NCF Nation: Trent Murphy

STANFORD, Calif. -- With linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy off to the NFL and defensive coordinator Derek Mason and inside linebackers coach David Kotulski off to Vanderbilt, change is inevitable for the Stanford defense.

For some, that's code for "worse."

[+] EnlargeA.J. Tarpley
Tony Medina/Getty ImagesA.J. Tarpley, who was the 2009 Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year, has been a key cog in the Cardinal's defense for the past three seasons.
Not for fifth-year senior inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley.

"Great players leave. We're not going to lower our goals," he said. "We're not going to say, 'OK, we're not going to be as good as last year.' I want this linebacking corps to be better than last year.

"I do feel that our linebacking corps has gotten better every year since I got here, so why not? Why can't we be be better than we were last year?"

Tarpley wasn't looking for a literal answer, but if he were, the fact that Skov was one of the nation's best inside linebackers and that Murphy led the nation in sacks would be on the list. Those aren't guys who simply get replaced without some level of drop off.

That isn't lost on Tarpley, either. He, perhaps better than anyone, understands just how valuable Skov and Murphy were to the Stanford defense. The part that isn't understood as well beyond the Stanford locker room is how Tarpley's role has been nearly as vital to the Cardinal's success over the past three seasons.

"We see it all the time and we've just marveled at how solid he is, how efficient he is," new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said. "I think playing next to Skov is a reason he's been a little overshadowed, and then with Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas on the outside the last few years I think it's easy to get overshadowed."

Over the past three seasons, Tarpley is the Cardinal's leading tackler (216). If he replicates his 2013 total (93), he'll finish his career in the top 10 on the school all-time tackles list. Currently, only two other players who began their career in 1990 or later are part of the group: Skov (2009-13) and Chris Draft (1994-97).

Tarpley's near-immediate production came as no surprise to Stanford coach David Shaw, who said the former Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year made a strong impression during his true freshman season during the team's scrimmages on Fridays.

"He just seemed to make every play," Shaw said. "Tackle after tackle after tackle, and if the ball was thrown anywhere around him he either picked it off or deflected it."

Both Shaw and Anderson credited Tarpley's instincts as a major factor in his success, which, coupled with good quickness, makes up for what wouldn't be described as elite athleticism. Anderson has Tarpley down for 4.75 seconds in his most recent 40-yard-dash.

"There's a lot of people that think I study tremendous amounts of film and know what plays the offense is going to run, but that's not the case," Tarpley said. "I believe I'm a pretty good athlete. I base everything off my quickness and just read plays to make things happen."

And if film study isn't the root of his ability to read defenses, what is? That's simple: video games -- the Madden franchise, in particular.

Tarpley is a firm believer that playing Madden -- a game in which he claims he's unbeatable -- has helped develop his understanding of the way angles, routes and coverages work.

"Looking at the plays in Madden you see passing concepts, you see zone coverages and how those work out ... where this guy is and who he's replacing and how things can occur," he said. "I really do think going through the plays on both offense and defense -- what beats what? -- I think that's helped me as a player. When I'm out there on the field, it's almost a [subconscious] decision in my mind how something should develop."

That understanding has allowed Stanford to regularly use him to cover receivers in single coverage with good results. Tarpley is the program's only player to record an interception in each of the past three seasons.

"He is one of the best coverage linebackers I've been around," Anderson said. "He has such good patience and a good feel for routes and what people are going to try and run. That is one thing that stands out. I don't know if I've been around anyone like him like that."

Tarpley's focus is on finishing his Stanford career strong, but he made it clear the NFL is also in his sights.

"I've always been doubted my whole career. No one's ever said how great I was going to be so I've always had that mentality with a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I'm going to dream about [playing in the NFL] every day until I can earn a spot there."

And if that doesn't work out, there's always the Madden pro leagues to fall back on ... or his Stanford degree.

Stanford looks to sustain success

February, 25, 2014
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STANFORD, Calif. -- As Stanford players jogged off the practice field Monday evening, nothing stood out in particular. Significant only because it marked the first spring practice of the year, and it had the look and feel of just another day on the Farm.

Maybe temperatures don't always hover around 70 degrees until just past sunset in late February, but there was no fanfare or anything ceremonious about the day.

In that respect, nothing has changed over the past five years.

[+] EnlargeJames Vaughters
AP Photo/Rob HoltJames Vaughters spurned the SEC to join a Stanford team that, at the time of his commitment, was just beginning its upswing.
"It was a good start. The tempo I thought was outstanding for a first day, which is always what you're looking for when you lose so many seniors," coach David Shaw said. "It wasn't perfect, of course, but it was fast and that's what we were looking for Day 1."

As the only program to play in BCS bowls the past four seasons, there is no denying Stanford's place in the current hierarchy of college football. Any list of the nation's elite must include the Cardinal or it would be incomplete.

In that respect, everything has changed.

Former coach Jim Harbaugh recruited with an offer for a world-class education and the chance to turn things around. When Stanford signed outgoing fifth-year seniors such as Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Ryan Hewitt in 2009, it did so following a 5-7 season.

That group leaves Stanford not knowing what it's like to be a part of a losing team.

Only the 13 fifth-year seniors on the spring roster were on the 2010 team, Harbaugh's last season, and only defensive end Blake Leuders saw action that season. They're the last group that bought into a program that had yet to play in a major bowl game and, as a byproduct of that, the first not to miss one.

Senior outside linebacker James Vaughters is in a different boat. He spurned several SEC offers and left his home state of Georgia to sign with Stanford following its Orange Bowl victory to cap the 2010 season.

"They showed me they were just as committed to winning as the schools that were recruiting me from the South," Vaughters said.

He got what he signed up for.

"If you see success, it's a challenge to sustain it," Vaughters said. "It's a matter of finding a formula that works. When you have so many guys that started for so many years, we just have to find our way to be successful."

One could worry about a sense of entitlement creeping into a program with as much success as the Cardinal has experienced over the past four years, but both Vaughters and Shaw didn't seem to think that it would be a problem.

Shaw pointed to senior running back Ricky Seale as an example.

"[Last year] he would just be on the sidelines on his toes," Shaw said. "So now we have the anxiety and that energy because they all want a chance to play. I think we're in a great spot because we're going to get their best because they all want to get on the field."

Senior receiver Ty Montgomery (knee) and senior nose tackle David Parry (midsection) will both miss the first session of two spring sessions with minor injuries.

Backup quarterback Ryan Burns will miss the first session to due a disciplinary reason, according to Shaw.

Shaw has still not hired a defensive backs coach, but he said it "should be solved in the next week or so." For the time being, graduate assistant Marc Mattioli will coach defensive backs.
Get this. Stanford’s Lance Anderson actually wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Crazy, right? Biletnikoff winners to lose sleep over; Doak Walker finalists dashing and gashing for 20 yards a pop; and All-American offensive linemen that must be displaced. Oh, the humanity.

“There are some pretty good quarterbacks, too,” says Anderson.

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeLance Anderson
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesLance Anderson, who has been on Stanford's staff since 2007, will have to replace some big names on the Cardinal's 2014 defense.
Anderson has his wish. With the departure of Derek Mason, who was named the head coach of Vanderbilt last month, Anderson takes over one of the most respected defensive outfits in all of college football. The Cardinal have led the conference in scoring defense and been ranked in the top 15 nationally in three of the last four years. They live by the mantra #partyinthebackfield and have put the brakes on some of the nation’s top offenses.

Now it’s Anderson’s turn to add his own flavor to the scheme -- however minor it might be.

“Every year we tweak a little bit no matter what,” said Anderson, who first came to Stanford in 2007 with Jim Harbaugh. “We go back and watch film and do all of our self-scouting and analysis. We try to find places where we can get better and improve and that’s naturally going to lead to tweaking. I think every coordinator has a different feel and some stuff you might like a little better than the other guy.

“We’ve been in a system for a few years now and I think the kids are really comfortable with that. They like it. And I think the systems we’re in on both sides of the ball suit our personnel really well. Vic Fangio came in in 2010, installed the system at that point and we’ve kept it pretty similar ever since.”

That includes transitions from Fangio to the co-defensive coordinator team of Jason Tarver and Mason to just Mason and now to Anderson, who will continue to work with the outside linebackers after coaching the defensive tackles his first two seasons on The Farm.

Equally known as a top-flight recruiter, Anderson must now help the Cardinal transition to life without some of their marquee players. Gone next year are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds. All were major contributors in one form or another to Stanford’s appearances in four straight BCS bowl games.

Despite those losses, Anderson is confident the Cardinal have the depth -- both in and out of the locker room -- to stay atop the defensive standings.

“I look at guys like A.J. Tarpley and Jordan Richards who have played a lot of football and they really stand out,” Anderson said. “Both guys display some natural leadership and they are well-respected by their teammates. Henry Anderson and David Parry are a couple of other guys who are really looked up to among the defensive players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 has seen the defensive coordinators from the top five scoring defenses move on after the 2013 season. Mason went to Vanderbilt, Nick Aliotti retired at Oregon, Justin Wilcox moved to USC with Steve Sarkisian, Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Clancy Pendergast was not retained with the Trojans after Sarkisian came in. Three of those were replaced internally, with Anderson, Don Pellum (Oregon) and Jeff Ulbrich (UCLA) all being promoted. Pete Kwiatkowski joins Chris Petersen in Washington by way of Boise State and Wilcox followed Sark. So despite the transitions, the continuity among coaching staffs remains relatively unscathed.

However, that combination of coordinator shuffling, along with some A-list offensive players returning in 2014, makes for an interesting setup. The Pac-12 is known for its offensive diversity, and when you factor in the possibility of nine teams returning their starting quarterback, the dice seem loaded to the offensive side of the ball.

“There is a lot of offensive talent in this league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down,” Anderson said. “The quarterbacks all have experience. It’s not going to be easy.

“We know that every week we are going to be tested. All we can do is try to go out and learn the techniques and the fundamentals and get the physical and mental mastery of the position. Once we get that in spring ball and the preseason, it’s just matter of going out and applying what we’ve learned during the season. Every week is going to be different. All we can do is prepare the best we can, master the position and try to apply it on Saturdays in the fall.”

Pac-12 all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
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We're looking back at the BCS era, which lasted from 1998 to 2013, so it made sense to make an all-Pac-12 BCS-era team.

Here's our shot at it. You surely will be outraged over the player from your team who got left out.

With our evaluation, NFL careers came into play with only the offensive linemen because they are so difficult to compare.

Offense

[+] EnlargeMatt Leinart
Jeff Lewis/USA TODAY SportsFormer USC QB Matt Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, threw 99 career TD passes.
QB Matt Leinart, USC: Nearly won three national titles. Won 2004 Heisman Trophy and placed third in 2005. Threw 99 career TD passes.

RB Reggie Bush, USC: The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner was one of the most dynamic players in college football history. (Bush returned the Heisman in 2012.)

RB LaMichael James, Oregon: Two-time first-team All-Pac-12, 2010 Doak Walker Award winner and unanimous All-American finished his career ranked second in Pac-12 history in rushing yards (5,082) and TDs (53). Nips other stellar RBs such as Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford's Toby Gerhart and USC's LenDale White.

WR Mike Hass, Oregon State: Two-time first-team All-Pac-12 and 2005 Biletnikoff Award winner was the first Pac-12 player to record three consecutive seasons over 1,000 yards receiving. His 3,924 receiving yards ranks third all time in the conference. This, of course, could have been fellow Beaver Brandin Cooks or USC's Marqise Lee, who both also won the Biletnikoff Award.

WR Dwayne Jarrett, USC: A two-time consensus All-American, he set the Pac-12 standard with 41 touchdown receptions.

TE Marcedes Lewis, UCLA: A 2005 consensus All-American and John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end. Caught 21 career TD passes.

OL David Yankey, Stanford: A unanimous All-American in 2013, he was a consensus All-American and Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12's best offensive lineman in 2012.

OL Sam Baker, USC: A 2006 consensus All-American and three-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

OL Ryan Kalil, USC: Won the 2006 Morris Trophy. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

OL David DeCastro, Stanford: A unanimous All-American in 2011 and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

OL Alex Mack, California: A two-time winner of the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's best offensive lineman (2007 & 2008).

K Kai Forbath, UCLA: Consensus All-American and Lou Groza Award winner in 2009. Made 84.16 percent of his field goals, which is nearly 5 percent better than any other kicker in conference history.

Defense

LB Rey Maualuga, USC: Was a consensus All-American and won the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player in 2008. Three-time first-team All-Pac-12.

LB Trent Murphy, Stanford: 2013 consensus All-American and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

LB Anthony Barr, UCLA: Consensus All-American 2013 and two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

DL Will Sutton, Arizona State: Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and Morris Trophy winner in 2012 and 2013. Consensus All-American in 2012.

DL Haloti Ngata, Oregon: A consensus All-American and Morris Trophy winner in 2005.

DL Rien Long, Washington State: Won the Outland Trophy and was a consensus All-American in 2002.

DL Terrell Suggs, Arizona State: A unanimous All-American in 2002 after setting NCAA single-season record with 24 sacks. Won the Lombardi Trophy. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

CB Chris McAlister, Arizona: Unanimous All-American in 1998. Three-time first-team All-Pac-12.

CB Antoine Cason, Arizona: Won the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back in 2007. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

S Troy Polamalu, USC: Two-time All-Pac-10 and consensus All-American in 2002.

S Taylor Mays, USC: A three-time All-American, he was a consensus All-American in 2008. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

P Bryan Anger, California: A three-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection and two-time Ray Guy semifinalist.

10 reasons Stanford wins the Rose Bowl

January, 1, 2014
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Why is Stanford going to best Michigan State in the Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio? Here are 10 reasons.

  1. Stanford has the better quarterback: Stanford QB Kevin Hogan is 15th in the nation in total QBR (80.2). Michigan State's Connor Cook is 59th (61.9). And Hogan put up those numbers against a much tougher schedule.
  2. [+] EnlargeTrent Murphy
    Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesMichigan State hasn't faced a pass rusher as talented or relentless as Stanford LB Trent Murphy.
  3. Michigan State hasn't faced a pass rusher like Trent Murphy: The Spartans only yielded 13 sacks this year, which ranked 11th in the nation. But Michigan State didn't face any pass rusher as good as Murphy -- none ranked in the nation's top 15. Murphy had 14 sacks on his own, which ranked second in the nation.
  4. Stanford has played in four consecutive BCS bowls: The Cardinal are accustomed to a big stage. This is their second consecutive Rose Bowl and fourth consecutive BCS bowl. Michigan State hasn't played in a BCS bowl game or a Rose Bowl in 26 years. Experience matters. Nerves certainly won't be an issue for Stanford.
  5. The Pac-12 is better than the Big Ten: The Pac-12 went 3-2 versus the Big Ten this year, and was widely viewed as -- at least -- the nation's second best conference behind the SEC. Playing a nine-game Pac-12 schedule means Stanford has been more battle tested against A-list foes.
  6. Michigan State doesn't have its top leader on defense: Michigan State might have the nation's best defense, and All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough is its unquestioned leader. But Bullough was suspended for undisclosed reasons and won't play in the Rose Bowl. That leaves a huge hole in the Spartans defense in terms of talent, experience and leadership.
  7. Michigan State hasn't faced an O-line as good as Stanford's: The Spartans own the nation's No. 1 rush defense, but it hasn't faced an offensive line as big and bad -- and NFL ready -- as Stanford's. Ohio State has a good offensive line, and it produced 273 rushing yards against the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game.
  8. The transitive property! Notre Dame beat Michigan State 17-13. Stanford beat Notre Dame 27-20. So Stanford beats Michigan State! While it should be noted that Notre Dame was at home and far more healthy against the Spartans than it was at Stanford, this is a 10-point list, and sometimes you cut corners.
  9. Shayne Skov will deliver an inspiring pre-game speech: Skov is a great player, but a nearly as important contribution to the Cardinal is his fiery leadership. He is the Cardinal's designated player for an emotional pregame speech. As a fifth-year senior, this will be his last. Count on it being highly motivating.
  10. David Shaw is an elite coach: There's a reason you keep hearing Shaw's name come up in discussions about coaching vacancies, whether at Texas or in the NFL. He's considered an elite coach who has yet to reach his ceiling. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio might well be headed in that same direction, but you'd have to give Shaw and Stanford the edge on the sidelines.
  11. The Big Ten doesn't win Rose Bowls: Since the 2000 season, Big Ten teams have gone 1-9 in the Rose Bowl. While there were a couple of guest appearances in the Pac-12's spot -- Texas, TCU -- the Big Ten's biggest problem is the Pac-12 -- Washington, USC, Oregon and Stanford. The Big Ten's last Rose Bowl win was Ohio State over Oregon following the 2009 season, and that required Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor playing the best game of his career.

Even at the top, Mason still scrapping

December, 31, 2013
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Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason played cornerback at Northern Arizona, and he'd rate as short for the position even at an FCS school. He's compact and powerfully built, but you'd suspect that more than a few receivers took one look at his 5-foot-8 frame and thought, "I am going to steal his lunch money and send him home to his mommy in tears."

Some of those guys got the best of him, no doubt. The Lumberjacks never posted a winning record while Mason, a two-year starter, was on the team. But Mason made sure their afternoon wasn't easy, and that they'd remember him the next morning when they crawled out of bed and needed an aspirin or four.

"I felt like I was tough. I felt like I was physical. I felt like I competed all the time," he said. "I felt like because of my size I played [with] a big chip on my shoulder, mad all the time, mad at everybody. Mad at receivers, tight ends. So I played angry."

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesDefensive coordinator Derek Mason has helped Stanford become one of the top defenses in the nation by, as his players say, doing a "tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."
Mason's description of himself as a player surely will make those around the Stanford program smile, particularly those who play defense for him. Mason, 43, is a ball of compressed energy, a demanding guy who sees the entire field in a way that allows him to rapidly process both imperfections that mattered on a specific play and imperfections that didn't matter but might next time. He's not the sort who lets things slide, even when the ultimate result suggests proper execution to the casual observer.

"I think the best thing he does is he helps us stay motivated to show up every day for work," Cardinal All-American outside linebacker Trent Murphy said. "He never lets us get complacent or lets us get content. Some of our best games, as far as score-wise, our win margin, some of those games he gets furious. You would think we lost the game by the way he rips us apart after the game. He's always hungry and keeps us hungry, calls great plays and puts us in a great position to be successful, so you can't ask for anything more from a coach."

The ability to scheme, motivate and teach has made Mason into one of the nation's hottest defensive coordinators, yet his route to success at Stanford has been twisting. This is his 10th coaching stop since 1994. Stanford is the first time he has coached four consecutive seasons in the same place. With five of those coaching jobs, Mason was on the offensive side of the ball. A wide receivers coach at Ohio in 2005 and 2006, he jumped to the Minnesota Vikings to become an assistant defensive backs coach. It looked like the NFL was his future, but then Jim Harbaugh came calling in 2010.

"Anybody who has been around Jim Harbaugh knows he can sell anything," Mason said.

It proved an inspired decision to come West with Harbaugh, who had just hired Vic Fangio to switch Stanford from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Mason preferred a 3-4 himself -- the Vikings were using a 4-3 -- and Fangio helped him earn his Ph.D. in the scheme.

Of course, Stanford would go 12-1 that season, blowing out Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and Harbaugh and Fangio would jump to the San Francisco 49ers. When David Shaw was promoted to head coach, he made Mason co-coordinator with Jason Tarver in 2011.

When Tarver left of the Oakland Raiders, Mason took sole control of the defense in 2012. It was Mason who solved Stanford's "Oregon Problem," not Fangio or Tarver. In 2010 and 2011, Stanford surrendered 105 points in losses to the Ducks. In 2012 and 2013, the Cardinal yielded 34 in victories.

"I think the sign of any good football coach at any position is the ability to have a philosophy and have a general scheme that you believe in," Shaw said. "But more importantly, to be able to teach that scheme and then fit the scheme around the players that you have and their talents. I think Derek has done that, and you've seen him do things for Shayne Skov, you've seen him do things for Trent Murphy, do things for Chase Thomas, do things to help Ed Reynolds shine. You put guys in positions to do things that they're good at."

Said Skov: "He does a tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."

Stanford has led the Pac-12 in both scoring and rushing defense the past two seasons. Its 97 sacks over the past two seasons is five more than any other conference team. The Cardinal have held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 20 of their last 25 games, and have not allowed a foe to reach 30 points in their past 21 games. Rose Bowl foe Michigan State is the only team with a longer streak (26).

Mason's defense has a massive inventory -- at least for a college team -- of fronts, stunts and blitzes that makes it difficult for offenses to know what they are getting before the snap. The Cardinal's defense is big, athletic and physical at all three levels, but Mason's scheme also takes advantage of the intellect of football recruits who can get into Stanford. They simply can handle more information than a collection of players at just about every other FBS school. Michigan State's offensive players repeatedly talked about how Stanford's defense thrives on keep opponents off-balance.

"They do a great job of trying to confuse the offense," Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. "They do a lot of different fronts and a lot of movements and stuff like that to try and confuse you."

Seven years ago, Mason was a receivers coach at Ohio. Now he's one of the nation's top defensive coordinators in the country.

The reason he jumped from point A to point B probably has a lot to do with him coaching the same way he played cornerback at Northern Arizona. He still sees that 6-4 receiver grinning at him, thinking he's about to grab some extra lunch money.

"I absolutely coach with a chip on my shoulder," Mason said. "I want these guys to be the best. There's not a day that goes by that my head hits the pillow that I'm not thinking of how we can get better, how these guys can get better, because that's what they came here to do."

LOS ANGELES -- Michigan State's defense is preparing vigorously for Stanford's offense as well as for life without its leader, middle linebacker Max Bullough.

Despite Bullough's shocking suspension, the standards haven't changed for the "Spartan Dawgs," who, as linebacker Denicos Allen noted Sunday, want to show everyone why they're the nation's No. 1 defense.

[+] EnlargeMax Bullough
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsHow will Michigan State's defense adjust without Max Bullough?
But before the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, MSU's defenders might want to set aside some time to examine Stanford's defense, specifically the way the unit adjusted without one of its best players. The Cardinal lost defensive end Ben Gardner to a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in late October.

Like Bullough, Gardner is a captain and one of the defense's top performers, racking up 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits, the most on the team at the time. He's so good that he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors despite missing Stanford's final five games.

Twelve days after Gardner's injury, Stanford held Oregon's dynamic offense scoreless for three quarters in a 26-20 win. The Cardinal surrendered just 62 rush yards and 312 total yards and recorded three sacks.

Stanford's defensive statistics without Gardner weren't dramatically different than they were with Gardner. The Cardinal allowed less than 75 rush yards in four of the final five games and finished with an outstanding effort against Arizona State's explosive offense in the Pac-12 championship. Arizona State had just 14 points and 311 yards, well below its season averages (41.0 ppg, 460.8 ypg).

"You feel for your teammates, but at the same time, you have to keep your vision on what the team goal is," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "You recognize that, unfortunately, somebody is gone, is no longer an active participant, but you have to keep moving forward.

"Whenever you lose someone as talented and as important a leader and integrated into your team, as I'm sure Max was and Ben [are], you have to find ways to, not replace them, but work and make an adaptation."

The circumstances of the losses are different -- Gardner was injured and remains with his teammates for the Rose Bowl; Bullough was suspended right before the team left for California and will not attend the game. But the realities are the same: There's shock and disappointment, and then there's another tough game to play.

"I kept a coldblooded approach," Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy said, "and kept moving forward and knew there were still games to be played and work to be done. Then, at the senior banquet, [Gardner] spoke and got everyone choked up a little bit and then it was like, oh man.

"Other than that, I kept moving forward."

Stanford benefited from replacing Garnder with Henry Anderson, a senior who had earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. Anderson suffered a knee injury in September but returned for the Oregon showdown, Stanford's first game without Gardner.

Michigan State's Kyler Elsworth isn't as decorated as Anderson, but the fifth-year senior who could start in Bullough's place brings experience and familiarity to the role. He's not Bullough in terms of system knowledge and communication -- no one is -- but he understands the scheme and the personnel around him.

"We've won because of chemistry here," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday. "There's an opportunity for somebody else to lead."

Elsworth, primarily a special-teams player during his career, embraces that opportunity "ten-fold."

"[Stanford] lost a player, and that's an adverse situation, that's something you've got to overcome," Elsworth said. "Our team has been doing that for a while now."

He mentioned safety RJ Williamson stepping in for safety Isaiah Lewis because of injury and a targeting ejection against Northwestern, and the way the coaching staff handled Dantonio's health-related absence during the 2010 season.

"There's countless times where our team has rallied around everybody," Elsworth said, "stepped up and came into the game with the mind-set that, 'Hey, no matter what is thrown at us, we can handle it.'

"This is no different. It's another curveball. Guys have stepped up their leadership, I'm stepping up my leadership, and we're very prepared for this game."

Conference wrap: Pac-12

December, 16, 2013
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It’s tough to put a grade on the 2013 edition of Pac-12 football. When we look back 20 years from now, all that will probably stand out is that the Pac-12 had just one BCS bowl team in the final year of the Bowl Championship Series. So with Stanford carrying the flag for the league, its performance against Michigan State in the 100th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio takes on a greater importance.

But this year, perhaps more than any other, the Pac-12 showed why it is one of the toughest, if not the deepest, conference in all of college football. It passed the nonconference test, going 31-6 against non-league competition -- with wins over teams from the SEC, Big Ten and ACC. It crushed the Mountain West, going 10-0 against the West Coast’s little brother conference. And three more meetings in the postseason could extend it to 13-0.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkDavid Shaw has Stanford atop a very deep conference.
Speaking of bowls, a record nine Pac-12 teams are in the postseason, 75 percent of the league. Washington State is bowling for the first time since 2003. Colorado is making headway. Utah appears right on the cusp of breaking through.

There were thrilling upsets. (Utah, Washington State and USC all get thumbs up.) There was the Week 1 Oregon State debacle. There were All-Americans, national award winners and a style of football that is uniquely Pac-12.

The influx of big-name coaches has raised the ante over the past few seasons, and that trend continued this year, with Steve Sarkisian’s move to USC and Chris Petersen’s ingress to Washington.

The South was nasty, and will be again next year. Arizona State has staked its claim. But UCLA is right on the Sun Devils’ heels, as are USC and an Arizona squad that has the potential to be very, very scary in 2014.

The North belongs to Stanford until proven otherwise. The Cardinal's recipe for beating Oregon has yielded fruit for two years. But with Marcus Mariota back for another season, you certainly have to expect the Ducks to be a top-10 team. And Petersen’s arrival makes Washington an instant player for the division.

The best thing the Pac-12 can go is finish strong in the postseason, win its BCS bowl game and head into the playoff era with plenty of momentum.


Offensive MVP: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey
was arguably the most consistent skill player in college football this season, posting at least 100 yards in every game he played and finishing with 1,716 yards and 17 touchdowns on 322 carries (5.3 average). He also caught 26 passes and a touchdown.

Defensive MVP: With 14 sacks, Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy was the Pac-12 and the national leader in getting at the quarterback. He also ranked third nationally with 21.5 tackles for loss. Murphy posted 58 total tackles, blocked a kick, forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

Newcomer of the year: Plenty of fantastic options, including ASU receiver Jaelen Strong and Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam. But it was UCLA linebacker/running back Myles Jack who made the biggest splash. The Bruins' true freshman posted 70 tackles with five for a loss, an interception and two forced fumbles. He also blocked a kick. As a running back he carried 37 times for 269 yards with seven touchdowns.

Biggest surprise: Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said he thought the Cougars would start being a consistent winner by 2014. Coach Mike Leach had his own timetable. In just his second season in Pullman, Leach has the Cougars in a bowl game for the first time since 2003 -- and they recorded a marquee win on the road at USC in Week 2 that ultimately helped them become bowl-eligible.

Biggest disappointment: There was no great redemption story for Lane Kiffin. In fact, the Trojans looked like a significantly improved team after he was removed from his coaching duties. Hopes were high that Kiffin would be able to turn the Trojans around after an abysmal 2012. But a 62-41 loss at ASU in Week 5 was the straw that broke the back of his fairly underwhelming tenure with the Trojans.

Best game: At the quarter pole, we went with Oregon State at Utah. At the midway post, we went with Oregon State at Utah. And now in the season wrap, we’re sticking with that. That game, now more than ever, spells out the importance of every single week. Oregon State would be home for the holidays without that dramatic 51-48 overtime victory. And because of said dramatic overtime defeat, the five-win Utes are out of the postseason again. From a pure tension and excitement level, that game was tough to beat.

2013 AT&T ESPN All-America Team

December, 14, 2013
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Offense
QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State
RB: Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona, Andre Williams, Boston College
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M, Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
TE: Eric Ebron, North Carolina
OT: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M, Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OG: Cyril Richardson, Baylor; David Yankey, Stanford
C: Bryan Stork, Florida State

Defense
DE: Michael Sam, Missouri; Leonard Williams, USC
DT: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh; Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama; Ryan Shazier, Ohio State, Trent Murphy, Stanford
CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
FS: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
SS: Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
K: Nate Freese, Boston College
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina

The Big Ten's bowl lineup is now official. Both participants from the league championship game are headed to BCS bowls, while five others will play postseason games in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The overall lineup doesn't seem quite as daunting as last season's, when the Big Ten had zero top-10 teams and played three top-10 opponents in the postseason.

We'll be breaking down these games for the next few weeks, but we wanted to share our first impressions of the lineup:

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Jan. 1: Michigan State vs. Stanford
Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3: Ohio State vs. Clemson
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Iowa vs. LSU
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 28: Michigan vs. Kansas State
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Nebraska vs. Georgia
Texas Bowl, Dec. 27: Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Let's begin ...

Adam Rittenberg's first impressions

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMark Dantonio's Spartans enter the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak.
Best game: Rose. The most tradition-rich bowl will celebrate its 100th edition with a matchup of teams with traditional offenses based around the power-run and aggressive, hard-hitting defenses. Michigan State recorded the signature win of the Mark Dantonio-era against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and enters the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak, winning each contest by at least 10 points. Both teams have standout defenders (MSU's Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen; Stanford's Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jordan Richards), underrated quarterbacks in Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan and impressive running backs in Jeremy Langford and Tyler Gaffney. Good times.

Worst game: Gator. I'm probably not as upset about this one as Brian (or most Nebraska fans), but a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl featuring two teams playing without their starting quarterbacks doesn't move the needle. At least running backs Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) and Todd Gurley (Georgia) are fun to watch.

Sneaky good game: Capital One Bowl. Not sure how sneaky this one is, but both teams are talented on both sides of the ball and easily could have better records. The game features the nation's most talented defender in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney against one of the nation's most accomplished defenders in Wisconsin's Chris Borland. The Badgers' seniors want to go out on a good note after a stunning home loss to Penn State, not to mention three consecutive losses in the Rose Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: The Big Ten records a winning record with at least one BCS bowl win. This season's lineup is slightly more favorable, and four wins certainly isn't out of the question. Ohio State and Minnesota both should win their games, and Michigan State, while less experienced than Stanford in BCS games, is playing its best football. Wisconsin needs to rebound, Iowa has a tough draw and both Michigan and Nebraska have been enigmatic, but the Big Ten should expect a little more in its final season of its self-created meat-grinder bowl lineup.

Brian Bennett's first impressions

Best game: The Rose Bowl is tremendous and looks to be the second-best game outside of the BCS title game. But let me also put in a plug for a possible underrated Orange matchup between Ohio State and Clemson. I saw Clemson earlier this season, and while the Tigers stumbled badly against Florida State and South Carolina, they are loaded with athletes. Put Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde all on the same field, and you're guaranteed some fireworks. Both teams score more than 40 points per game so we could have an entertaining shootout with some intriguing back stories (the Woody Hayes punch, Urban Meyer's return to the state of Florida).

Worst game: Minnesota had a great season and has a legitimately good defense and solid running game led by David Cobb. So I was hoping to see the Gophers get a chance to prove themselves against a decent opponent. Unfortunately, they drew a 6-6 Syracuse squad that beat absolutely no one and has an even lower-scoring offense than Minnesota. A bowl win is probably all that matters to Jerry Kill and his players, but I think they deserved a better showcase opportunity.

Sneaky good game: Outback. Iowa will have to make up for a talent gap with LSU -- as most teams do when they play the Tigers. But the Hawkeyes really hit their stride in the season finale at Nebraska, and they have only lost to teams ranked in the top 20. LSU, meanwhile, will be without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL in the season finale, and this was not a vintage Tigers' defense. Both teams like to run the ball a lot, and Iowa linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey must continue to lead the way for Phil Parker's defense. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get an ending half as good as the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: At least one BCS win is a necessity, especially with opponents who are similar in style in both games. Winning at least one of the games against the SEC on New Year's Day is also important; that holiday has been unkind to the Big Ten of late, and Georgia and LSU look more vulnerable than usual. An overall winning record is possible and could start to change the conference's image. Another sign of success will be if Wisconsin can avoid adding to Clowney's postseason highlight reel.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
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So who deserves a helmet sticker for a job well done?

Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford: Gaffney earned Pac-12 championship game MVP honors after rushing for 133 yards and three touchdowns in the Cardinal's 38-14 win over Arizona State.

Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford: Hogan played perhaps his best road game of the year, completing 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown against Arizona State. He also rushed for 24 yards.

D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State: Foster rushed for a 51-yard touchdown and turned a short pass into a 65-yard score against Stanford.

Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford: Murphy had seven tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble against the Sun Devils.

Chris Young, LB, Arizona State: Young had a team-high eight tackles, including a game-high four tackles for a loss against Stanford. He had a sack, forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Take 2: Unsung heroes to watch

December, 5, 2013
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The Pac-12 championship game is a venue for stars to shine. And there will be plenty of star power on both sides of the ball when Stanford travels to Arizona State for the 2013 title game. There will be 12 first-team all-conference players, six from each team, squaring off. But who are the guys who aren’t first-teamers but could end up making a difference? Who are the unsung heroes from each team? Your Pac-12 bloggers offer up their thoughts. Ted Miller takes the ASU side, while Kevin Gemmell picks a Stanford player.

Ted Miller: While I think the key for Arizona State is establishing some type of running game against the rugged Stanford defense, I want to go the other way on Arizona State's unsung hero: LB Chris Young.

[+] EnlargeChris Young
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsIf Arizona State is going to topple Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, Chris Young is going to have to play a big role.
Now, Young is no longer a complete secret. He earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors at a position that's stacked in the conference, but it does seem most folks don't know much about him, a point that two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year Will Sutton brought up Monday when he singled out Young as a "baller" when talking about the Sun Devils defense.

Young not only led the Sun Devils in tackles with 95, he had 35 more tackles than anyone else. So you'd think he'll play a key role as the Arizona State defense tries to contain Tyler Gaffney and Stanford's power running game. In the first meeting at Stanford, a 42-28 Cardinal domination, Young had a game-high 10 tackles.

But in that game, he only had half a tackle for a loss, as Gaffney and the Stanford O-line dominated. In fact, the Sun Devils only had five tackles for a loss in the game. They averaged 7.3 per game in the other 11 games. Young himself had 12.5 tackles for a loss this season to go along with 6.5 sacks, including three against UCLA.

The Sun Devils run an aggressive, attacking defensive scheme. They are willing to take risks to get a handful of negative plays. They need negative plays against Stanford. They can't afford to give the Cardinal third-and-short over and over again.

Of course, Young also could make a couple of plays on third-and-short, and that likely would energize his defense and the home crowd. Stanford likes to go mano-a-mano at the line of scrimmage. If Young leads a charge that wins some of those battles during the early going, you'll see the Sun Devils taking a major step forward from their first meeting at Stanford.

Young needs to make plays against Stanford, both behind or close to the line of scrimmage. You'd have to like the Sun Devils chances if Stanford and QB Kevin Hogan are forced to throw the ball more than they'd like.

Kevin Gemmell: I’m on board with picking a defensive player. It’s always Trent Murphy this and Shayne Skov that when talking about the Stanford defense, which is fine. Those guys are All-America candidates and worthy of all of the praise that is heaped upon them.

But you know who always gets lost in the shuffle? The forgotten linebacker, A.J. Tarpley. Let’s not forget about the guy who is second on the team with 80 tackles, including five for a loss, and a sack.

Tarpley often gets overlooked because of bigger-name players. But who is the guy usually coming up with a big play in a big game? That’s right, it’s Tarpley.

See his 2011 interception of Matt Barkley. See his 2012 pick of Marcus Mariota. And don’t forget about his pick this season of Keith Price and Washington. Tarpley is a big-game player. And the Cardinal will need another big-time performance out of him as they travel to Tempe.

That’s not to say that Tarpley is going to get a pick in this game. Taylor Kelly doesn’t throw many -- though six of his 11 interceptions have come at home this season. When Kelly throws an interception in his career, the Sun Devils are 6-7. When he doesn’t, they are 11-0. So pass rush and turnovers will obviously be critical, as is the case every week.

A lot has been made about this game being at ASU and the fact that both of Stanford's losses have come on the road, which is an important storyline. But some of Tarpley’s best performances in his career have come on the road.

In fact, when you look at just this season, Tarpley averages 8.1 tackles per game on the road and 6 tackles per game at home. Twice he’s had double-digit tackles this year. Both came on the road, as Tarpley had 13 at Oregon State and 12 at Utah.

This is the kind of game Tarpley was made for; on the road, a tense situation, and everyone looking for the superstars to make a play. But it might just be Tarpley who ends up being the true difference-maker.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 12

November, 18, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 12 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: USC started with a great plan against Stanford. Then it played smart, disciplined football and executed that plan. And when Stanford looked like it was asserting itself, the Trojans persevered, making clutch plays at the end to beat the Cardinal 20-17. USC is now 5-1 under interim coach Ed Orgeron, looking nothing like the sloppy, uninterested team from the beginning of the season.

[+] EnlargeMarqise Lee
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesMarqise Lee caught six passes for 83 yards in USC's upset win over Stanford.
Best game: On a mostly ho-hum weekend, USC-Stanford wasn't decided until the final moments. Moreover, the stakes were high. Stanford was knocked out of the lead spot in the North Division and the Trojans are now squarely in the South race.

Biggest play: Was it the athletic interception from freshman Su'a Cravens that set up the final USC drive? Or was it the fourth-and-2 completion from Cody Kessler to Marqise Lee for 13 yards to the Stanford 35-yard line on the game-winning drive? Or the 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari? Each was critical in the final turn toward USC in the fourth quarter.

Offensive standout: Colorado WR Paul Richardson caught 11 passes for 140 yards in the Buffaloes' 41-24 win over California, which gave them their first Pac-12 win since September 2012. Richardson broke the school’s single-season receiving record, eclipsing the record previously held by Charles E. Johnson. He sits at 1,201 receiving yards, which ranks second in the Pac-12.

Defensive standout: Stanford OLB Trent Murphy had eight tackles, with four coming for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble against USC. The Cardinal lost, but it sure wasn't Murphy's fault. He now leads the Pac-12 in both sacks (12) and tackles for a loss (18).

Defensive standout 2: Arizona State safety Robert Nelson had two interceptions -- one he returned 23 yards for a touchdown -- and a fumble recovery in the Sun Devils' 30-17 win over Oregon State. He also had five tackles.

Special teams standout: It has been a long season for Heidari, but he was the difference for the Trojans in their upset win over Stanford. He kicked a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds to play that provided the winning margin. He also kicked a 23-yard field goal and was 2-for-2 on PATs.

Smiley face: We'd gush more about Orgeron's leadership at USC, but there at least needs to be a hat tip to Washington State and coach Mike Leach going to Tucson and grabbing a much-needed victory with some late-game heroics from QB Connor Halliday. His 25-yard TD pass to Isiah Myers for the tiebreaking touchdown with 2:15 to play gave the Cougars a 24-17 win, keeping their bowl hopes alive.

Frowny face: As impressive as USC's win over Stanford was, it probably wasn't very popular among 10 other Pac-12 teams. Oregon, of course, is thrilled. The Ducks now control their North Division destiny and Rose Bowl hopes. But Stanford's losing makes it unlikely the conference will have two BCS bowl teams, which means every conference team lost about $500,000 when the Cardinal went down. It will be the first time since 2009 conference ADs won't enrich their coffers with that extra check.

Thought of the week: Arizona State and UCLA have a recent history of disappointing their fans and falling short of expectations. But guess what? Both teams are 8-2 and ranked heading into their critical showdown Saturday. They are about where optimistic preseason expectations placed them after 10 games. Both have showed resolve under second-year head coaches. No matter who wins Saturday, both programs seem to be on a decided uptick.

Questions for the week: Who salvages their season? Several Pac-12 teams' seasons are on the brink, and two games in particular are of note: Washington visits Oregon State and Washington State plays host to Utah. As far as the Huskies and Beavers, the loser of that game will officially be able to call its season a disappointment. The Huskies would then face the specter of another 7-6 season -- or worse -- and that could make Steve Sarkisian's seat pretty hot. The Beavers would be set up to lose their final five regular-season games after a 6-1 start, pending the result of the Civil War against Oregon. Utah needs to win in order to keep its bowl hopes alive, and failing to reach a bowl game for a second consecutive year would have folks getting chippy in Salt Lake. The game is not a must-win for the Cougars' bowl hopes, but they'd probably rather not hang their hopes on the Apple Cup the following week.

Cardinal ball requires white knuckles

November, 6, 2013
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When the Andrew Luck era ended at Stanford, coach David Shaw knew for his team to maintain the high standard of play, it would have to commit to the old evolutionary adage of adapt to survive.

Gone were the 43 points per game the team enjoyed during Luck’s senior year -- Shaw’s first year as head coach. With the graduation of a player like Luck, Stanford’s offensive production was expected to take a step back.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireStanford coach David Shaw credits his team's record in close games to the players' resilience.
And it did.

Since the start of the 2012 season, the Cardinal have averaged just 29.6 points per game -- two touchdowns fewer on average per contest than when Luck was running the show. And yet during that stretch, Stanford has still gone 19-3 against opponents that boast a 62.6 winning percentage. That ranks 10th among all FBS teams over the last year and a half.

The Cardinal have adapted and survived behind a brutalizing defense and power-running game. Though they aren’t scoring as many points, they are speeding the game up by slowing it down. And they are winning.

Good enough has been good enough for Stanford.

Since the start of the 2012 season the Cardinal are 10-3 in games decided by one possession (eight points). In those 22 games, their margin of victory is 11.6 points. As Shaw is fond of saying, football isn’t a beauty contest.

“We expect to be in tight games,” Shaw said. “We practice it. We spend a lot of time working on red zone. A lot of time working on overtime, two-minute offense, two-minute defense, the things that happen at the end of the game, so when we get in those times during the game, we just act and react.”

Compare that to No. 3 Oregon, Stanford’s opponent Thursday night in Palo Alto in a game that is sure to have a massive impact on the Pac-12 and BCS pecking order. Over that same stretch, the Ducks have enjoyed a margin of victory of 32.1 points per game. While the Cardinal have been in 13 one-possession games, Oregon has been in one. Just one. For those with a short memory, it was last year’s 17-14 overtime loss to the Cardinal at Autzen.

“All it really means is we’re doing our job and executing,” said Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. “We don’t look at something like that as a bad thing. You execute and you win a ball game. That’s what the main intent is. In any situation we have confidence the coaches will do an awesome job preparing us and we’ll go out there with confidence and be comfortable in whatever situation.”

This year could present another close situation. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said he’s expecting another tight, drag’em-out showdown with the veteran Cardinal defense.

“When you look at their defense and their two-deep, 15 or 16 are seniors,” Helfrich said. “And there is so much depth. So much continuity. It feels like we’ve been playing against Trent Murphy and [Shayne] Skov and [A.J.] Tarpley for 20 years. They are obviously very confident in what they do, and I think their offense will grind it out and create some situations. But I know at the end of the game they are going to have confidence. Hopefully so will we.”

Maturity and experience is obviously a big reason for Stanford’s success in close games. Take the last win -- a 20-12 victory over Oregon State in Corvallis. A late fumble could have swung the momentum to OSU’s favor. But the veteran Cardinal defense stiffened and preserved the win.

“They played us well not only physically, but they played a very smart game,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “I think the combination of what they have, which is physical talent and lots of experience, is a positive for them.”

The Cardinal, however, will be without one of their veteran leaders in defensive end Ben Gardner, who is out of the rest of the year with a pectoral injury. The fifth-year senior was a team captain and has been an integral part of Stanford’s defensive success for not only his pass-rushing abilities, but also for his ability to occupy blockers which opens things up for the outside linebackers. However, the Cardinal will get defensive end Henry Anderson back, who has been out since September with a knee injury. Josh Mauro, who has been filling in for Anderson, will replace Gardner.

Despite Gardner’s absence, there isn’t much this Cardinal team hasn’t seen. And it’s that experience they’ll draw from against an Oregon team that averages more than 55 points per game.

“When things don’t go our way during the game, we don’t lament over it,” Shaw said. “I think our maturity helps that. When you don’t play your best football and end up in a tight game, we don’t have a lot of guys spending a lot of time being upset how they didn’t play well in the first or second or third quarter. They know it’s a tight game. They know they have a chance to win it so let’s go out and win it.”

And the Cardinal also know they are going to have to get their offense moving more efficiently than it has in the last three games -- two of which were decided by eight or fewer points. Stanford has averaged slightly more than three touchdowns per game. And a lot of that falls on the shoulders of quarterback Kevin Hogan.

“When Kevin has a not-great game, it’s mechanics, and we’ve got to keep working on that and get him to be consistent and he’s working extremely hard,” Shaw said. “Everybody hates when I say it, but he’s still young. We don’t have a huge sample size of him playing football. He played so well early that everyone is shocked when he doesn’t have a great game. But I think the arrow is still pointing up. He’s got a chance to be a great college quarterback and we hope that surfaces again this week coming up.”
Trent Murphy and his Stanford teammates walked off the field at Oregon State on Oct. 26 with a variety of emotions. They were happy they'd won, but their 20-12 victory was not terribly impressive, at least on the offensive side of the ball. Further, disappointed Beavers fans quickly reminded them of the bigger birds that lay ahead.

Murphy, who is battling UCLA's Anthony Barr for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, really didn't need to be reminded. As soon as the clock hit zero, his mind switched focus to the game upon which the Cardinal's season will be measured: Oregon.

"It was almost immediate for me walking off the field," he said. "Even the Oregon State fans as we walked off the field were going, 'OK, well at least go beat the Ducks.' You couldn't help but go right to that."

[+] EnlargeTrent Murphy
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesTrent Murphy leads the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles for a loss.
The same could be said for Stanford coach David Shaw, only his mind turned to what it was going to take to beat the unbeaten, No. 3 Ducks. He didn't see it on the field of Reser Stadium.

"Coach Shaw got on us after the game a little bit, saying that effort, making mistakes, won't be good enough to beat a team like Oregon," Murphy recalled. "We didn't have too much room for excitement after that game playing the way we did."

Monday afternoon, after a bye week to cogitate over the matter -- Stanford players do not merely think, they cogitate -- Murphy tweeted his thoughts on the Thursday night matchup: "Oregon is a good football team. But this week game plan is simple -- Hard Work, Trust, Discipline, and one mean S.O.B. attitude."

That about sums it up. It sums up the way Stanford approached the 2012 game, a shocking 17-14 overtime victory in Autzen Stadium that would be the Ducks’ only defeat. And it sums up Murphy.

Murphy, an AP third-team All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 pick in 2012, leads the Pac-12 in sacks (9.5) and tackles for a loss (13.5). He also has six quarterback hurries, an interception returned 30 yards for a touchdown and a blocked kick.

The 6-foot-6, 261-pound senior is playing his way into the first round of the NFL draft this spring. Mel Kiper ranks Murphy 25th on his big board, noting, "Murphy has shown me a little more quickness this year and I think it translates into a potential Round 1 selection. He can play standing up or with his hand on the ground, and can attack defenders with his eyes up, so he doesn't lose run leverage and will knock down passes. One of the country's top sack artists this season."

Shaw has several years of NFL coaching experience and he's fielded plenty of calls from former colleagues about Murphy.

"They are intrigued by his versatility," Shaw said. "Some of them are looking at him as a guy who can play open defensive end. Some of them look at him as a strong-side base end on the outside shoulder of a tackle. And some of them look at him as a 3-4 outside linebacker, like what we are doing, strong side or week side."

But first things first: Oregon.

The No.5 Cardinal are a 10 1/2-point underdog at home. The general feeling is the Ducks are looking for some style points against a highly rated foe in order to keep Florida State at bay in the BCS standings. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, who played his only poor game last year against the Cardinal, also could cement his status as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner.

Hardscrabble Stanford isn't adverse to dipping into the "disrespect" reservoir for a motivational angle when facing their flashy North Division rivals. After all, it worked last year when the Cardinal were a three-touchdown underdog.

"It's not a strange position for us to be in, having people betting against us," Murphy said. "We feel more comfortable when everyone writes us off."

Murphy almost certainly will play a key role if the Cardinal are going to duplicate last year's surprising result. Last year, he had two sacks against the Ducks, leading an inspired defensive effort.

Stanford even forced Mariota to throw an interception. That's notable because he hasn't tossed one since then, as he's set a new Pac-12 record with 293 passes without an interception. Mariota had a 77-yard run last year, but even that became more notable as a positive for Stanford, which caught him from behind and then held the Ducks on fourth down.

Of course, Mariota is a much more refined, mature player as a second-year starter. The Ducks passing game is significantly better, too. Mariota passed for 206 yards per game in 2012. This year, it's 285 yards per game.

"You have to respect Mariota and his ability to make plays," Murphy said. "He's a phenomenal athlete. It's typical Oregon. They have great athletes who can make big plays. They will crease you. The thing is you've got to limit the big plays and tackle the football."

Shortly before last year's game, Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason cryptically referenced "deep water" to the Pac-12 blog, which had no earthly idea what he was talking about. After the game, he clarified.

Deep water is the screws tightening in a high-stakes game late in the fourth quarter. Stanford is accustomed to deep water. It is willing to be uncomfortable because it believes its opponent is more so. Deep water is something Oregon rarely encounters, mostly because it blows opponents out.

Of course, part of that is Ducks swim well. Washington and UCLA got the Ducks into a close fourth quarter this year, trailing by just a single touchdown. They ended up losing by 21 and 28 points, respectively.

Still, deep water is where Stanford thinks it has an advantage.

"Deep water is always the plan," Murphy said. "We feel comfortable in close games, dragging our opponent into deep water in the fourth quarter. If we can get into that position again, we're in a good place."

Then maybe that "mean S.O.B. attitude" can take over and again stun the nation.

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