NCF Nation: Terrence Stephens

Stanford will be without starting defensive tackle Terrence Stephens for the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio because of a secondary violation of NCAA rules regarding his rental of off-campus housing, the school announced Friday.

Stephens missed the regular season finale and the Pac-12 championship game -- both victories over UCLA -- for what the school had previously characterized an unspecified "personal problem."

While Stephens doesn't make much of a statistical impact, he's a huge part of the defense. The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder anchors the Stanford line and is often called upon to handle double and triple teams that allows his teammates to make plays. He has 10 tackles on the season with a pair of sacks and he's also forced a fumble.

Stanford faces Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN.

David Parry stepped in for Stephens and in the first game against UCLA, he had five solo tackles, a sack and he knocked down a pass. He posted one tackle in the Pac-12 championship game.

Pac-12: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 30, 2012
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Fourteen weeks ago, the UCLA offensive line was young. Fourteen weeks ago, it was inexperienced. But it's time to grow up. And if the Bruins want to return to their home field for a BCS bowl game with the Pac-12 title in tow, they are going to have to play better tonight against Stanford than they did six days ago.

And not just physically, but mentally. The UCLA offensive line accounted for five of the 12 penalties and 45 of the 135 yards.

Of course, we'll first give credit where credit is due. Stanford's front seven -- even without nose tackle Terrence Stephens for the second consecutive week -- is filthy good.

Last week the Cardinal held UCLA to 73 rushing yards on 33 attempts and had seven sacks. Per the ESPN Stats & Information folks, the last time UCLA had been sacked more than six times in a game was in October 2008 (also against Stanford).

In last Saturday's 35-17 loss, the Cardinal forced Johnathan Franklin inside the tackles on 17 of his 21 attempts; they held him to just 48 yards (2.8 average) with no touchdowns or runs for more than 10 yards on those carries.

Further, Stanford did most of its damage with just its base defense, sending four or fewer rushers 84.8 percent of the time. And when they did blitz, the Cardinal were highly effective. Seven times the Cardinal blitzed Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley when he dropped back; he was just 1 of 7 against the blitz. The one happened to be his touchdown pass to Joseph Fauria.

Yes, this has turned into a post about just how good Stanford's defense is. And it illustrates how the UCLA offensive line will have to transform from last week to this week to give the Bruins a shot at the Pac-12 title.

UCLA-Stanford pregame

November, 24, 2012
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PASADENA, Calif. -- It’s a beautiful Southern California afternoon -- a far stretch from the cold and drizzly conditions here last week for the USC game.

The ramifications of this game are significant -- especially if Oregon holds on against Oregon State (which looks likely heading into the fourth quarter). If the Stanford Cardinal win, they will be the North Division champions and will host UCLA next week in the conference championship game.

If UCLA wins, Oregon will be the North Division champs and the Ducks would host UCLA next week.

The key matchup is UCLA redshirt quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin versus Stanford’s fierce rush defense. Worth noting, however, that the Cardinal will be without nose tackle Terrence Stephens, who is missing the game for personal reasons.

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is starting his third straight game against a ranked opponent. He’s already played his part in knocking off Oregon State and Oregon.

The Bruins look dashing in their “L.A. Night” uniforms -- the dark blues that they last wore at home against Arizona. Not that it means the Bruins will win 66-10 -- but they look really cool.

Pac-12: Who will transform tomorrow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinal D 'back with a vengeance'

September, 26, 2012
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Following Stanford's overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl last year, there were plenty of long faces in the Cardinal locker room. Obviously.

But there were also two players who looked ready to play another overtime game -- defensive linemen Ben Gardner and Terrence Stephens.

Both were choked up, in their own way. Gardner was so angrily-amped that he seemed to still be scanning for someone to hit. Cautiously, gingerly, I approached.
“We’re going to be back," Gardner declared, talking into my digital recorder, but also to the locker room. "We’re going to be just fine. We’re going to be back next year with a vengeance and we’re going to be a strong program for years to come.”

Stephens was more stoic and philosophical.
“If you dwell on the loss, you never get better," he said. "If you keep dwelling on what went wrong, you’ll never be able to focus on what to do right.”

They were two very different reactions -- but both drew the same conclusion. Here we are months later and the Stanford front seven -- headlined by Gardner and Stephens, among others -- are validating the duo's worth as soothsayers.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Ben Gardner
Ed Szczepanski/US PRESSWIRE"Just because we weren't in the top 10 in the AP poll, didn't mean we didn't believe in ourselves or believe in our ability to be a national contender," said Stanford's Ben Gardner.
The Cardinal (3-0) are back in the top 10, ranked No. 8 following wins over San Jose State, Duke and No. 2 USC. They'll try to make it 4-0 when they travel to Seattle to face Washington (2-1) Thursday night at CenturyLink Field.

This time last year, the 3-0 Cardinal were ranked No. 5 -- so they aren't too far off from last year's pace, even though they started the season at No. 21. So how does it feel to be back in the top 10?

"I don't know if we ever left," Gardner said. "The expectation never left the locker room. Just because we weren't in the top 10 in the AP poll, didn't mean we didn't believe in ourselves or believe in our ability to be a national contender. We have guys that have been through the storm and handled the pressure and are ready to get out and do it again with better results this time around."

As expected, the Cardinal are getting it done with defense. Stanford boasts the nation's No. 1 rush defense, allowing just 41.4 yards per game on the ground, while ranking third nationally in tackles for a loss.

A lot of that has to do with six of the starting seven returning from last year -- plus the return of linebacker Shayne Skov from injury and the ascension of sophomore linebacker James Vaughters. Gardner leads the team with five tackles for a loss and he's tied for the team lead with two sacks. But safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards have also come on strong, giving the Cardinal a defense that isn't just about the front seven. Reynolds already has three interceptions. Richards has two and he leads the nation in passes defended.

The individuals names are nice, but Stephens says it's their team-first mentality that is guiding their success.

"I'm a nose tackle. That's a thankless job," Stephens said. "You won't make many plays. Won't get a lot of recognition, but you're doing your job. And my job is to demand two, maybe three people at a time and let my linebackers and ends and secondary roar. That's my job. I have to be that concrete rock in the middle of the defense to let everyone else do their job. That's the mindset we all have. We celebrate as a team when Chase Thomas gets a sack and Trent Murphy gets a sack and when Ed Reynolds gets a pick, we are all part of it. We all made it happen in some way.

"It's that sense of playing as a unit of 11. Eleven beats four, five, six any day. That's the way we play."

And Skov's return has been much welcomed.

"He brings that game day energy and fire and heart," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "It doesn't make tackles. It doesn't do anything other than energize guys. There are certain people that you are around, I'm sure in all walks of life, when they step into a room, everybody else feels their presence. That's what Shayne does for our defense."

Stanford has owned the Washington series of late, winning four straight and six of the last seven. After blanking the Huskies 41-0 two years ago, Stanford scored on its first eight possessions last year en route to a 65-21 win.

But like all things last year -- Fiesta Bowl included -- it's ancient history. The only thing that has stayed the same are the goals and expectations.

"Right after that last game, most teams take two or three weeks off," Gardner said. "But two or three days later we were ready to get back to work because of that taste in our mouth. We felt like we didn't finish the season the way we should have finished ...

"I think we've put it behind us. We all believed in each other and we were ready to get back to work. And we have."
With the announcement over the weekend that outside linebacker Chase Thomas is coming back for another season, it's worth taking a quick look at what Stanford's front seven will look like next season -- because the Cardinal are loaded.

With six of the starting seven returning (plus a seventh, Shayne Skov returning from injury), the Cardinal figure to be even better than this year's group, which finished with the No. 4 rush defense in the country (88.3 yards per game), 11th in sacks (3 per game) and 28th in tackles for a loss (6.8 per game).

Here's a look at the starters coming back and the one guy leaving.

CHASE THOMAS, OLB, 6-4, 240

  • 2011 highlights: He led the Cardinal in sacks and tackles for a loss, and was first-team All-Pac-12 and Sporting News First Team All-American. A ferocious pass-rusher who skipped on the NFL for another season to gain size and put together a more consistent résumé on film. He should be one of the top outside linebackers in the nation again next season.
[+] EnlargeChase Thomas
Bob Stanton/Icon SMIStanford's Chase Thomas should be one of the best outside linebackers in the nation next season.
TRENT MURPHY, OLB, 6-6. 242

  • 2011 highlights: He quietly put together a strong season opposite Thomas, though didn't get as much publicity. Murphy started all 12 games and finished with 40 tackles, 10 for a loss and was second on the team with 6.5 sacks. He had a career high 10 stops against Oregon. Murphy is very good at setting the edges and his size and reach make him a difficult player to block.
JAREK LANCASTER, ILB, 6-1, 226

  • 2011 highlights: One of the marquee special teams players forced into immediate action after the injury to Skov. He ended up leading the team in tackles with 70, including 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss. Lancaster will likely add more size in the offseason. He has good speed and very good at shedding blocks. His open field tackling improved each week and he was stellar in the Fiesta Bowl loss.
A.J. TARPLEY, ILB, 6-2, 231

  • 2011 highlights: Like Lancaster, split time until finally earning a starting role. A very instinctive linebacker who prefers to go through blocks rather than around them. He should also pack on a little more size in the off season. He finished third on the team with 57 tackles and had 1.5 sacks and four tackles for a loss. A very bright player who should have a fantastic career. His interception against USC was one of season's defensive highlights.
TERRENCE STEPHENS, NT, 6-2, 287

  • 2011 highlights: He's understated for what he does, but also very good at it. He eats up blockers for the linebackers to do their thing. Stephens finished with 11 tackles, including four for a loss, and forced the fumble against USC in triple overtime that Tarpley recovered to close out the game. A vocal player who should grow into a leadership role on the defense.
BEN GARDNER, DE, 6-4, 263

  • 2011 highlights: An outstanding season that earned him second-team All-Pac-12 honors. He finished with 35 tackles -- including 10 for a loss, adding 4.5 sacks and six quarterback hits. A high-motor player who earned the team's outstanding sophomore award. And, according to his Twitter account, the mullet will return in 2012. Phew.
SHAYNE SKOV, ILB, 6-3, 244

  • 2011 highlights: He was the team's leading tackler with 19 in two and a half games until a knee injury in the third game of the season caused him to miss the rest of the year. The question mark is whether or not he'll return at 100 percent. And if he does, whose reps get reduced, Tarpley or Lancaster? Either way, the Cardinal should be deep at linebacker and if Skov can return healthy, he'll be one of the premier inside linebackers in college football.
MATT MASIFILO, DE, 6-3, 278

  • 2011 highlights: The Cardinal are going to miss this guy more than most probably realize. He committed to the team in the midst of a 1-11 season and saw the rebuilding process all the way through. He was the only returning starter on the line this season and had 34 tackles, eight for a loss and 2.5 sacks. His possible replacements are Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro.

And this just covers the starters. Players like Anderson and Mauro saw playing time this season, along with nose tackle David Parry, outside linebackers Alex Debniak and Blake Lueders and inside linebackers James Vaughters and Joe Hemschoot.

The Cardinal are in fantastic shape if everyone stays healthy. And if they encounter another situation like they did this past year with a season-ending injury, they should be deep enough and experienced enough to absorb the blow. Plus, we'll see how head coach David Shaw and his staff treat some of the incoming freshman, like standout outside linebacker Noor Davis.

Larger questions loom for Stanford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pregame: Stanford-Oregon

November, 12, 2011
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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: All Hallows' Eve edition

October, 31, 2011
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Don't think a tree can be scary? Wait till one smashes through your window and hijacks your kid.

Frightening. No?

That's all I've got when it comes to scary tree things. Enjoy this year's Halloween post, the Stanford edition.

MUST SEE
  • Paranormal Activity 3: Starring Levine Toilolo, Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener. It's not right what those three can do.
  • The Exorcist: Playing Nov. 12 at a stadium near you. One-night special engagement only.
  • Silence of the Critics: It puts the wins on the scoreboard or else it gets the hose again.
  • Witchcraft: Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton in the red zone: 47-of-47. What kind of sorcery is this?
  • Sunday the 13th: Could be a comedy. Could be a tear-jerker.
  • Nightmare on Galvez Street: An undefeated Stanford team falls 65-0 to Notre Dame in the regular season finale. I just got the chills ...
HALLOWEEN COSTUMES (all in good fun):
If there were questions -- and there probably were -- Matt Masifilo didn't hear them.

If there were shocked faces -- and there probably were -- Matt Masifilo didn't see them.

Still, it just didn't make sense. Masifilo could have had his pick of almost any other Pac-10 school. Why would the defensive end from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, want to go to Stanford, a school that was 1-11 his senior year? After all, he was rated the seventh-best defensive lineman in the country. Top-10 guys like that don't go to 1-11 schools. They rarely go to 6-6 schools. It didn't make sense to anyone.

Except to Masifilo.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Masifilo
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireMatthew Masifilo, a top-rated defensive end coming out of high school, chose Stanford even though the program was coming off a 1-11 season.
"Once you take football out of the equation, it's pretty obvious," Masifilo said in a 2007 interview with Rivals.com.

Oh, that makes sense.

His mind was made up. He had taken his visit to Stanford even before Jim Harbaugh was hired as the new head coach. And while the eccentric, energetic new skipper coming from FCS University of San Diego might have put Masifilo over the top, he said it's likely he would have ended up in Cardinal red anyway.

"I saw it as an opportunity for greatness and helping to build a program," Masifilo said. "I wasn't concerned with their record. Academically, Stanford is second to none. I didn't want to compromise anything. That's how I live my life. If you're going to do something, don't take the easy road."

And the fifth-year senior is pretty happy with his decision. He's experienced the Cardinal renaissance firsthand and has his fingerprints all over it. But this year, he's doing his finest work.

While offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin get a great deal of credit for helping their line stay together with three new starters, Masifilo has had to do the same thing on the defensive side of the ball, with two new starters on the three-man front. Masifilo is the only holdover from last year's starting trio.

"The main thing we wanted was to get a bond and make sure everyone is fully comfortable and building a level of trust you get when you're playing next to your brothers," Masifilo said. "That's how we view the defensive line. It's a brotherhood. Almost like a sitcom.

"Everyone is like their own character. It's what makes it fun to hang out and work and train with those guys. Everyone brings their own personality to the table."

"Growing Pains" wouldn't be a suitable title. The defensive line has been fantastic this season. Terrence Stephens has grown magnificently into the noseguard role and Ben Gardner has been the pleasant surprise of the season opposite Masifilo at the other defensive end.

But it's the veteran who has caught coach David Shaw's eye the last few weeks.

"The last couple of weeks, he's really turned it loose," Shaw said. "The last couple of weeks, he's just going. He's made effort plays. He was our defensive player of the week last week [against Washington]. Just playing at a high level and playing with high intensity and high energy."

After just four tackles in the first three games this season, Masifilo has 12 over the past four -- including 2.5 tackles for a loss.

"I think Matt started a little slow [this year]," Shaw said. "He was really trying to do his job [too hard]. He's the most conscientious kid you'll find ... and I can't say enough about Ben Gardner. The two of those guys have made some really great, high-effort plays that have helped out our defense."

The nice thing about being a fifth-year senior is that you command respect. Having started 26 games heading into Saturday's matchup against USC, Masifilo has been a beacon to many of the younger players on the team -- not just the defensive linemen.

"He's that veteran up front," said linebacker A.J. Tarpley. "He's been in every situation that you can imagine, whether it's a close game, big opponent or tough place to play on an away game. He's definitely one of the veteran guys on our defense that you can ask anything and he'll know if we are doing our job. Playing behind him, it's nice to know that he's been in all of those situations before. Nothing is new to him."
“Coffee is for closers.” -- Blake, Glengarry Glen Ross

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- If coffee is for closers, put a Starbucks in the Stanford locker room.

The Cardinal have been fantastic in the fourth quarter through the first four games of the season. It’s when they are at their best running the ball. It’s when they are grinding out yards and knocking opponents off the line of scrimmage.

“For us to be able to run the clock out, give our defense a break and be able to go down and score is a good feeling,” said tight end Coby Fleener. “Anytime you can move someone against their will in a football game, that’s the epitome of playing football.”

Through the first four games, Stanford has been strongest on the ground in the fourth quarter -- averaging 63 rushing yards per game in the fourth. It makes sense. They have had healthy leads going into the final 15 minutes in each of their four games. Why bother throwing? They average just 45 yards through the air in the fourth.

[+] EnlargeDavid DeCastro
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireGuard David DeCastro and his fellow linemen relish the chance to run the ball to close out games.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said guard David DeCastro. “Especially knowing that you don’t have to pass block and every play is going to be a run and you can just try to grind people down and grind down the clock and move the ball into the end zone.”

Defensively, the numbers are a little skewed because there have been such one-sided scores. Opposing offenses are averaging 25.5 yards on the ground in the fourth and 55.5 yards in the air.

Stanford has yielded just two touchdowns in the fourth quarter -- one coming against Duke in the final minute when both teams were playing reserves. The other came Saturday against UCLA when the game was pretty much decided.

“We do this ‘We will’ type of thing,” explained noseguard Terrence Stephens, making a fist and pounding his chest. “We will finish this game. Start fast, stay focused and finish in the fourth quarter. That is the mentality. Because if they don’t score in the fourth quarter and we’ve done everything right up until that point, they don’t win. Yes it’s a different type of attitude. But it’s the way of living for Stanford football.”

Through the first four games, Stanford has scored more points in the fourth quarter than in any other, out-distancing opponents 56-13. Quarterback Andrew Luck, who has only played in about half of the fourth quarters so far this season, said he remembers watching former Stanford running back Toby Gerhart and the mentality he took into the fourth quarter. Luck said he and some of the other players from the Gerhart era have tried to adopt that for themselves.

“You always want to finish strong and that was one of the great things about playing with Toby a couple of years ago,” Luck said. “You’d watch him play and late in the third and fourth quarter he was going 100 miles per hour and he was just punishing people. A lot of guys noticed that. The running backs and offensive line saw if we can keep our poise and keep our technique we’ll wear down an opponent.”

Coach David Shaw explained that there is a certain attitude he wants his team to have in the fourth quarter.

“I think it always starts up front and the physical nature with which we play,” Shaw said. “They like it. DeCastro likes when it comes down to the line. The scores have helped. We’ve got the running backs that can run through there.”

And they are getting better at it lately. The Cardinal have four fourth-quarter touchdowns in the past two games. They have strung together impressive drives that have widdled the clock. In Arizona, it was a 12-play, 91-yard drive that consumed 6:55 and ended with a 2-yard Jeremy Stewart touchdown run. On Saturday against the Bruins, it was a 12-play, 59-yard drive that sucked up 6:28 off the clock, capped with a 5-yard pass from Luck to Chris Owusu.

The Cardinal haven’t had a “narrow” lead yet in the fourth quarter. They led 43-3 against San Jose State, 30-7 against Duke, 23-10 against Arizona and 31-13 against UCLA. In all four games, they managed to strengthen that lead, but haven’t had to put together that nail-in-the-coffin drive. Because when the final 15 minutes came around, opponents were already sealed up.

Which begs the question: Does this team have the killer instinct it needs in crunch time?

“Moving forward, we’ll see,” said Fleener. “It’s got to be something that good teams have -- great teams have -- so it’s something that if we don’t have enough of it yet, we need to develop more.”

There are a lot of smart guys at Stanford so it shouldn't be hard for them to remember the A, B, C’s: Always Be Closing.
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Player’s voices, David Shaw’s words.

As the list of teams vying for one of the two coveted spots in the BCS national championship game starts to take shape, the Stanford Cardinal find themselves right back where they started at the beginning of the season -- at No. 7 in the AP rankings.

[+] EnlargeStanford coach David Shaw
Matt Kartozian/US PRESSWIRE"The good teams just show up and play," David Shaw said. "When the season is over, they look up and get to see what bowl game they get to go to."
Despite the blowout wins and the elite defense. Despite having the Heisman favorite and presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Despite having the best tight end corps in the nation and one of the most balanced attacks in the country, the Cardinal have failed to garner any national respect.

“I didn’t even know [we were at No. 7],” said Stanford tight end Coby Fleener.

Didn’t know? Or didn’t care?

“We can only control what we can control,” Fleener said. “My looking at so-and-so dot.com to see what their opinion is really doesn’t affect how we’re going to approach the game … we’re going to focus on what we can control.”

And what they can control is winning. Sure, it would be great if USC, Oregon and Notre Dame keep winning. It would bolster Stanford’s strength of schedule and, should they win the head-to-head matchups, make the victories look more impressive.

But even running the table might not land them where they want to be at the end of the season.

“That’s why we concentrate on what we can do in our conference,” Shaw said. “Everything else is up to us. At some point it goes to voters and computers. The moment you try to do things to impress people -- I don’t’ know what you do to impress a computer -- but it distracts you from what you need to do to win football games. You look at Boise last year. They played great, then had the one hiccup. Look at other teams that have gone undefeated, TCU, whatever. When it’s in someone else’s hands you can’t worry about it. All you can do is concentrate on the game you have to play that week.”

That sounds great in theory. But how do you convince a group of 18- to 22-year-olds that they might not be able to play for a national title -- even if they run the table.

“For us, it’s about our environment,” Shaw said. “The environment we’ve established here is one that is pretty self-contained. We worry about how we feel about us.

“… We’ve got enough guys on our team that have lost enough games, that have been nowhere in the rankings, that have not been on good teams,” Shaw said. “Those guys don’t let the other guys lose sight of it. Sometimes they sense it before I do and they jump on it. We’ve got a good self-policing mechanism right now.”

The time will come when the Cardinal will likely need help -- be it from a conference opponent or an out-of-conference team knocking off one of the six teams ahead of the Cardinal. But above all, they have to keep winning.

“We can’t win and just be satisfied with that,” said defensive lineman Terrence Stephens. “There is always something we’re going to have motivation to do. It starts this week. A Pac-12 opponent and we need to make sure that we handle business the way we do.”

Shaw said there will be a time when he will start looking at the polls. But it’s not today, next week or next month.

“When the season is over,” Shaw said. “It’s the only poll that matters. And good teams know that. The good teams don’t get caught up in it. They don’t get caught up in the emotional roller coaster based on how people feel about you. The good teams just show up and play. When the season is over, they look up and get to see what bowl game they get to go to.”
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Stanford is about as well-known for being a hard-nosed, defensive team as Berkeley is for being a right-wing, conservative town. But if you haven't noticed, there is a culture change taking place on The Farm that is putting the Cardinal defense center stage.

"We're going to be blue collar and people don't truly believe that can happen at a place like this," said co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason. "But let me tell you. We're not the crème de la crème. We get between the white lines and we go to work. ... We might not have the highest-recruited guys in the country. But we've tried to establish a mentality and a style of play that is going to be indicative of a Stanford man."

This might be the perfect situation for the Stanford Cardinal defense and the perfect storm for opposing offenses. The Cardinal have recruited athletes hoping they fit comfortably into their defensive scheme. Not only do they fit, but they are playing like they were made for it.

[+] EnlargeShayne Skov
Sean Meyers/Icon SMIStopping the run remains the top priority for Shayne Skov and the Stanford defense.
All the pieces are in place for the Cardinal to have one of the best-run defenses in the country -- and if things continue at this rate -- one of the best seasons in school history. The No. 6 Cardinal (2-0) head into Tucson Saturday to face Arizona (1-1) in the Pac-12 opener.

"The best thing is we've got guys that are defeating blocks," said head coach David Shaw. "It's partially scheme ... but they are penetrating and doing a good job."

Through two games, the Cardinal are allowing 28.5 rushing yards per game, including a microscopic .9 yards per carry. Starting running backs are faring even worse, averaging 27.5 yards per game. The starting unit has yet to allow a touchdown.

"We're going to use our hands, we're going to shed blocks and we're going to make tackles," said co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who also coaches the outside linebackers. "Everything needs to be fast and not staying blocked and running our lines the way we're supposed to."

The Cardinal's 3-4 defensive scheme is similar to the front they used last season with a few tweaks and wrinkles. Tarver, who is in his first season with the Cardinal, comes from the NFL where he spent the past 10 seasons learning all the different strains of the 3-4 from coaches like Greg Manusky, Billy Davis, Wade Phillips and Mike Nolan.

"That's what we emphasize with our front seven, is how everything fits," Tarver said. "That's why we can look like so many different things, but it's still the same to us. These guys are all taking what we emphasize and making it work. But now we need to continue that because it ramps up into the Pac-12 season."

It's too early to make any predictions on how good they'll be over the course of the season. But for perspective, the 1969 team allowed 1,102 yards for the season and 1986 team allowed an average of 101.1 yards per game.

So far, this Cardinal team's style of play has been pretty straight-forward: Run at us; we dare you.

"Our highest priority is to stop the run as a defense," said linebacker Shayne Skov. "That forces an offense into awkward passing situations and throws the rhythm out of an offense. We're preaching that mentality and making sure everyone is focused on it and so far we've had some success."

There were some questions going into the season about the defensive line, which lost three key players -- including defensive end Brian Bulcke, Sione Fua and Thomas Keiser. But returning starter Matt Masifilo has been solid, and new starters Ben Gardner and Terrence Stephens have performed magnificently through the first two games.

Plus, Stanford is deep enough in the front seven that it can rotate every series and not have a drop-off in production.

"First, whenever someone gets tired, we have someone else to jump in there," said linebacker Chase Thomas. "It's paid off to always have a guy going full speed. When they are tired up front, we have fresh bodies every four and five plays."

Added Skov: "Last year, the ones would come out and the twos would come in and the level of play would drop off a bit. This year, coach has really preached that we need to have 22 guys on defense, or more, that can step up and play. It's been exciting to see some of those younger guys come in and dominate and play the way we expect."

Thomas, along with Skov, have been the marquee players through the two games. Skov has been a beast, recording 18 tackles on the season. Thomas has been pitching tents in the opponents' backfield, leading the Cardinal with 4.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks.

As a unit, the defense already has 21 tackles for a loss (second nationally), accounting for minus-104 yards, eight sacks (T14th nationally), accounting for minus-74 yards and four fumble recoveries.
No team in the Pac-12 wows you at defensive tackle. No team is a sure thing. There is a lot of "maybe" at the position. And probably some maybe not.

The uncertainty of quality -- both in terms of returning stars and depth -- made this a difficult position to rank. For example, Washington has a nice foursome at tackle, led by Alameda Ta'amu, who might be the best tackle in the conference.

That's great. Good for the Huskies. But they ranked 97th in the country in run defense last year. You sort of pause over that, you know?

So a lot of this ranking is feel thing, a projection of potential. And "great shape" here is relative to the conference. Nebraska, for example, wouldn't exchange its tackles -- Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler -- for any Pac-12 tandem.

Some of this figures to inspire a bit of debate.

Great shape

USC: This may be in some part based on fumes from the Trojans reputation at the position. It definitely includes a vote of faith that they will get a 100 percent Christian Tupou back from the knee injury that killed his 2010 season. If so, the threesome of Tupou, George Uko and DaJohn Harris is strong. And if you toss in Armond Armstead -- who missed spring with an undisclosed medical condition that threatens his career -- you'd have a clear No. 1.

Washington: Ta'amu seemed to find himself during the second half of last year, and the 330-pounder could end up getting some All-American consideration if he consistently plays like he did against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Sione Potoa'e and Semisi Tokolahi are both experienced, and Lawrence Lagafuaina a space-grabbing, 344-pound redshirt freshman.

Colorado: The Buffaloes are sneaky good here, even though they only ranked 48th in the nation in run defense in 2010. Both starters, Will Pericak and Curtis Cunningham, are back, but Conrad Obi was a revelation this spring. He looked like a future NFL draft choice, not a player who'd mostly been a bust. Nate Bonsu, who missed spring with a knee injury, also should help.

Good shape

Utah: The Utes, who ranked 11th in the nation in run defense in 2010, lost Sealver Siliga, but they believe they have a budding star in, er, Star Lotulelei, while James Aiono, LT Tuipulotu and Joape Peta are solid. Also, Dave Kruger, who played end this spring, is 280 pounds and can play inside.

Arizona: The loss of backup Willie Mobley to a knee injury hurts depth, but Justin Washington figures to take a step forward after an impressive true freshman season, Sione Tuihalamaka started four games in 2010. Depth is a question. The Wildcats ranked 33rd in the nation in run defense last fall.

Oregon: On the one hand, Oregon lost both starting defensive tackles in Brandon Bair and Zac Clark from a unit that ranked 27th in the nation in run defense. On the other, they played so many guys last fall, the new starters are experienced players. Further, Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Jared Ebert played well enough this spring to suggest the position will be a strength in the fall.

Arizona State: If Lawrence Guy didn't make his ill-fated decision to enter the NFL draft, the Sun Devils, who were 16th in the nation against the run last fall, would be in great shape here. As it was, Will Sutton had a great spring and looks like a potential All-Conference guy. Grinder Bo Moos is listed as the starter at the other tackle, though he could be eclipsed by Corey Adams. Toa Tuitea saw limited action last year.

UCLA: The Bruins defensive line was terrible last year, ranking 108th in the nation against the run, but the talent is there for a significant turnaround. Cassius Marsh, Nate Chandler, Justin Edison, Donovan Carter and Seali'i Epenesa should do a much better job plugging the middle.

California: Cal is actually fine here, despite the loss of NG Derrick Hill. For one, when you run a 3-4 defense, it's hard to rate your DTs, even if your DEs often operate like them. The Bears have two solid options at NG in Aaron Tipoti and Kendrick Payne, and it's also possible that touted 350-pound incoming freshman Viliami Moala will eclipse both of them.

We'll see

Oregon State: Dominic Glover moves inside from end and Kevin Frahm has experience, but this unit didn't play well last year -- 89th in run defense -- even with one of the best DTs in the nation in Stephen Paea. 340-pound Castro Masaniai could help but he missed spring after shoulder surgery and has off-field issues. There's also Mana Tuivailala and Ben Motter.

Stanford: Like Cal, Stanford runs a 3-4, so it naturally it is going to suffer a bit in DT rankings. More important: The loss of Sione Fua is significant. Terrence Stephens and Henry Anderson had solid springs but neither has much experience.

Washington State: Brandon Rankin, a returning starter, was listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Anthony Laurenzi after spring practices, with redshirt freshman Toni Pole No. 1 at the other tackle. Justin Clayton, Steven Hoffart and Xavier Cooper provide depth. It's not unreasonable for Cougars fans to expect improvement, perhaps significant improvement. But a team that ranked 115th in the nation in run defense the previous season is automatically a "We'll see" here.

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