanwhile, UCLA has signed 12 in-state ESPNU 150 recruits over the last five years.) Sure, Cardinal fans can blame their program's struggles on academic constraints, but out of 73 players, surely more than two could qualify. In 2012, David Shaw doesn't have a single ESPNU 150 commit from California -- USC currently has four and UCLA has two -- but No. 4 OT Kyle Murphy (San Clemente) still has Stanford on his short list.

To which I say, so what? The analysis deals only with ESPNU 150 athletes. And I think we all know that whatever scouting service you trust, it isn't always bullet proof. Two-star players have gone on to greatness and five-stars have fizzled.

I say, consider some of the Stanford players who came out of California during that stretch who weren't ESPNU 150 prospects: Jonathan Martin (North Hollywood), Tyler Gaffney (San Diego), Levine Toilolo (San Diego), Zach Ertz (Danville), Delano Howell (Newhall). All remarkably productive and one who is expected to be drafted in the first round.

This type of analysis makes for great message board fodder, but read more into the results than projections -- and I think the Stanford coaching staff would agree. If you're looking strictly at the ranking numbers, then yes, Stanford hasn't been particularly successful as, say, USC, which has scored 33 ESPNU 150 recruits from California during that time span. By the way, what's Stanford's record against USC the last three years?

Stanford is a unique program that has to be examined with a different standard of criteria. The product on the field is what matters. The results are still out on Wilkerson since Stepfan Taylor has been carrying the load. And with Barry Sanders coming in, we might never know if Wilkerson could be a carry-the-load kind of running back.

It's an open quarterback competition next year, so we'll see who emerges and where Nunes lands.

This year's current crop of commits features just one player from California -- wide receiver Kodi Whitfield. So what? It also has four ESPNU 150 commits with the possibility of more.

The morale of the story: It shouldn't matter if they come from Los Angeles or Plymouth, Minn. (shout out to A.J. Tarpley), if they can play, they can play.

Like most regular readers of this blog, I live in California and was raised on Bay Area football and spent the early portions of my career covering Southern California high schools. There are only so many 6-4, 225-pound wide receivers that run 4.4 40s and only so many four- and-five stars that can be handed out. California is fertile ground, and fair game, for every school in the country.

My take: Stanford is doing just fine in California, and Texas, and Georgia and Arizona, and everywhere else they can find the athletes that fit the academic requirements, character and culture needed to be a football player at Stanford.
If 2011 was the season of learning for Stanford linebacker Jarek Lancaster, then the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State was graduation. And the first-year starter walked away with defensive valedictorian honors. In a game that wasn't exactly overflowing with defensive bright spots -- for either team for that matter -- Lancaster was one of the few defenders who stood out.

"He made a lot of plays," said head coach David Shaw. "He was physical. In a game where we missed some tackles on defense, he was as sure a tackler as there was in space. He made big-time stops at big times. It's how the season went for him. We ask him to do more and he steps up and does more."

[+] EnlargeJarek Lancaster
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsJarek Lancaster, right, had seven tackles in Stanford's Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
And more is on the way, both in the production and expectation departments. The third-year sophomore admits that when he first stepped in to the starting inside linebacker spot following Shayne Skov's injury, there were plenty of jitters. But he also knew that in time, they would pass.

"When you first get thrust into a starting position, you want to think you'll get better and believe you have the potential to get to another level," Lancaster said. "When I first got in there, the game seemed really fast and I wasn't as comfortable as I am now. It's been real nice to see the game slow down in front of my eyes and be able to feel more confident when I'm in there."

And confidence wasn't a problem in the Fiesta Bowl, where he matched senior safety Delano Howell for the team high in tackles with seven.

"I felt like I played pretty well with the open-field tackles, because they are a speed team," Lancaster said. "They didn't really run the ball, which is something you want to do -- make them one-dimensional. They were the better team that night, but overall I thought I played pretty well."

So next season, there won't be any excuses. No first-year starter excuses to fall back on. Not that Lancaster did anyway. But the better he plays, the better he will be expected to play.

"His open-field tackling was outstanding," said co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "They were big-time drive-stoppers for us. I was really excited about that. I was happy to see him do that. After a long season and starting on two special teams and playing almost every snap on defense, he worked through everything in his first year starting and his production per play was very good.

"I can't wait to see him progress. We were already talking about certain areas where he needs to grow right after the game and on the way home. He put a lot of good things on film. Jarek's a pretty amazing kid and he has a great ability to stay in the moment."

Despite leading the Cardinal with 70 tackles this season, Lancaster had just one sack on the year. That's something he said will be a major point of emphasis in the offseason.

"I need to get better at my pass rush," Lancaster said. "Maybe I can get some hands, too, so I can get a pick next season."

Is A.J. Tarpley, the other starting inside linebacker, giving him a hard time because he has a pick?

"Yeah, a little bit," Lancaster joked. "I need to fix that."

Larger questions loom for Stanford

January, 3, 2012
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Andrew LuckChris Morrison/US PresswireAndrew Luck's Stanford career ends in a disappointing overtime loss to Oklahoma State.
This one is going to sting for a long, long time. There is no 24-hour rule here, no chance to put this one behind you and focus on the next opponent. All there is is time to think, stew, marinate in a myriad of how-did-it-all-go-wrongs.

There are two ways the Stanford Cardinal can move on from a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. They can slide back into Pac-12 mediocrity now that quarterback Andrew Luck and an amazing cast of seniors are leaving. Or they can learn from this loss and come back with a chip on their Luck-less, shoulder.

“We’re going to be back,” said a choked up defensive end Ben Gardner. “We’re going to be just fine. We’re going to be back next year with a vengeance and we’re going to be a strong program for years to come.”

That’s what the big boys do -- the established programs that season after season are in the top-10 conversation. They learn to take the sweet with the sour. And this group hasn’t had to swallow much sour over the past few years. A loss like this can numb the taste buds or accelerate the desire to get back to the sweet.

“If you dwell on the loss, you never get better,” said nose tackle Terrence Stephens. “If you keep dwelling on what went wrong, you’ll never be able to focus on what to do right.”

There will be questions. In the immediate future, most of them will swirl around a redshirt freshman kicker. Jordan Williamson missed three field goals, including a 35-yarder as time expired that would have given the Cardinal their second straight BCS bowl victory. He also missed a 41-yard field goal on Stanford’s opening possession and a 43-yard kick in overtime. Williamson did not address the media after the game.

There will be questions that head coach David Shaw played it too conservative on the final drive in regulation that set up Williamson’s miss – a straight shot up the middle that hooked left. Maybe. It’s worth noting, however, that Williamson was 6-of-7 this season on kicks between 30 and 39 yards.

But bigger questions loom after the missed-kicks fallout settles. Like finding Luck’s replacement; like filling holes on the offensive line for the NFL-bound Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro; like replacing veteran safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell; whether outside linebacker Chase Thomas leaves school or returns for another season.

Whatever the answers, Stephens believes the Cardinal will be just fine.

“That’s the best part of our program,” Stephens said. “We hold the word resilient very high. You have to be resilient in everything you do. You come back and you fight and you get better. That’s been the attitude since I got here and it will be the attitude far after I leave. I think that’s something the players instill in the other players.”

There’s no doubt that the departing players leave the program in much better shape than when they came in -- several of whom committed following (even during) Stanford’s 1-11 season.

Luck thinks the future of the program is in good hands.

“I think just keep getting better, put your head down and keep working,” he said. “A lot has been written about the seniors and the senior class and regardless of which guys stay and which guys leave, there are really good football players here. Obviously, you want to improve every year. But I think a very solid foundation has been laid with coach Shaw at the helm. I see a very bright future for the program.”

Still, it’s tough to see that through the haze of missed field goals, missed opportunities, missed tackles and Justin Blackmon's jet wash. The Oklahoma State wide receiver torched the Cardinal for 186 yards and three touchdowns on eight catches.

“He took advantage of our mistakes and that’s something that any good player will do,” said Michael Thomas. “You can’t afford to make mistakes against that guy. One missed tackle and he takes it to the house. Missed communication in coverage and you leave the best player on the team wide open. Just guys not taking advantage of the opportunities they had, but give credit to him. He made the plays and he exposed us when we made mistakes.”

Lost in the mix will be an amazing performance by Luck -- who was 27-of-31 for 347 yards, two touchdowns and an interception -- and a fantastic performance by the rushing attack. Stepfan Taylor pounded out 186 yards on 35 carries and two touchdowns.

“There’s an old saying that adversity reveals character,” Shaw said. “… Two real good teams come down to a few plays, not just that one (the field goal at the end of regulation) but a few plays that we could have all done something a little bit better.

“I have a lot of confidence in the guys we have in our locker room as individuals, but also what we’re capable of together; get through this together and coming back, fighting back strong and hard.”

Shaw and his players are saying all of the right things. Now the ball is in their court for the next seven months to back it up.

Cardinal finally starting to heal

December, 27, 2011
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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."

Prediction: Stanford vs. Notre Dame

November, 23, 2011
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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 ...

Stanford weekend rewind

November, 21, 2011
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Saturday night had all of the ingredients for another historical Big Game. But Coby Fleener's recovery of the onside kick in the final minute dashed Cal's hopes of a crazy comeback. Before we start looking ahead to Saturday's regular season finale against Notre Dame, let's take a look back at a few highlights from the 114th Big Game.

[+] EnlargeRyan Hewitt
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireCardinal fullback Ryan Hewitt is congratulated by tight end Davis Dudchock (back) after scoring a touchdown against California.
Highlight reel: Jarek Lancaster's sack on Zach Maynard in the third quarter was instinctual linebacking at its finest. Lancaster wasn't going in on a designed blitz. He reacted almost immediately to Maynard rolling to his left, he shed a blocker and then turned up field before throwing Maynard to the ground. Those are the kinds of plays that make defensive coaches giddy.

Best play: Ty Montgomery's 34-yard touchdown run was a text-book end around. A little motion to get the momentum going, then great blocking by Jonathan Martin and Griff Whalen. Loved the hustle by center Sam Schwartzstein to try and get downfield to make a block. But Montgomery was just too darn fast for his own linemen -- and the Cal defense. This guy has some serious speed.

Who's hot: No one hotter right now than fullback Ryan Hewitt. From various receiving positions -- tight end, receiver, slot and fullback, he caught all seven balls thrown his way against Cal for 64 yards and a receiving touchdown. He also got the job done in two short-yardage running situations.

Who's not: On the whole the offensive line. Still too many leaks and too much penetration. After going four games with just one negative play, running back Stepfan Taylor was brought down four times in the backfield -- and that's penetration. Plus, quarterback Andrew Luck was sacked twice against Cal, making it five in the last two games.

The good: A win anytime is good. A win against Cal is better. A win when four teams ranked ahead of you in the BCS standings all lose in the same weekend is absolutely smashing.

The bad: Still too many missed tackles in the open field. It got better with the return of safety Delano Howell, who had five solo stops. But still way more than you'd like to see 11 games into the season.

Big Game rivalry lives up to billing

November, 20, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. -- David Shaw was having flashbacks. In seconds, the Stanford head coach and former Cardinal wide receiver was re-running every funky play and freaky scenario and wacky finish that have been historic staples of the Big Game.

Here’s the scene on a rainy Saturday night at Stanford Stadium: Cal scores a touchdown with 14 seconds left to cut Stanford’s lead to 31-28. Here comes the onside kick. Anything can happen, right? A Cal recovery and Hail Mary? The ball bounces off of seven Stanford players and Cal converts a 65-yard field goal? It’s the Big Game. Seems plausible. At least at the time.

“I got The Play going through my head. I got the 1990 crazy game with the onside kicks going through my head,” Shaw said. “We just supported our defense. Even if they went down and scored, we made them take so much time off the clock. We knew if we got the onside kick the game was over.”

And it was. The onside kick went right to tight end Coby Fleener, who caught the ball on the one hop, cradled and dropped. No crazy bounces. No students or trombones appeared on the field until the clock read 0:00. Game over. Stanford wins the 114th Big Game. The Axe stays in Palo Alto for at least another year.

“There is still with 14 seconds – you’re thinking about The Play – you never know what can happen – ‘The band is on the field,’” said defensive end Ben Gardner, recalling Joe Starkey’s famous call from the 1982 game. “Luckily, the band stayed in their seats and Coby was able to recover the onside kick. He saved us.”

Aside from the late-game Cal heroics, it was standard Stanford. A slow start on offense before the Cardinal picked it up in the second half and – seemingly— pulled away behind two touchdown passes from Andrew Luck.

Andrew Luck
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck shook off an unproductive first half to throw two second-half touchdown passes.
The Cardinal were coming off their first loss of the season – a 53-30 schooling by the Oregon Ducks – that dashed (maybe?) their national title hopes. Luck in particular didn’t have that great of a game. Like his teammates, he was anxious to get back on the field.

“The best medicine, I guess is football when you’ve lost a game,” said Luck, who finished 20-of-30 for 257 yards, an interception (which came when Ty Montgomery slipped and fell on his route) and two touchdowns. “It was good to get out and play a quality opponent in a rivalry game.”

And despite the rain and the cold, the rivalry game proved to be as advertised. The Cardinal struck first. Following a Cal fumble, Montgomery scored on a 34-yard end-around. But after a Giorgio Tavecchio field goal and Luck’s interception – his fifth in four games – Cal took a 10-7 lead.

“It was tough sledding,” Shaw said. “We didn’t make some plays early in the game that I thought we should have and they took advantage of it and came storming back … It wasn’t pretty. But doggone it we fought to the end and got the win.”

The Cardinal returned to their ground game in the second quarter, rushing for 85 yards, which included a 6-yard Tyler Gaffney touchdown run.

Then Luck took off in the third quarter, completing 8 of 10 passes for 135 yards and tossing touchdowns to Levine Toilolo and Ryan Hewitt.

But Cal quarterback Zach Maynard wouldn’t let the Axe go that easily. He orchestrated a touchdown drive early in the fourth and the final-minute dramatics that ended with the onside kick.

Safety Delano Howell called it a character victory for the Cardinal.

“We understood that how we responded to the loss last week was a challenge to our character,” said Howell, who finished with seven tackles and a fumble recovery. “Grown men, they respond in a positive way. They don’t reflect on the past or use that in a negative manner or in an adverse way. In order to prove who we were as a team, we had to come out and make a statement tonight.”

And there were, of course, the standard missed tackles in the open field. Wouldn’t be a Stanford game without them. But it’s a win – and that’s exactly what this team needed in the wake of last week’s crippling loss to the Ducks.

“I think we were looser as a team,” Gardner said. “The nature of last week’s game, the national implications. Now we’re playing like a team with nothing to lose, because we don’t. We’re a team fighting for a BCS bowl and we know that. But we knew we had to come out and play looser than we did last week because we made too many mistakes last week and that’s partly because we were tight. At the same time, it’s Cal. We knew they’d try to punch us in the mouth. We had to play our game. It wasn’t always pretty. But we got the win and the Axe is staying here.”

For Luck, it caps a conference career that ends with back-to-back wins over Stanford’s oldest rival.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It will mean more once the season is over when you get to reminisce. But I feel very grateful and blessed to have won two games in a row against them and retain the Axe for at least another year.”

Stanford has some growing up to do

November, 13, 2011
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TBDEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford QB Andrew Luck and coach David Shaw saw their 17-game win streak evaporate.

STANFORD, Calif. -- Babies don’t go from crawling to running marathons. They stumble along the way. They awkwardly grope for something to hold on to. And when there is nothing there, they fall.

In terms of playing in significant college football games, Stanford is a program still very much in its infancy. And when it tried to get up and run, it fell. And when it groped Saturday night -- usually for Oregon running back LaMichael James -- there was nothing there. And when the Cardinal fell, they took the nation’s longest winning streak and a shot at the national championship along with them.

“Now, we’re going to see maturity-wise how we handle coming back from a game like this,” said David Shaw, who suffered his first loss as Stanford’s head coach. “It’s hard to say what’s going to define a season because the season is not over. We have a lot of football to be played, so we’ll see how it all shakes out.”

Stanford may very well end up in a BCS game as an at-large team (let’s go ahead and assume Oregon doesn’t lose its remaining two games, to USC and Oregon State). It could still win out and have one of the strongest seasons in school history. No shame in that.

But this is the one that people are going to remember. The one-sided 53-30 score, for sure. But also the missed tackles and turnovers -- five of them, if you’re keeping count at home.

They won’t remember a fantastic, two-touchdown game from wide receiver Griff Whalen, who at times looked like the only guy in red capable of catching a ball. They’ll remember the drops. They’ll remember James going for 146 yards and three touchdowns.

They won’t remember a pretty good 99-yard rushing game from Stepfan Taylor -- who once again wasn’t tackled for a loss. They’ll remember the three sacks and two interceptions by quarterback Andrew Luck, who finished 27-of-41 for 271 yards and three touchdowns.

“They were fast on film and they were fast on the field,” said Luck. “It was no surprise. They are a very good defense. They did a lot of good things. That forced us to make some bad decisions. Fast, definitely. Probably the best defense we’ve faced all year.”

And that defense made a high-powered offense look mediocre, holding the Cardinal to 129 yards rushing and knocking Luck around the backfield. For perspective, he’d been sacked only four times in the previous nine games -- including seven games without a sack.

“We’re not a team that turns the ball over,” said center Sam Schwartzstein. “We’re a team that executes extremely well. When you turn the ball over, it doesn’t matter how well you execute. They did what we expected them to do. We had a good game plan. But they forced turnovers and got us out of our element.”

That might be the most telling thing any player or coach said all night. Stanford fell behind early and was forced to play catch-up all night. They were out of their element. They threw 41 times and rushed 35 times. It was the first time this season a tight end didn’t have a touchdown.

“Schematically, I thought we were fine,” Shaw said. “This was not going to be one of those games where we run for 300 yards. This was going to be, the way we had it mapped out, a tight game -- which is what it was for a while. But once you turn the ball over and put it back in their hands, that’s what they’re built for.”

And Oregon didn’t pussyfoot. It ran right at the teeth of the Stanford defense and the Cardinal failed to make the stops. Oregon ran between the tackles 34 times for 168 yards and three touchdowns.

“The bottom line is they’re a great team and great teams execute,” said defensive lineman Matt Masifilo. “Great teams find your glitches and they executed more than us. They found our flaws and they exploited us.”

And it didn’t help that safety Delano Howell -- who had just returned after missing three games with a hand injury -- went out at the 8:13 mark in the second quarter after using his casted hand to force a fumble.

Stanford turned that into a 37-yard Eric Whitaker field goal to cut the deficit to 15-9. But in the third quarter, after James fumbled a punt, the Cardinal weren’t able to capitalize. Trailing 29-16, Stanford got the ball at the Oregon 34, but moved the ball only 4 yards before Whitaker missed from 48 yards. It was the first time Stanford failed to score this season after gaining a turnover.

Oregon, meanwhile, had three touchdowns off five Stanford turnovers (though the last two fumbles happened when the game was well out of hand and Oregon wasn’t trying to score).

“They took advantage of our turnovers,” Shaw said. “We got turnovers and didn’t turn them into points. That’s the bottom line. You play against a team with that kind of speed, that kind of talent that is as well-coached as they are, you turn the ball over and you can’t win.”

It was clear Saturday night that -- as a program -- Stanford has some growing up to do.

“We’re close,” Shaw said. “We’re not there yet. We have to keep recruiting. We have to keep coaching and our guys that are here have to keep pushing and fighting.

“I expect them to rebound greatly. We have a lot of guys in our locker room with a lot of character. They love playing the game of football. We’ve got two regular-season games and next week is Cal. We don’t need help with motivation this week.”

Saturday night, Stanford stumbled and fell. Next week, we’ll see if they can stand back up.
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Let’s take a trip back to those carefree days between Week 1 and 2. Stanford was coming off its blowout win of San Jose State in the season opener and preparing to go on the road against Duke. Head coach David Shaw made a passing comment:

“Missed tackles in the secondary lose football games.”

It was logged and noted at the time. And in these tense days between Games 9 and 10, it’s gone from casual comment to paramount prophecy.

[+] EnlargeDelano Howell and Johnathan Franklin
AP Photo/Paul SakumaStanford will need to do a better job tackling when they play Oregon on Saturday.
The Cardinal have fought their own tackling demons throughout this season. Part of it is losing one of their best tacklers in Week 3 -- linebacker Shayne Skov -- and losing another of their best tacklers for a quarter of the season -- safety Delano Howell.

Howell will return to the lineup this week for the epic showdown against Oregon, which begs the question: Is this the week Stanford’s defenders can put it all together?

“We get better every week,” said linebacker Jarek Lancaster. “Obviously this week with the explosiveness [Oregon has] we’re trying to wrap up more in practice, run our feet through contact. Anytime on defense, it’s something to worry about. I think we’ve gotten better and this should be our best tackling game.”

It has to be. Or the Ducks will run wild all over Stanford -- which they might do anyway -- even if the Cardinal are able to wrap up.

“You can play well against Oregon and give up 35 points,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “If one guy is out of position on one play, it’s a touchdown. That’s just the way it is.”

Too often this season we have seen big plays from opposing teams because they have broken a tackle, or tackles, and picked up critical third downs or taken it all the way to the end zone.

Safety Michael Thomas said it’s time for players to start taking it personally.

“There are going to be situations with one-on-one, with you and another guy in open space and you have to bring him down,” Thomas said. “It’s athlete versus athlete … we can’t miss tackles. These guys are too talented. They are fast, they run hard and we can’t afford to miss tackles.

“It’s a matter of will with that guy. It’s one-on-one with me and him in open space and I can’t miss."

Howell’s absence these last three games has been notable and his return gives Shaw a much needed veteran presence in the backfield. It takes a significant amount of pressure off Thomas to set the defensive alignments.

But then you have two young middle linebackers in A.J. Tarpley and Lancaster. Both have played very well since the Cardinal lost Skov. But neither has faced a team with Oregon's explosiveness.

“It’s not just being in a big game. It’s about playing these guys, specifically on defense,” Shaw said. “Chip Kelly says it all the time and he’s 100 percent right. Time of possession is overrated. It’s what you do with the snaps that you get. They are going to line up, run a play and run right back up and run a play again. You have to communicate quickly, especially from the safety position … I feel great being able to have Delano back this week.”

While Oregon has the ability to run between the tackles, they are at their best when they are running outside the hashes and using their speed to stretch defenses. That puts the onus on the linebackers and safeties to either take proper angles, or simply not allow Oregon’s speedy backs to get to the outside.

“We have to cage them,” Lancaster said. “Set the edges. Force everything inside. If we can keep them caged, we can do really well. We just can’t let them out.”

Halftime: Stanford 17, OSU 7

November, 5, 2011
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CORVALLIS, Ore. -- A few thoughts from halftime of Stanford-Oregon State.

Turning point: Wide receiver Chris Owusu was taken off the field in an ambulance after taking another illegal hit. After making a reception, Owusu was hit and fumbled the ball and it was returned for a touchdown, but the play was negated because of the penalty. The score would have tied the game at 14, but instead the Cardinal were able to convert a 31-yard Eric Whitaker field goal for a 17-7 lead. Initial reports are Owusu suffered a concussion, but was fully conscious and had full motion of all of his extremities.

Turning point (2): On the opening play of the second quarter, tight end Levine Toilolo suffered an "upper body" injury. The Cardinal were already down one tight end with Zach Ertz suffering a knee injury last week.

Best player: As Andrew Luck's targets continue to go down, wide receiver Griff Whalen continues to be Mr. Reliable on third down. Luck has twice looked to him on third down and he's converted both times. Plus he had a 17-yard touchdown reception midway through the second quarter to put the Cardinal ahead 14-0.

Stat of the half: 2: Two more significant injuries to marquee playmakers. The Cardinal already limped into this game without Ertz, offensive tackle Cameron Fleming, kicker Jordan Williamson and safety Delano Howell. Without Toilolo and Owusu, Luck loses the player he targets more than anyone else in Owusu and a 6-foot-8 red zone threat in Toilolo.

Stanford questions worth asking

November, 1, 2011
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Some questions kicking around my sugar-spattered brain the day after Halloween:

  1. Can the Cardinal keep their emotions in check? Saturday's win over USC was draining -- in every possible way a game can drain a team. It was physically exhausting, emotionally taxing and in case you haven't heard, the Cardinal are now No. 4 in the BCS standings. Enter 2-6 Oregon State, a team with little to play for but pride. Nothing would be sweeter for the Beavers than to shock the college football world and dash Stanford's hopes of a national championship. With intelligent players, head coach David Shaw shouldn't need to remind them not to look ahead to the Nov. 12 game against No. 8 Oregon. But he should still say it, again and again and again.
  2. [+] EnlargeRobert Woods
    Kirby Lee/US PresswireThe Stanford secondary will be tested again this week against Oregon State.
  3. Will the tackling issue ever get fixed? It better, and no better time to start than this week. If safety Delano Howell is back from a hand injury, that will help. And the secondary will be tested yet again this week. Oregon State has averaged 47 passes per game over its past five while averaging 289 passing yards per game. But they still have some balance, running about 40 percent of the time. The Cardinal have given up three rushing touchdowns of 45 yards or more over the past two weeks. That blame doesn't just fall on the secondary -- that's up front with the defensive line and linebackers.
  4. How does the offensive line rebound? Pretty good game for the offensive line -- especially in the run game and in the fourth quarter and overtime when the Cardinal rushed for 98 of their 186 yards. They were clearly in better shape and were moving people with more of a purpose late in the game. But the two sacks were an issue. And the fact that both of them came on third down was even more concerning. I'll touch on this later today in my "One Bad Thing" video. Quarterback Andrew Luck has to have complete confidence in his offensive line, particularly on third down, if the Cardinal are going to see this thing through.
  5. Can the pass rush get back on track? Stanford's inability to register a sack had as much to do with Matt Barkley as it did the Cardinal. Barkley was just as impressive, maybe more so, than Luck in terms of showcasing his quick release and ability to move the pocket. And he was tough. The Cardinal pounded him several times and every time he stood in the pocket and took the shots. Still, with the pressure the Cardinal create and the skill players they have on defense, there is no reason they should be blanked again this season.
  6. What will the offense look like without Zach Ertz? I'm really curious, almost excited on some weird level, to see how the Cardinal put this together over the next couple of weeks without Ertz. There is zero doubt in my mind that Shaw and Co. will have an outstanding offensive game plan in place for the next couple of weeks. They haven't lacked for creativity this year averaging almost one non-traditional/gadget play per game.
  7. The Montgomery era begins? Nice to see another wide receiver finally have a big game. And I like the fact that Luck had the confidence to go to Ty Montgomery three straight times to open the final drive in regulation when the Cardinal were trailing 34-27 with 3:03 left in the game. Plus, Luck looked to him twice in overtime. Shows tremendous trust and confidence in the true freshman for him to get that much attention late in a critical game with an undefeated season on the line.

Despite adversity, Cardinal prevail

October, 30, 2011
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LOS ANGELES -- Atlas doesn’t carry this much on his shoulders. And yet, Stanford’s world keeps turning.

Stanford is still in the hunt. Still in the conversation. Still perfect on a night when the Cardinal were anything but. Still in the game when fate’s dice seemed so unbelievably loaded.

In an epic contest that made last year’s last-minute nail biter look like a Swedish massage, the Cardinal overcame three deficits before topping USC 56-48 in triple-overtime.

It wasn’t just the fact that they won. It was the burdens they had to carry on their way to victory lane.

Consider:

  • For the second consecutive week, they were without safety Delano Howell (and he was missed).
  • Before kickoff, it was decided that kicker Jordan Williamson, Mr. Accuracy himself, would not play.
  • Before quarterback Andrew Luck even took the field, tight end Zach Ertz, one of his biggest and most reliable weapons, was lost for the game with an injury on the opening kickoff.
  • Add the weight of the nation’s longest win streak (now 16 games) and playing in a hostile environment with national championship aspirations and it would be easy to see how they’d collapse.

And they almost did.

But they didn’t.

“We talk about fighting adversity, but I didn’t know it was going to be this much adversity,” said head coach David Shaw. “But the kids fought through it and I love them to death for it.”

The Cardinal overcame their first deficit of the season – three deficits in regulation, to be exact – but fought back each time. They overcame injuries to three starting offensive linemen that cost all of them some time. And with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game, they overcame a horrendous miscue from Luck, their unflappable signal caller.

[+] EnlargeStanford's AJ Tarpley
Gary A. Vasquez/US PRESSWIREStanford linebacker AJ Tarpley celebrates after recovering a fumble in triple overtime to seal the victory over USC.
With the score tied at 27-27, the stage was set for Luck to march the Cardinal down the field for the go-ahead score. But even though we’re in sight of the Hollywood sign, things don’t always go as scripted. USC corner back Nickell Robey jumped Luck’s pass intended for Chris Owusu and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown and a 34-27 lead.

The weight could have been crushing. It wasn’t.

“I was very disappointed in myself,” said Luck, calling it a bad decision from the start. “There were a couple of seconds there when I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself. But the guys believed in me. For that I was grateful. I was happy there was still some time on the play clock to go down there again.”

And they did, moving 76 yards on 10 plays and capping the overtime-forcing drive with a 2-yard Stepfan Taylor run. From there, the Cardinal and Trojans went blow-for-blow until Taylor’s 5-yard score put them ahead and USC failed to answer, with Curtis McNeal fumbling into the end zone to cap the game.

“When a bad play happens, he goes completely down in the dumps,” Shaw said of his quarterback. “He’s so mad, so upset, so furious. Then it’s like flushing a toilet. He flushes it and it’s like it never happened and he moves on more determined. The look in his eye was ‘We’re going to get this done.’ That’s what he said. He went up and down and told everybody, ‘We’re going to get this done.’ He was so mad at himself. He was not going to let that play lose the game for us.”

Without Ertz, much of Stanford’s offensive identity is lost. The Cardinal’s three-tight end formations are as much their calling card as Luck.

“It’s probably 25-30 percent (of our offense),” Shaw said. “It's a healthy chunk. And we also have a lot of two-tight-end stuff. And between those two, it’s doggone near 50 percent. We had to count on other guys stepping up.”

To lose that significant portion of the offense right before it takes the field has to be daunting. There are game plans. Scripted plays. It would crush most teams. Right?

“We had to regroup and restructure part of our game plan,” said offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. “… It was a character-building game. Our group, collectively they do a great job of maintaining their focus. Tonight was a night where we had a lot of adversity … It’s a testament to the poise of our head coach. What you see is what you get. He never panics. I tend to get emotionally hijacked at times. He calmed us all down. Our kids feed off his temperament. It was a night when we were only as good as our last play and we were focused on winning each play.”

And then there was the kicker situation. An undisclosed injury kept Williamson out of the game. So it was up to Eric Whitaker – who was yet to kick a field goal in a game this season — to step in and perform. While he was shaky on kickoffs, putting two of them out of bounds, he made both of his field goals (33 and 29 yards) and converted all six PATs – including two in overtime.

The weight could have been crushing. It wasn’t. Not when the Cardinal fell behind by 10 points in the third quarter.

“We had talked all week about the fact that Stanford hadn’t had to go into the fourth quarter trailing,” said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. “Our goal was to keep it close and take the lead in the second half and see what happened. They haven’t been in that situation before.”

Now they have. Even when Luck’s pick-six put them in the hole, the players had overtime on their minds.

“We always talk about how adversity is an opportunity for greatness,” said defensive end Ben Gardner. “This was our first chance to show our mettle in the face of adversity. We got behind, but we never lost faith. It was a struggle, but when the time came, we made the plays.”

USC-Stanford: Who owns the lines late?

October, 29, 2011
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LOS ANGELES -- Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is almost certainly going to be the No. 1 overall pick in this spring's NFL draft. USC quarterback Matt Barkley is likely to follow him some time in the first round.

So the quarterback matchup between the No. 6 Cardinal and 20th-ranked Trojans is a good one. You might have read something about that this week.

But as big a role as those two figure to play -- last year they combined for six touchdown passes and no interceptions -- it's as likely we will be pointing at something else as the reason for how this one ends up in the Coliseum.

Let's skip the first half then and ask this question: How well will the USC run defense be holding up halfway through the third quarter?

The Trojans have been good against the run this year. They rank second in the Pac-12 in run defense -- behind Stanford -- and they shut down Notre Dame's running game last week. But they've yet to face a team that runs like the Cardinal. Or, more important, blocks like them.

Often a team runs early to set up the run late. The idea is that a front-seven is juiced early but wears down due to repeated body blows. Stanford wins a lot of games by TKO. Ask Washington, which yielded 446 yards to the Cardinal last week and looked utterly whipped by game's end.

The Trojans only rotate about six defensive linemen. How will they be holding up as we close in on the fourth quarter? Will those 3-yard runs in the first quarter become four-, five- or 10-yard runs? And will that cause the defense to start leaning forward, setting itself up for Luck to beat it over the top, either with his three outstanding tight ends or speedy wideout Chris Owusu?

Or, might the Trojans hold the line? It's not a matter of shutting down the Stanford run game. It's about making enough plays on first and second down that Luck faces tough chunks on third down. Both teams don't go three-and-out often -- they, in fact, have the lowest percentage of three-and-out drives in FBS football -- but Stanford leads the Pac-12 in third-down conversion rate at 53.4 percent.

If USC can push down that number close to 40 percent, that means its defense gets off the field and rests. And more touches for Barkley and wide receiver Robert Woods, who will be running around in a secondary expected to be missing safety Delano Howell.

It also, of course, would help if the Trojans aren't one-dimensional against the Cardinal defense. Washington gashed Stanford in the running game in the first half last week. Perhaps the Huskies revealed some vulnerabilities in the Cardinal front?

Football is all about the line of scrimmage. You hear that often. But it will be worth watching to see who owns it when the screws tighten in the game's final 20 or so minutes.

If the Trojans' big bodies can at least approach a stalemate, then the Trojans' fast guys -- of which they have more than Stanford -- can become difference-makers.

Perhaps upset makers.

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