NCF Nation: Jeremy Stewart

Gaffney's return a boost for Cardinal

February, 11, 2013
One of the biggest questions facing Stanford in 2013 was how would it replace so many key offensive players who graduated or left for the NFL following the highly-successful 2012 season.

Enter -- errr -- re-enter Tyler Gaffney, who could prove to be a game-changer for the Cardinal.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireTyler Gaffney is returning to Stanford after a year in minor-league baseball.
Gaffney announced that he'll return to the Cardinal on April 1 after spending one year playing minor league baseball. His college eligibility for baseball is up, but he has one year remaining on his "football clock."

You put an outstanding athlete like Gaffney behind Stanford's offensive line and you have the makings of a 1,000-yard rusher who can take the pressure off of quarterback Kevin Hogan and allow the Cardinal to do what they want to do on offense -- which is pound the football.

Gaffney spent the bulk of his career backing up Stepfan Taylor -- and there's no shame in that because Taylor was one of the greatest backs in Stanford history. In three years Gaffney totaled 791 yards and 12 touchdowns, plus three receiving touchdowns. In 2011, he rushed for 449 yards (6.1 average) and seven touchdowns.

With his return, Gaffney gives a fairly inexperienced running back corps an immediate veteran presence and you'd expect he jumps to the top of the list of candidates to replace Taylor. And you have to assume he'll be in pretty good shape, too. After all, he's been a professional athlete for the last year. He'll know the system, since it hasn't changed, so all he has to do is make friends with the new offensive linemen.

Remember, Gaffney was one of the most sought after backs on the West Coast coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego -- turning down offers from USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and Utah to come to The Farm. And I'm also a little bias because I've known him since he was a sophomore in high school and I watched him put on one of the greatest rushing performances in California prep history in the California State Championship game (current Oregon State quarterback Cody Vaz was pretty darn good in that game, too).

Given the opportunity to be a 15-to-20-carry back, Gaffney could do some damage. In 2011, he only had double-digit carries once. But remember in 2011 Stanford was rotating heavily between Taylor (242 carries), Gaffney (74), Anthony Wilkerson (56), Jeremy Stewart (55) and Andrew Luck (47).

The Cardinal will still likely be by-committee in 2013, more so than they were in 2012 when Taylor carried a league-high 322 times. But the addition of Gaffney is a major boost to a Stanford offense that has plenty of potential and talent, but is lacking in proven playmakers.
Taking a look back at some of the best and worst moments from the Pac-12's bowl season.

Best overall performance (team): We're a field goal away from flipping a coin between Stanford and Oregon. But the Ducks won, and to the victor go the spoils. Say what you want about Wisconsin being overrated; Oregon beat a very good team with one of the most productive college running backs in history, and the Ducks did it on a major stage.

Best offensive performance (individual): Keith Price outdueled Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, passing for 438 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for three more scores. And the Huskies lost! Someone on the Washington defense better be carrying his books around campus until the start of next season.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireWashington's Keith Price passed for 438 yards and four touchdowns and also ran for another three touchdowns in a losing effort against Baylor.
Best offensive performance (team): As good as Washington's offensive show was against Baylor, Oregon did it against a tougher opponent and under a brighter spotlight. LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas both went for more than 100 yards, Lavasier Tuinei turned in season highs in catches (eight) and yards (158) to go with two touchdowns and the offensive line had its way with Wisconsin.

Best defensive performance (individual): In the conference's five losses, teams gave up an average of 41 points. Still, Cal first-team all-conference linebacker Mychal Kendricks did all he could to limit Texas to 21, notching nine solo tackles (10 total) and 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Best defensive performance (team): Pass.

Best offensive performance in a losing effort: Andrew Luck's one interception was the lone stain on an otherwise fantastic performance, in which he completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns. He was 15-of-15 on all of Stanford's scoring drives and 4-for-4 on the final drive that set up the almost-game-winning field goal.

Worst offensive performance: Both Cal and UCLA faced fairly tough defenses in Texas and Illinois, respectively, and their 24 points combined reflected that. (For the record, Washington had 35 by halftime and Oregon had 28 at the half.) But the nod goes to Cal for 7 rushing yards on 36 attempts. That's 0.2 yards per carry. ASU was actually worse with minus-11 rushing yards, but at least it put up 24 points (well, 17 if you take away Rashad Ross' 98-yard kick return).

Worst defensive performance: As a conference, Pac-12 teams gave up an average of 455 yards in their bowl games. Washington was the worst offender with 777 yards yielded.

Best bang for buck: Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. Two carries, two touchdowns, 155 yards and a 77.5 yards-per-carry average.

Best supporting cast: While Price was fantastic, lest we forget that Chris Polk ran for 147 yards, Jermaine Kearse caught five balls for 198 yards and a score and Devin Aguilar added two receiving touchdowns.

Best holiday spirit: Cal certainly got into the season, giving the ball away five times to Texas.

Best "Oh jeez" moment: Stanford running back Jeremy Stewart taking out teammate Ty Montgomery after he tried to run a kickoff out of the end zone. Stewart, a fifth-year senior, stopped the true freshman right at the line and dropped him, much to the chagrin of 69,927 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Worst "Oh jeez" moment: Watching Dennis Erickson try to call a timeout when ASU had fourth-and-goal at the Boise 1-yard line. Then watching his face as Jamar Taylor picked off Brock Osweiler and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown.

Halftime: Stanford 21, OSU 21

January, 2, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Some first-half thoughts from the Fiesta Bowl.

Turning point: On fourth-and-4 at the Stanford 32, Brandon Weeden hit Justin Blackmon for 23 yards with less than a minute in the half, setting up first-and-goal. On third-and-goal at the 2, Weeden took it in himself to knot the score at 21-21. It was Weeden's first career rushing touchdown.

Stat of the half: After only 13 three-and-out drives all season, the Cardinal already have two in the first half.

Best player for Stanford: Linebacker Jarek Lancaster is having a fantastic game. He’s made several open-field tackles -- including two on critical third downs -- and been in on several others.

Best player for Oklahoma State: Blackmon became the first wide receiver to gain more than 100 yards on the Cardinal this season. Through the first 30 minutes, he has four catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns.

Best tackle of a teammate: Jeremy Stewart taking down Ty Montgomery on a kickoff that Montgomery thought about taking 5 yards deep out of the end zone. As Montgomery approached the line, Stewart brought him down. The form was questionable and it might have been helmet-to-helmet, but no flag was thrown.

Best fan-made sign in the stands: “Superman wears Andrew Luck socks.”

2Q: Stanford 14, OSU 14

January, 2, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- That's a little more like it. Both teams put together scoring drives that match their personalities.

The Cardinal went 87 yards on seven plays, using 4 minutes, 30 seconds of clock to cap the drive with a 24-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Stewart.

Oklahoma State answered with a four-play, 84-yard drive that took up just 1:11, ending with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Justin Blackmon.

The pair teamed up again on a 67-yard touchdown pass to tie the score.

Blackmon already has 110 receiving yards -- marking the first time this season the Cardinal has allowed a receiver to gain more than 100 yards.

About six minutes left in the quarter and OSU has regained the momentum after falling behind by two scores.

Cardinal runners thrive on competition

December, 28, 2011
Taylor & Gaffney & WilkersonUS PresswireStepfan Taylor (33), Anthony Wilkerson (32) and Tyler Gaffney (25) each give Stanford something a little different in the running game.
(Cue the Jan Brady voice) Andrew Luck, Andrew Luck, Andrew Luck!

It's all that anyone outside of the Bay Area talks about when the topic of Stanford football passes the lips.

Yeah, he's good. Really good. But he's certainly not the be-all, end-all when it comes to the Stanford offense. Lost in the Luck hyperbole is an incredibly efficient and potent rushing attack that more often than not takes a backseat to No. 12.

The Cardinal's run game will have to be at its best on Jan. 2 when Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. There are yards to be had against a Cowboys rush defense that ranks 83rd nationally and yields 180 yards per game.

The greatest victim of this overshadowing is running back Stepfan Taylor, whom head coach David Shaw has called one of the most underrated running backs in the nation on more than one occasion.

"I think he plays 7 yards behind one of the best players in Stanford school history," Shaw told reporters after practice last week. "I think that's why he's underrated."

Taylor is the perfect mixture of speed, power and balance. He plays more compact than his 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame and often drags opponents for extra yards. For the second straight year, Taylor has rushed for more than 1,000 yards, netting 1,153 this season to go with eight touchdowns and 5.6 yards per carry. And he's done it rotating with three other backs plus a fullback who usually gets a few carries each game.

"We have a short-yardage, goal-line back that gets a lot of touchdowns [Jeremy Stewart], but Stepfan still has been effective in the red zone and catching passes," Shaw said. "He just does everything well. Does everything right. I'm sure at some point he'll get his just due.

"But at the same time, he doesn't care. He has fun. He loves playing. He recognizes that we have Tyler Gaffney and these other guys that can play, too. I think he just loves playing with his teammates."

Taylor, along with Gaffney, Stewart, Anthony Wilkerson and -- at least a couple of times each week -- fullback Ryan Hewitt make up a rushing attack that produces almost 208 yards per game and ranks 22nd nationally.

"We all pretty much do different things," said Taylor, the most well-rounded of the backs and the strongest pass-blocker. "They like to use us, and we all deserve to be on the field. They find ways to get all of us involved. Stewie has the power; Wilk has the speed off the edge. The coaches find ways to put us in the best spots."

Like all of the aforementioned backs, Gaffney was "the guy" coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. So going to a running-back-by-committee wasn't easy to swallow. It's still not.

"It takes some adjustment, and I wouldn't say I like it," said Gaffney, who averages a team-high 6.4 yards per carry among players with at least 11 total carries. "You can't like it as a running back. You want the ball. You want to help the team as much as possible. There is a rhythm to the game where you feel how fast the flow is of the defense, whether they are real aggressive or playing back. You don't get to feel that rhythm because I'll be in for two or three plays and then out for 10. Or I'll be in for 10 and then out for three. You never really know how much you are going to play or when you're going to play. You are just waiting on the sideline for your number to be called."

And that breeds competition. Taylor knows Gaffney is lobbying for carries. Gaffney knows Wilkerson is lobbying for carries. Short-yardage specialist Stewart knows Hewitt could get the call on third-and-short.

"If you're not playing well, there is going to be a guy stepping up who will," Gaffney said. "You have to bring your A-game every carry and every play. I wouldn't say we're breathing down each other's necks, but for lack of a better term, that's what it is. You have a feeling that if you have a couple of bad runs, you might not be going back in, and they might let the other guy ride it out."

So, you have a brilliant quarterback who checks his running backs into the best play against the best defense, and you have four backs clawing at one another for carries. All that's missing is the best run-blocking offensive lineman in the country with a nasty attitude to boot. Oh yeah, Stanford has that, too.

"Football is a physical sport, and the point is to move the other guy," said guard David DeCastro, widely regarded as the most NFL-ready interior lineman in the country. "There is no magic pill you take that makes us run the ball well. It's practice and repetition and hard work. You're trying to push the other guy backwards. That's football."

The running back quartet has combined for 26 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards on the ground this season. And, yes, even Luck has to get a lot of the credit for the success of the running game.

Shaw has spoken extensively about what Luck does pre-snap and how he coordinates the running game. So when lining up, do the running backs see the same things as Luck?

"I don't think anybody sees what he sees," Gaffney said. "When he puts us in a play, 99 times out of 100 we're in agreement that it is going to be our most successful rep."

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Stanford Cardinal (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys (11-1)

Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Stanford take by Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell: Welcome back to the BCS. The Cardinal return after smoking Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season -- many thinking it was the final game for coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck.

Harbaugh left, Luck stayed. And he turned in a Heisman-worthy season, throwing 35 touchdowns to nine interceptions, including a perfect 26-0 touchdown-interception ratio in the red zone.

With a trio of top-flight tight ends -- headlined by Coby Fleener -- Luck has proved why he's considered the No. 1 NFL prospect. But he's not the only top draft pick on the team. Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin is considered one of the two best left tackles in college football and guard David DeCastro is the best interior lineman in the country.

The tight ends -- Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- have accounted for more than half of Luck's 35 passing touchdowns on the season.

But what makes Stanford go is its balance. Stepfan Taylor had his second straight 1,000-yard season, and he did it platooning with Tyler Gaffney, Jeremy Stewart and Anthony Wilkerson.

Defensively, Chase Thomas leads a front seven that is one of the best in college football. The loss of inside linebacker Shayne Skov in the third game of the season was a blow to the defense, but youngsters Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley have filled the void nicely -- steadily improving every week.

Oklahoma State take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: The Cowboys are best known for their offense, and for good reason. Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are one of the nation's best pass-catch combos, and between Blackmon's physical nature and Weeden's accuracy, they're a nightmare for defenses.

Making matters more difficult is Joseph Randle, who has quietly had one of the best seasons of any running back in the Big 12. He's racked up 1,193 rushing yards with 23 (!) rushing touchdowns. Only three players in college football have more TDs. The first-year starter might be the Cowboys' secret weapon.

Defensively, the raw numbers aren't great for the Cowboys, but those rumors you've heard? They're true. The defense is a lot better than most give it credit. The Cowboys have an efficient defense that plays well when it counts, and ranks second nationally with a plus-20 turnover margin. Tough to beat that.

Quinn Sharp and Justin Gilbert make things interesting on special teams, too. Sharp leads the nation in touchbacks, is one of the Big 12's best place-kickers, and would be one of the nation's best in punting average -- if he had enough attempts. Gilbert is a dangerous return man who already has four touchdown returns in his first two seasons.
Andrew Luck, Michael FloydGetty Images, US PresswireQuarterback Andrew Luck, left, leads Stanford; Notre Dame leans heavily on receiver Michael Floyd.

Stanford and Notre Dame are both moving on to bowl games -- but first they square off in the regular season finale for both teams. Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna and Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell do their best to shake off turkey hangovers and bring insight into Saturday's matchup.

Kevin Gemmell: Happy post-Thanksgiving to you and yours, Matt. Seeing as Stanford and Notre Dame cross paths this week, it would stand to reason that the Stanford and Notre Dame blogs also come together the day before the game.

There are major bowl implications in this game for Stanford. What's the most important thing the Cardinal need to be on the lookout for when scouting the Irish?

Matt Fortuna: Kevin, same to you and your family as well. I think I'm still in a turkey coma from last night. Obviously, this is the biggest test Notre Dame will have faced all season long. Looking at the numbers throughout this season, I think the Irish's best bet for success is to move the ball through the air and take full advantage of Michael Floyd.

Jonas Gray's knee injury severely hampers Notre Dame's ground attack. The cast is largely unproven behind the smaller Cierre Wood, and Stanford's rushing defense is good enough to have seriously challenged the Irish backfield even if Gray took the field. The Cardinal's weakness, if they have any, would appear to be its pass defense. Tommy Rees will have to improve on his sub-par performance from last week and look more like the Rees from the Maryland game two weeks ago, when he completed 30 of 38 passes and sped up the tempo of the Notre Dame offense. If he can establish a rhythm early, I think we can brace ourselves for a pretty competitive contest.

I'd be remiss to not ask the Stanford blogger about Andrew Luck, so here we go: Should everyone in the Midwest believe the hype? I currently have him atop my Heisman ballot, but I'm wondering if things look as crisp up-close as they do from other parts of the country. What will Notre Dame's secondary need to do to contain Luck?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, if each player on the secondary can add four or five inches, that would be a good start. Luck is going to seek out his tight ends -- Coby Fleener (6-foot-6), Levine Toilolo (6-8) and possibly Zach Ertz (6-6) who hasn't played since the USC game because of a knee injury. Luck doesn't have the receiving corps to stretch the field, but he exploits his mismatches and if one of the Notre Dame defensive backs has one-on-one coverage with a tight end, look out, because Luck will find it.

As for believing the hype? Stanford head coach David Shaw believes it. He went on a pro-Luck tirade Tuesday, saying Luck is doing things no other college player has ever done. In that regard, then yes, believe the hype. Luck is the most intelligent and evolved college quarterback I have ever seen. He sets the formations and then calls the play. And he's good at it. The Cardinal are almost always running the optimal play against the optimal defense because Luck is calling it on the spot. It's pretty amazing to watch him orchestrate the offense.

I was just going over Stanford's record against marquee wide receivers and it's pretty good. They've slowed down Keenan Allen (Cal), Robert Woods (USC) and Juron Criner (Arizona). Since we're talking secondaries, tell me about Michael Floyd and what he brings.

Matt Fortuna: Allen had six catches for 97 yards. Woods had nine for 89. And USC's Marqise Lee added seven catches for 95 yards. I'm not sure if we have the same definition of "slowed down," Kevin. Michael Floyd is big (6-3, 224 pounds), fast and versatile. He has improved his downfield blocking this season, and he is lined up virtually anywhere on the field. Notre Dame likes to find him in the flat often and let him create. Look no further than early in the fourth quarter Saturday, when Floyd took a pass on the right side, did not get a proper block, reversed field completely and ended up with an 18-yard gain on the other end of the field. He is a first-round talent who may fall to the second round only because of his off-the-field history.

Looking at the offensive lines earlier in this week, I was surprised to see the combined weight of Stanford's starters (305 pounds) were only one pound more than Notre Dame's (304). The Cardinal obviously have a pair of first-rounders up front, but what is it about the unit that allows it to impose its will on opposing defenses?

Kevin Gemmell: Come on, Matt. You know better than to fall into the trap of looking at just final statistics. Allen had all six catches in the first quarter and then was blanked the next 45 minutes. Woods was kept out of the end zone until overtime. Pretty sure if Shaw had his choice, he'd prefer Floyd to do all of his damage in the first quarter and then be a non-factor for the rest of the game -- or to hold him without a touchdown for 60 minutes.

But I think we can both agree that getting the ball to Floyd is a priority for Notre Dame and stopping that is a priority for Stanford.

Stanford's offensive line likes to grind. They'll run the power to either side with Stepfan Taylor (who just went over 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year) and they'll rotate fresh backs in regularly -- Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson, Jeremy Stewart -- and just pound away. What makes it fun to watch is they'll run essentially the same play out of a bunch of different looks. Sometimes they'll have a jumbo package with six or seven offensive linemen. Other times they'll have two fullbacks and three tight ends. They get funky with their formations and that allows them to lean on teams over the course of the game.

Speaking of offensive lines, Notre Dame is pretty good at keeping Rees' jersey clean. The protection seems solid. Is that a product of them, Rees getting rid of the ball quickly or a little bit of both?

Matt Fortuna: Both Rees and the offensive line have made strides throughout the season. The unit gave up five sacks in the month of September, two of which resulted in Rees fumbles, but the Irish did not allow a single sack from Oct. 1 to Nov. 12, when they gave up three to Maryland. Even that seemed more like something that was bound to happen rather than a big breakdown in protection. Mike Golic Jr. has done a great job filling in for the injured Braxston Cave at center, and Rees has done a much better job of releasing the ball more quickly.

OK, Kevin, I don't know how much more talking I can do while still in this turkey-induced coma. Let's get right to it: Who do you got Saturday?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, because of the Thanksgiving week, we both posted our predictions on Wednesday, making this portion of our little chat a bit anti-climatic. And I am sure you got a laugh, as I did, that there was a (spoiler alert) one-point differential in our predictions. I have Stanford winning 31-21. I just don't see Andrew Luck losing (probably) his final home game at Stanford Stadium. I think the Cardinal are motivated to make an impression on voters -- in light of David Shaw's BCS comments on Tuesday -- and I think when you get right down to it, Stanford does a better job taking care of the ball and has more mismatches on offense. Notre Dame gets some points, but Stanford gets the win.

Before you attack the leftovers and fall back asleep, what's your take on why Stanford wins?

Matt Fortuna: Impossible to fall asleep with so many good games on today and tomorrow. The leftovers are only complementary pieces. Anyway, as you mentioned, I like Stanford as well, 31-20. I like the Cardinal for many of the reasons you do — Andrew Luck's last home game, David Shaw's edgier tone this week. But ultimately I think the Irish's young defensive line just won't have enough gas in the tank to hang with Stanford's offense for four quarters, at least not this early in most of their careers. Notre Dame's offense would have had a tough time keeping Stanford off the field as it was, but take big running back Jonas Gray out of the picture, and the situation becomes even less favorable for the road team.

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 ...

Cardinal survive missed opportunities

November, 5, 2011

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- No. 4 Stanford – what a conundrum.

The Cardinal are a team capable of such excellence. Yet at times, they have inexplicable spells of mediocrity.

Stanford showed both of its sides in a 38-13, water-logged win over Oregon State. There were brilliant runs, pinpoint passes and athleticism that at times looks without equal in the Pac-12 – maybe the country. Then there were drops, missed tackles, penalties, missed assignments, blown coverages, bad reads, bad throws.

Stanford is a team that prides itself on getting better each week. Not this week.

“I don’t know that we got better,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “I think we played better in the second half than the first. I’m trying not to draw lines. But at the same time, we didn’t make enough plays in the first half.

“…We have to take advantage of our opportunities. That will be the thing that hopefully we can look from this week to next week is that we make the plays when they are there for us to make – which we had done most of the time before this game. We didn’t make them today. Forget about the rain, forget about the cold. That doesn’t matter. If that ball goes up, it’s supposed to be ours.”

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireRunning back Stepfan Taylor had 121 yards of total offense and a score on a day when Stanford's passing game was hit-and-miss.
If you’re looking for a theme to Stanford’s road schedule, that’s it – offensive inefficiency in the first 30 minutes. The Cardinal again struggled out of the gate, failing to score in the opening quarter for the first time this season. Their initial drive fizzled and then quarterback Andrew Luck threw his fifth interception of the season on the second drive.

"I forced a ball in there," Luck said. "The guy made a good play. That one was all on me."

Or, you could take the glass-half-full approach and say that despite the poor offensive showing in the first half, the Cardinal were able to pull it together in the second half behind two touchdowns from Luck, the running game and a solid pass rush that eventually sank the Oregon State offense. And they were 10-of-15 on third down conversions and 5-for-5 in the red zone, making them 52-of-52 on the year.

“We’re not satisfied by any means,” said Luck, who finished 20-of-30 for 206 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. “We left a lot of plays out there. Credit to Oregon State. They played tough. Good football team. Tough atmosphere to play in. But we were itching to get back out there and start playing again because we were a little disappointed in ourselves.”

Luck looked far from polished in the first half, completing 11 of 19 throws for just 76 yards. It didn’t help that his receivers left points on the field.

“The game was close early because we dropped two touchdown passes,” Shaw said. “Flat out had them in our hands and we didn’t catch them … You have to make those plays. Looking forward, in order to beat a team like Oregon, you can’t miss opportunities.”

But in the absence of the passing game, the rushing attack was fairly steady on the cold and rainy afternoon.

“I call this fat-guy weather,” joked offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. “Nobody gets tired or hot in this weather. We knew we had to get the run game going so it was a good challenge. We got frustrated in the first half at a couple of points. But we knew if we started executing the way we’re supposed to that we’d eventually start moving and get things going.”

The Cardinal rushed for 300 yards as a team, paced by Stepfan Taylor’s 95 yards on 13 carries. Tyler Gaffney added 56 and a touchdown followed by Jeremy Stewart’s 47 yards and a touchdown.

The victory was overshadowed by the loss of wide receiver Chris Owusu, who suffered a concussion in the second quarter and was taken off the field in an ambulance. He was taken to an area hospital for observations, but joined the team in the locker room after the game. It’s at least the third concussion for Owusu in the last 13 months.

“I personally was fighting back tears,” said Shaw. “Just to see Chris lying on the ground again. The good thing is he was conscious, he was fine, they had already made the decision to put him on the stretcher so they had to take him. He’s already back in the locker room and he’s fine. He’s excited to be back and we’ll talk about whether or not he’ll play anytime soon at a later date.”

This was the third time this season Owusu has left a game because of a big hit. He suffered a concussion against Washington State; last week he took a big hit against USC, though Shaw said that was not a concussion.

In the second half, the Cardinal looked far more efficient. Luck completed 9 of 11 throws, including touchdown passes to Taylor and Coby Fleener. The defense sacked OSU quarterback Sean Mannion on consecutive plays that led to a fumble.

“Every single road game, you can credit our defense,” Shaw said. “Every single road game we’ve started slow on offense and every single road game our defense has kept us in the game. That’s the way that it’s been all year. Ben Gardner makes the effort plays. He was blocked. He just didn’t stay blocked. Chase Thomas, outstanding pressure tonight. Trent Murphy came off the edge for a huge sack.

“…The pressure was great. But the pressure is only great if the coverage holds up. And the coverage held up a few times just long enough for us to get to the QB. Those defensive guys got us back in the game and then offensively we started moving the ball, running and throwing, and getting back to our style of football.”
Jeremy Stewart is in the market for a new nickname. If you come up with one, let him know. He's been stuck with "Patch" for a while, and he's not a fan.

"A track coach gave it to me when I was 12 and it just stuck," said the Stanford running back. "I have a little gray patch of hair on my head so that's where it comes from ... I recently made an announcement that we're ending that nickname. I'm trying to shake it."

Not that you could tell with his helmet on -- or with his facemask clearly planted in a linebackers chest. Stewart is Stanford's goal-line/short-yardage specialist. When two yards are needed, Stewart, more often than not, provides more.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Stewart
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJeremy Stewart has averaged 4.1 yards per carry this season during critical, short-gain situations.
"It's like being a pinch hitter," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "You have to stay warm. You have to stay ready. Because when you are coming into the game, you are coming in at the most vital part."

So far, the fifth-year senior has had an injury plagued career. Stress fractures and high ankle sprains have kept him out of 16 games the last three seasons. Plus, with a stable worthy of Churchill Downs, it's tough to carve out your own identity when there are so many talented backs.

But this year, Stewart is healthy and making his mark. He's rushed the ball 32 times for 119 yards. Five of his six touchdowns have come from 2 yards or less. He averages 3.7 yards per carry. But more importantly, when it counts on the goal line or in critical third- and -fourth down situations, Stewart averages 4.1 yards per carry. He's converted a touchdown or first down 11-of-13 times in running situations that call for 2 yards or less. More importantly, he's never lost any yards on a carry. He's gained 119 and netted 119.

"I think there is a mentality you have to have," said fullback Ryan Hewitt -- Stanford's other short-yardage bulldozer. "You have to tell yourself you're going to get it no matter what. You just can't be denied. Jeremy's a good back. He's got great leverage, great leg drive and he's just a powerful runner."

Stepfan Taylor is the workhorse, averaging almost 17 carries per game. Stewart averages four carries per game. But he understands what his role is and accepts it enthusiastically.

"Everybody wants to be the go-to guy," Stewart said. "Every back wants to get the ball 30 times a game. But right now, that's just not happening. So I try to go in with a positive mindset and make the most of whatever I get."

Shaw said he takes whatever steps he can to keep Stewart involved in the game, so he's not completely ice the first time he steps on the field. He's active in the special teams game and he'll get the occasional first down carry just to get his feet wet.

"You want to keep him in the flow," Shaw said. "He knows when he goes out there and gets the rock and runs the ball on short yardage and goal line, that's his specialty. He's got a great body lean and leg drive and has been impressive all year."

Take last week's USC game as a prime example of the kind of faith Shaw & Co. puts in Stewart. Trailing 20-17 in the third quarter, Shaw called Stewart's number on fourth-and-1 at the USC four. Stewart delivered two yards. And on the next play Andrew Luck scored from 2 yards out to help Stanford regain the lead.

Then on Stanford's first possession of overtime, Stewart got the call three straight times.

  • Third-and-1 at the USC 4, Stewart rush for 2 yards.
  • First-and-goal at the USC 2, Stewart rush for 1 yard.
  • Second-and-goal at the USC 1, Stewart rush for 1 yard, touchdown.

"I've never thought of it as being mentally challenging," Stewart said. "Every time I get the chance to make something happen, I just try to go out and make the plays. I think it's really the same mental approach as any other running back. You make your reads and just go."

What to watch: Stanford at USC

October, 27, 2011
A few things to keep an eye on as No. 6 Stanford heads south to face USC on Saturday.

  • Running with confidence: Stanford running backs are coming off the greatest game in school history. Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney both went for more than 100 yards against Washington, Anthony Wilkerson put together his strongest game of the season and Jeremy Stewart got the job done with his usual short-yardage production. Plus fullback Ryan Hewitt, who hasn't logged a carry in back-to-back games, had his strongest blocking performance of the season. As we know, you can't run if you can't block, which leads us to ...
  • [+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
    Cary Edmondson/US PresswireAfter a field day against Washington, Stepfan Taylor and his fellow Stanford running backs face a stiffer test at USC.

  • ... Offensive line play: Stanford ran wild on a top-20 rush defense last week, but USC's is better, coming in 11th nationally and allowing just 91.1 yards per game. This is the toughest defensive front the Cardinal have faced this season, so all the improvement we've heard (and seen) from the offensive line will be put to the test. Stanford's bread-and-butter running play is the power, and it's up to quarterback Andrew Luck to make the right call against the right defensive alignment. He's been nearly perfect this season, according to head coach David Shaw. He'll need to be perfect again.
  • Wrap up: The cornerbacks have the unpleasant task of dealing with Trojans wide receiver Robert Woods, whom Shaw called the most developed player for his age he's ever seen. He had a monster game against the Cardinal last season, and tackling in the secondary has been spotty, to say the least. Woods will get his catches, but it's what he does after those catches that will make or break this game -- particularly with safety Delano Howell expected to be on the sidelines for the second consecutive week.
  • Time for Trees: After a relatively quiet week against Washington, it's time for the tight ends to get involved in the game. Stanford isn't as likely to have the same success on the ground as it did against Washington. Stanford has the biggest advantage of any team in the country with its speedy, oversized tight ends. Look for them to exploit that every chance they get. If they are covered up, look for Hewitt out of the backfield to have a big contribution in the receiving game.
  • The other line: Stanford's defensive line and linebackers are pretty good, too -- especially when it comes to getting after the quarterback. The Cardinal rank fourth nationally with 3.6 sacks per game. That creates quite the standoff with USC's offensive line, which is fifth nationally in sacks allowed. Part of it is good blocking, but part of it is quarterback Matt Barkley being efficient and getting rid of the ball quickly. If the Cardinal can get to Barkley, the numbers swing severely in their favor. But it's a really big if.

Cardinal make it look oh, so easy

October, 23, 2011

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It shouldn’t be this easy. It just shouldn’t.

It shouldn’t be easy to rush for 446 yards. Not against a top 20 rush defense. It shouldn’t be easy to drop 65 points on anybody, let alone a Top 25 team. With the best quarterback in the country -- who passed up $xx,xxx,xxx amount of dollars to come back for another year -- it should be more than just him handing off 33 times.

“That’s our mentality,” said head coach David Shaw. “We want to by physical. We’re going to play the style of football that we love to play.”

Yeah, that sounds great. But it should be harder than this. Shouldn’t it?

“Just get the ball, follow your aiming point and follow the holes,” said running back Stepfan Taylor. “We just have to run, make somebody miss and go and score.”

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images Stepfan Taylor and three other Cardinal running backs set a school rushing record by amassing 446 yards.
Oh. That’s all?

Saturday night, the No. 8 Cardinal certainly made it look easy in their 65-21 win over No. 25 Washington at Stanford Stadium.

Taylor headlined a rushing attack that featured five touchdowns from four different running backs while amassing a school record 446 yards on the ground -- eclipsing the mark of 439 yards set in 1981 against Oregon State.

The record-setting run was a 38-yard touchdown from Anthony Wilkerson with a 1 minute, 25 seconds left in the game. It seemed that for Shaw, that was the only hard part of the game.

“To be perfectly honest, I was not trying to get (the record),” Shaw said. “That last run by Wilkerson, I was hoping we’d get the first down and then we’d kill the clock. We weren’t trying to set records or score more points. I wanted to end the game … but you can’t tell a runner not to run.”

Taylor led the way with 138 yards and a touchdown, followed by Tyler Gaffney (117 yards, one touchdown) and Wilkerson (93 yards, two touchdowns). Jeremy Stewart also provided his usual pop in short-yardage situations, scoring the game’s first points on a 2-yard touchdown run.

“We all got our opportunities and we made the most of it,” Stewart said. “… It was amazing. The line went out and did a great job. It was good for everyone that was involved.”

Speaking of the line…

“The last time I saw a line play like that was at USC in 2005,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who was a member of the Trojan coaching staff at the time. “ ... We’d defend a play, defend a play and the one time we got out of a gap -- bang. And it wasn’t 12 yards, it was 50. I tip my hat to them.”

This was supposed to be a showcase of quarterbacks. Andrew Luck entered the game with his usual hype, but Washington's Keith Price was the up-and-comer who was turning heads in the conference and on a national stage. Price finished 23-of-36 for 247 yards, a touchdown and an interception -- a 62-yard pick-six by safety Michael Thomas.

On the other side, Luck was his usual efficient self -- finishing 16-of-21 for 169 yards and two touchdowns.

Both played their own roles in their own ways. But Saturday night, Luck took a backseat.

“We’re more than just Andrew Luck,” Shaw said. “We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a physical team. If a team wants to take away the pass by playing deep safeties, we can run the ball. We’ve got backs after backs. We’re physical up front. We can play both styles of football. Andrew has thrown for over 300 a couple times this year. Now we rush for a bunch tonight. The fact that we can be a complete offense is what we strive for.”

And Washington -- while going blow for blow with the Cardinal early -- had no answers for Stanford’s offense, which scored on its first eight drives and on 11-of-12 possessions.

“It was a pretty good feeling,” said Gaffney, who set a career high with his 117 yards. “You gotta think they were preparing for our Heisman quarterback and we used the run against them.”

Or maybe they were preparing for the tight ends -- that amazing trio that has run circles around opposing secondaries this season.

“That’s a good possibility,” Shaw said. “I can’t speak for Washington. When we have (the three) on the field at the same time, those are three guys who have made a lot of big plays this year. Maybe they were protecting that. I don’t know.”

What he does know is that Washington’s safeties weren’t stepping up. Even when the Cardinal rushed for 128 yards in the first quarter (Washington was allowing just 97 yards per game), or when Taylor broke loose on a 70-yard run in the second quarter.

“Every game we want to run the ball -- ever since I’ve been here at Stanford, that’s what we hang our hat on and try to accomplish,” Luck said. “It was working early. Don’t fix it unless it’s broken, right? And it kept on working.”

This was supposed to be the first team that was going to challenge the Cardinal. The biggest criticism of Stanford was that the Cardinal have played a schedule worthy of a new Hostess product. And yet against their "stiffest" opposition of the season, they averaged 10.1 yards per carry, set a season high in scoring and total offense (615 yards). They had just one three-and-out series the entire game and went a perfect 7-for-7 in the red zone (making them 38-of-38 on the season).

For a team that doesn’t care about making statements, they certainly made one tonight.

And they made it look easy.

Halftime: Stanford 38, Washington 14

October, 22, 2011
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Thoughts from the first half at Stanford Stadium.

Stat of the half: It's got to be rushing yards. The teams have combined for 382 yards on the ground (247 from Stanford, 135 from Washington). Stanford's rushing defense came into the game ranked second in the country, yielding just 59.5 yards per game. Washington's rush defense, No. 17 nationally, allowed just 97 yards per game.

Best player: Take your pick between Stepfan Taylor (130 yards, eight carries, one touchdown) and Chris Polk (143 yards, 10 carries, two touchdowns), but give the edge to Taylor since his team is winning.

Best call: On Stanford's first drive, second-and-11 at the Washington 14, the Cardinal loaded their three tight ends on one side of the field. Andrew Luck took the snap and sprinted toward the tight end side, then threw back across the grain to Taylor, who was tackled at the 2-yard line. Jeremy Stewart scored on the next play. Really well-designed play.

Turning point: At the rate these offenses were moving, Michael Thomas' pick-six of 62 yards in the closing minutes of the first half might have knocked all the wind out of Washington's sails.

1Q: Stanford 10, Washington 7

October, 22, 2011
PALO ALTO, Calif -- Stanford coach David Shaw said he wanted to get wide receiver Chris Owusu involved in the offense early, and that's exactly what he did.

The wide receiver took an end-around on the first play of the game for 45 yards, which set up Jeremy Stewart's 2-yard run. A 39-yard Jordan Williamson field goal put the Cardinal up 10-0 before Chris Polk and Washington struck back.

Polk broke off a 46-yard touchdown run -- making it the first points the Cardinal have given up in the first quarter this season.

Credit to Polk for making the Cardinal players miss. But Stanford's tackling has been pretty sloppy in the first quarter. Two third-downs were converted on missed tackles.

Washington's defense hasn't been much better. It gives up an average of 97 rushing yards per game and the Cardinal have already rushed for 128 yards. Stanford already has 198 yards of offense to Washington's 88.

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Causality is a topic philosophers have tackled for centuries. From Aristotle to Kant to the over-simplified A+B=C, the concept of cause-and-effect has tugged on some of the brightest minds since the brain first fired off neurons.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck summed it up in 4 plays, 85 yards and 1 minute, 52 seconds.

  • Cause: Throw to the tight ends. Effect: Touchdown.
  • Cause: Throw to the tight ends more. Effect: More touchdowns.
  • Cause: Don’t throw to the tight ends. Effect: Zero touchdowns.

Take the first half of Stanford’s 44-14 win Saturday night over Washington State. Luck targeted his tight ends three times in the first 30 minutes. The result was two catches from Zach Ertz for 12 yards. Unimpressive numbers from a trio of tight ends that coach David Shaw touts as “NFL” tight ends.

Fast forward to the first drive of the second half for Stanford. 4 plays, 85 yards, 1 minute, 52 seconds. Cause and effect.

After no catches in the first half, Fleener finished with four catches for 128 yards and a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Coby Fleener
James Snook/US PRESSWIREStanford's Coby Fleener caught four passes for 128 yards and a touchdown against Washington State.
“I can’t say enough about Coby Fleener,” said Shaw. “The guy shows up every game, makes a big play and runs past guys that are smaller than him. And at 250 pounds, to run the way he runs and make the plays and catches he makes, I don’t know if there is another guy like him in the country.”

Well, there are at least two more. And they play on the same team. Ertz finished with five catches for 52 yards -- including three third-down conversions in the second half. Fleener converted twice on third down, once for 29 yards and again on a 28-yard touchdown reception. In the second half, Luck targeted the tight ends 11 times and the trio accounted for nine catches, 204 yards and three touchdowns.

“We love to see each other succeed,” Toilolo said. “It’s always nice to have all three of us catching passes and contributing.”

The second-half success put a little polish on what was a dismal first half of football from the Cardinal (6-0, 4-0). Luck, who finished 23-of-36 for 336 yards, threw his third interception of the season on his first pass attempt of the game. Taylor, who hadn’t lost a fumble in his last 219 attempts, coughed it up on his 220th -- his first lost fumble since he lost two last season at USC. There was no rhythm -- and very little of the tight ends.

“It was just the plays that we chose,” Shaw said. “The safeties were playing tight, we took some shots back outside (in the first half) and it didn’t pan out. We came back in the second half and decided to use some different formations and use our tight ends.”

Toilolo, the tallest of the tight ends at 6-foot-8, showed his length on his second touchdown of the night -- a 26-yard pass from Luck.

“He’s always been a force,” Luck said. “We always knew how good he was. He does a good job stretching out when he gets tackled on the 5-yard line and still gets in the end zone. A lot of guys would have been down at the 2. He’s a heck of a football player, as are all the tight ends.”

Said Toilolo: “I saw the pylon there and I know my body and I felt like I was in reach. I basically fell over and landed in the end zone.”

A scary moment on Stanford’s second offensive drive of the game came when wide receiver Chris Owusu took a vicious hit. There appeared to be contact to his head from safety Casey Locker and Owusu remained on the ground for several minutes. He was able to walk off the field, but remained on the sidelines without his helmet for the remainder of the game.

Without Luck’s favorite target, he turned to receiver Griff Whalen, who turned in a second-straight week of steady football. Whalen caught seven balls for 76 yards and was fantastic blocking downfield.

From a defensive standpoint, the Cardinal were stellar. Despite the last-minute misdirection from Washington State (3-3, 1-2), which started quarterback Jeff Tuel despite announcing earlier in the week Marshall Lobbestael would get the start, the Cardinal limited the Cougars to 209 yards of total offense and 48 yards rushing. Stanford players said they had prepared for both quarterbacks.

“There is not much room for error with a ball club like that,” Tuel said. “They did a great job bringing the heat and having answers for what we were doing. They’re a good ball club.”

Taylor rebounded from the fumble to finish with 100 yards on 17 carries (5.9 yards per carry) and Jeremy Stewart tallied the lone rushing touchdown, a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal.

After giving up a touchdown with 14 seconds remaining in the game -- a 1-yard run from Lobbestael -- Ty Montgomery put an exclamation point on the victory, returning the ensuing kickoff 96 yards. It was Stanford's first kick return for a touchdown since Owusu did it against Washington in 2009.

The Stanford coaching staff has been very good this season at making halftime adjustments, and Saturday night was no exception. They recognized the game plan wasn’t clicking in the first half so they went back to their bread-and-butter: the tight ends.

“I wasn’t concerned [at halftime]. I was mad. I was upset,” Shaw said. “It’s real simple. I told them if we come back and play our style of football, we’ll win by three touchdowns. That’s it.”

Well, four and change. But who's counting?