NCF Nation: Griff Whalen

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."
For those who don't remember, Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener had a pretty funny exchange in the post-game news conference following a 28-14 win over Notre Dame -- Stanford's 2011 regular season finale.

It was a festive mood. The players were singing (poorly)"Macho Man" in the locker room. Fleener (flowing locks and all) was asked about catching Luck's touchdown that broke John Elway's school record.

"I think it's something I'll be able to tell my kids and grand kids when I'm watching Andrew on T.V. someday," Fleener replied.

[+] EnlargeCoby Fleener
Robert Johnson/Icon SMICoby Fleener will be joining Andrew Luck in Indianapolis.
Luck rolled his eyes and said: "Like he's not going to be playing. Let's be real."

If only they knew then what they know now. Because now, it's real.

Fleener won't need to buy a television to watch Luck in the NFL. He'll have the true HD, 3D, RealD experience -- catching passes from Luck in Lucas Oil Stadium now that they are both Indianapolis Colts.

"I can't explain how excited I am," Fleener said. "As the draft went on, I knew there was a possibility, but I didn't want to set myself up for a letdown. And then as it got closer and closer I started thinking it could happen. My heart was beating through my chest when my phone rang and there was a huge smile on my face."

That's exactly how it should be.

Are they headed for Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice-levels? Probably not. But Peyton Manning-to-Dallas Clark status? It's not impossible to imagine that in a few years.

Wide receiver Griff Whalen also signed on with the Colts as an undrafted free agent and they give Luck something he wouldn't otherwise have -- familiar faces; guys in the locker room he can pull aside and shoot the proverbial manure with; someone to go over the playbook with and bounce ideas off of. Luck can crack a nerd nation joke knowing that at least two guys are going to laugh.

Chances are the Colts are still a couple of seasons away from returning to the upper-echelon of the NFL power rankings. And much of their success -- or failure -- will fall on Luck's shoulders. Fleener will once again have to endure season-after-season of "How is Andrew handling the pressure" questions. But somehow, I don't think he'll mind.

"It's going to be a sacrifice," Fleener joked. "But for the chance to play with Andrew, I think I can make it work."

Luck has never given any indication that he can't handle public scrutiny. But he was also very closely guarded at Stanford. His media exposure was meticulously measured. It's going to be a lot more demanding in the NFL. And now Luck can pull aside a couple of trusted friends and let some stuff off his chest -- if he has to.

On the field, there is a chemistry that is invaluable; a rapport that can only come from a couple hundred practices, thousands of throws and, just guessing here, one or two nights out with the boys. Luck is a better quarterback with Fleener and Whalen on his team. Fleener is a better tight end with Luck as his quarterback. And the Colts are a better team for having the three of them together.

Luck always said his No. 1 reason for returning to Stanford for another year was to earn his degree. His second reason, a very close second, was to have one more season with his guys. Fleener and Whalen are his guys. They are in Luck's closely guarded inner-circle. And sharing meals, ideas and time together in the pros will have an incredibly positive impact.

I remember watching Luck and Fleener hugging it out in the locker room after the Fiesta Bowl loss -- the only time media were allowed into a Stanford locker room all season, per BCS mandate. And I took a mental note, thinking it was the end of a pretty-darn-good pitch-and-catch combo.

Little did we know, that was only the end of the beginning.
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).

Pregame: Business as usual

January, 2, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Watching the first round of pregame warmups, you'd never know it's been more than a month between games. Except for one major difference -- there are a lot more healthy Cardinal players stretching out than there were at the end of November.

The time off, while it might temporarily hinder the timing of the offense, did the Cardinal more good than harm as several key players rested and recovered from injuries that either kept them out of the final games of the regular season or limited their time.

Other than that, quarterback Andrew Luck went through his usual routine, capping his warmups with a tippy-toe touchdown pass from Griff Whalen before heading back to the locker room. Co-defensive coordinators Jason Tarver and Derek Mason jogged their usual laps around the field.

Shaw said this week that keeping the schedule and the routine the same as they have all season was important for the team mentally and physically.

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.”
Just so we're clear, I'm not a fan of what-ifs. Never have been. But a lot of you are, and I can see the for-kicks value of asking what-if questions.

Over the course of the season, I've kept several of these questions in my back pocket. They were sent to me through email, mailbag and just general conversations with readers at games and around the stadium. These are composites of the most popular what-if questions I've been asked this season.

You guys wanted them, so here we go: Questions worth asking, the "what-if" edition:

  • [+] EnlargeStanford's Shane Skov
    Matt Kartozian/US PRESSWIREHow would the Oregon game have turned out had Shayne Skov not been injured?
    What if Andrew Luck had left last season?
    Pretty safe to assume Stanford would not be going to a BCS bowl game. There would have been a quarterback competition, and since Brett Nottingham won the back-up job, let's assume he would have won the starting gig. First-year starting quarterbacks are exactly that -- first year-starters. He would have had some struggles. While the defense would have performed the same, the offense probably wouldn't have clicked as efficiently. With the talent at tight end and running back, plus with the same defense, I would confidently say nine wins. I think they would have dropped Oregon, USC and at least one other road game in which they were favored to win. It happens to almost every first-year guy -- that "one" game where nothing clicks.
  • What if Jim Harbaugh was still the head coach? First off, I don't think the San Francisco 49ers would have nine wins. So as a Niner's fan raised in the South Bay during the Montana-to-Rice era, I'm happy he's there. But I think we'd still be looking at an 11-1 season. I don't think the result of the Oregon game would have turned out differently. David Shaw still would have set the general offensive game plan. Stanford has kept the essential defensive system that Vic Fangio installed, with a few new wrinkles. But for the most part, I think things would have turned out the same.
  • What if Zach Ertz was healthy and played against Oregon? I like Ertz a lot. But as we saw in the Notre Dame game, the tight ends could use some brushing up on their tackling skills (great hustle by Coby Fleener, bad technique on the horse collar). What I'm getting at is Ertz doesn't play defense. When things became pass-heavy for the Cardinal in the second half against Oregon, another reliable option in the mid-range passing game would have helped. Would it have made enough of a difference to overcome a 23-point loss? I don't think so. Certainly, Luck and the coaching staff would have had more of the playbook at their disposal with the three tight-end sets. But I don't think one tight end would have been enough to make that significant of a difference.
  • What if Luck had "marquee" wide receivers, ie. Robert Woods, Ryan Broyles, Justin Blackmon etc? I think they would make fantastic downfield blockers in David Shaw's pro-style offense ... But seriously, I hear this a lot. I think Griff Whalen has given every ounce of talent his body is capable of this season. But it's not like Luck has been throwing to Pee Wee League guys. Fleener is the most productive offensive tight end in college football. Ertz and Toilolo are probably NFL bound down the road. Would his numbers be better? Yeah, probably. But he's had some pretty good targets to throw at this season.
  • What if Shayne Skov played the whole season? He would lead the team in tackles. I think we can all agree on that. This takes us back to the Ertz issue versus Oregon. Would Skov had made a difference? In this case, maybe. The Ducks got a lot of their production by running up the middle. You have to think Skov would have been in on at least half of those plays. Would it have been enough? Again, I don't know. I do know this, they won eight of nine games without him, and Stanford's middle linebacking corps looks filthy next season. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley return with eight full games of experience under their belts -- plus Skov (not breaking any news here, just assuming he comes back).

So there you have it, your first and only what-if blog post of the 2011 season. The debating flood gates have been opened. The floor is yours ...

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 ...

Stanford weekend rewind

November, 21, 2011
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.

Weekend rewind: Stanford

November, 14, 2011
Before we move on to The Big Game, there is the other big game. While most Stanford fans probably want to forget about what happened Saturday night, there were still a couple of highlights worth looking back at.

Highlight reel: A really nice effort sack by defensive lineman Matt Masifilo early in the game, who tallied both of Stanford’s sacks. The stunt was nice, bringing four guys where there were only two blockers. But it was Masifilo who split the blockers and got hold of Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas for a 20-yard loss. With so much talk about protecting the quarterback, I am not surprised it was called dead before the interception.

Best play: The 13-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to Griff Whalen was a nice slant route and a nice ball by Luck splitting two defenders. Whalen put his head down and let the momentum carry him into the end zone. As good a pitch-and-catch as you'll see in college football.

Who’s hot: Whalen. On a night when it seemed no one was doing Luck any favors, Whalen caught nine of the 10 balls thrown his way for 107 yards and two touchdowns.

Who’s not: Everyone else who catches a ball. The drops were horrendous -- especially coming from marquee guys not known to suffer from stony hands.

The good: Stanford is not out of the running for a BCS bowl game. Could still get to the Fiesta Bowl as an at-large team ...

The bad: ... but that's as far as they can get. The loss dropped the Cardinal out of national championship contention.

Stanford has some growing up to do

November, 13, 2011
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.

Halftime: Oregon 22, Stanford 16

November, 12, 2011

STANFORD, Calif. -- First-half thoughts from The Farm.

Stat of the half (or quarter): -1, total yards for the Oregon Ducks after the first quarter – though the Ducks held an 8-0 lead. The score came on Andrew Luck’s sixth interception of the season. Oregon turned it into a 4-yard touchdown pass from Darron Thomas to Lavasier Tuinei. The pass from David Paulson to Mike Garrity on the conversion surprised the Cardinal and the Ducks went up 8-0.

Best player: Even though Oregon is leading, Stanford wide receiver Griff Whalen has really established himself as the No. 1 receiver for the Cardinal over the past few games. He’s got six catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Coming up big on the few third downs Stanford has completed.

Best call: Has to be the 2-point conversion. Gutty call on the road by Oregon coach Chip Kelly. If it failed, we’d all be hammering him for the bad decision. But it didn’t. And the fact that Stanford missed a PAT makes it look even more impressive. A very close second was the screen pass to De’Anthony Thomas on fourth-and-7. Stanford sold out on the blitz. Perfect call, and 41 yards later, the Ducks were up 22-9.

Pregame: Stanford-Oregon

November, 12, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- It's probably safe to assume that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Stepfan Taylor will play a major role in the outcome of this game – one way or the other.

Here’s three Stanford players to keep an eye on who could have a major impact on the game.
  1. WR Griff Whalen: With Chris Owusu out, Whalen is likely to be Luck’s No. 1 target. In the past four games, Whalen has been targeted 31 times by Luck and he has 24 catches for 341 yards and a touchdown.
  2. NG Terrence Stephens: He has nine tackles in the past three games -- but where he thrives is blowing opponents off the ball and occupying space and blockers. That keeps the offensive linemen off of the middle linebackers and outside linebackers and allows the back four to make plays.
  3. RB Tyler Gaffney: Whether it’s running the Wildcat or catching a screen, Gaffney has essentially taken over as the No. 2 back behind Taylor. The more successful he is, the less the Cardinal will have to lean on Taylor so he can be as fresh as possible and continue to grind out 6-plus yards per carry.

Stanford's long wait ends tomorrow

November, 11, 2011
Tomorrow is the judgment day; Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in heaven has in store; One more dawn, one more day, one day more. -Ensemble, Les Miserable

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Even as the sweet and sticky nectar of orange was trickling down the bearded chins of Stanford’s football players, on their lips, they still had the sour taste of duck. The Ducks. It was the lone stain on an otherwise Clorox’d season. The black eye on their runway-model complexion.

Not even a victory in the Orange Bowl last season -- one of the prestigious BCS bowl games -- was enough to satisfy those who would return for another year and another chance to face Oregon.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesStanford coaches and players alike have been working toward the revenge game against Oregon.
So here we are. One year, one month and nine days later. Just 35 hours to go. One more day. One more day until we learn whether Stanford is truly ready to skyrocket itself into national legitimacy. Or whether the Cardinal are what the rest of the country thinks they are -- a cute little story with an over-hyped quarterback that will get their comeuppance when they finally play a "real" team.

"It's not just some pill that we are going to take or something that we listen to on an iPod that will all of a sudden get us pumped up and make us ready," said Stanford corner back Johnson Bademosi. "This is all about preparations we've made throughout the off season and in the preseason. We've been evolving. We're prepared for this."

Since David Shaw was given the keys to Stanford, he's been subtly directing his players' eyes on the biggest prize -- taking down the Oregon Ducks.

There are little things -- like during spring ball, when the team would break from a practice, in lieu of the usual "Team!" or "Stanford!" it would be "Beat Oregon!" During individual workouts, sometimes the defense would have the offense run a little spread-option, just to work on angles.

On more than one occasion during the course of his weekly meetings with the media, Shaw would make indirect references to Oregon:

  • "These are the sorts of things you have to do to beat the best team in the league."
  • "This is what the best team in the league does, so it's what we have to do better."

We know Shaw can play chess and think moves ahead. He admitted as much following the USC game, explaining why he kept his starters in during some early-season blowouts. It was to prepare them in the event they play a physically and emotionally taxing game. The USC game was.

Tomorrow could prove likewise.

It's one of the reasons the Cardinal have a no-huddle, hurry-up offense of their own. Yes, they have the quarterback to run it in Andrew Luck. But it's also another thing Oregon has to prepare for. Stanford might never run a single no-huddle play the entire game -- but you know Oregon had to take time away from prepping for Stanford's base offense to study up.

Stanford might not run a single play out of the Wildcat this week. But you know Oregon had to dedicate time this week to preparing for the possibility that Tyler Gaffney will work at least a few plays out of the shotgun.

Same with the handful of gadget plays we've seen from the Cardinal offense this year. The more there is on film, the more time someone has to spend studying it.

Shaw has been taking indirect steps every week to prepare his team for this game.

For the players, it's a relief to be able to say the "O" word.

"We finally get to talk about (Oregon)," said safety Michael Thomas. "We've been preparing for this since the last time we played them."

One year, one month and nine days to let anger and frustration marinate. Just one more day.

Always the image of poise, Luck said last year's game, where the Cardinal led 21-3 before falling 52-31, is not a factor for him.

"I try to put it out of my memory," Luck said. "To me, it was last year. Maybe some guys will use it as revenge. But last year really has no bearing on this year -- teams we beat, teams we lost to -- it's a new year and I approach it like that."

If that's true, he has even more poise than we thought. Some of his teammates weren't as composed.

"It left a bad taste in everyone's mouth," said running back Stepfan Taylor.

Added wide receiver Griff Whalen: "You don't ever want to feel like that."

Even the younger players who are expected to play big roles in tomorrow's game felt the charge this week in practice.

"The older guys are putting something out there -- I can't describe it -- but it's something," said linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who redshirted last season. "We're feeding off it. I don't know what it is, but you get it."

Tomorrow will be one year, one month and 10 days since the Stanford Cardinal last lost a football game. That's a long time. A long time to go undefeated. An even longer time to lament the mistakes of the past.

In just 60 minutes tomorrow, Stanford can erase 584, 640 minutes of heartbreak. And change the opinion of a nation.