Pac-12: Eric Whitaker

For all the different competitions spilling out of Stanford this spring and into the fall -- quarterback, safety, offensive line -- head coach David Shaw made it clear that kicker is not one of them.

"Jordan is our kicker," Shaw said on Tuesday's Pac-12 conference call, referring to kicker Jordan Williamson.

Williamson, some might recall, had a rough outing at the Fiesta Bowl, missing three of four field-goal attempts in the 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State. Most notable was a 35-yarder as time expired that would have given Stanford the victory.

Shaw was asked if there is a competition between Williamson and Eric Whitaker, which led to his decisive declaration for Williamson.

"Eric Whitaker is ready when called upon, just like a year ago when he was called upon to go at USC and was the special teams player of the week for the conference," Shaw said.

[+] EnlargeJordan Williamson
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireAn ugly Fiesta Bowl doesn't appear to have cost Jordan Williamson (19) his job as Stanford's kicker.
Williamson opened the season by converting his first seven field goals and 11 of his first 12. An injury forced him to miss three games -- USC, Oregon State and Oregon. Whitaker filled in and was 4 of 5 during that stretch.

"Jordan Williamson is an exceptional kicker who is athletic, who has a strong leg, who has been consistent up until the point he got hurt," Shaw said. "He came back and his timing was a little off and his technique was a little off."

Shaw said Williamson isn't lingering on it -- so neither is he.

"He and I have had one conversation about the Fiesta Bowl, and that was the day after," Shaw said. "All I told him was anybody that is any good at anything has always hit a low point. That was his low point. Scars heal, but they don't necessarily go away. He can use it as motivation or however he wants to use it. All I told him was when we go back to school, we go back to work. Your everyday activity, your everyday work ethic, how you carry yourself, your confidence, all of those things are things I'm going to observe. And when you're dedicated and work your tail off, and use the talents that you have, I said I'll never hesitate to put you back in that situation."

Speaking of "that situation" Shaw took the conference call as an opportunity to reiterate his decision to kick a field goal on the final drive in regulation. He was asked (full disclosure, by me) to reflect in general on his first year as a head coach -- whether he felt he was too aggressive or conservative in any situations or if he'd change anything moving forward.

"I don't know if you are referring to anything specific [for the record, I wasn't], if we're in a situation where we're driving the ball in a 2-minute drill against the team that leads the nation in interceptions, I don't give a doggone who the quarterback is. We're going to run the ball, get down to field-goal position and kick the field goal," Shaw said.

Sounds like coach and kicker have both moved on.

Stanford questions worth asking

November, 22, 2011
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A few questions kicking around my head as we look to the final regular-season game.
  1. Can the Cardinal finish what they started? Anything less than a BCS bowl game at the end of the year would be a letdown -- based on the expectations this team had going into the season. We always knew the national championship would be a difficult achievement -- it's supposed to be hard, and it's supposed to separate the very elite teams. Whether Stanford is an elite team, several notches below or somewhere in the middle remains to be seen. But a win over a ranked Notre Dame team can restore a lot of the national confidence lost against Oregon.
  2. Will the Tree Amigos reunite? It's questionable, at this point. Tight end Zach Ertz might return this week after going down with a knee injury on the opening kickoff of the USC game. Stanford's offense -- though getting by with the versatile Ryan Hewitt, is far more explosive with Ertz. If he can get a few snaps in and get some live work, Stanford's chances of moving the ball successfully against a pretty stingy Notre Dame defense (20.3 points per game) increase significantly.
  3. Is the pressure on Stanford's equipment/grounds-keeping staff? I understand that when it rains, footing becomes less stable. But we're not talking about one or two slip-ups over the last two games. There have been a lot of Cardinal players struggling for traction when it seems to only have a minor impact on opposing teams. Longer cleats? Shorter grass? Longer grass? Had it not been for a penalty, one of those slips would have cost the Cardinal a pick-six (though Cal scored anyway). It's something to keep an eye on Saturday.
  4. Is the kickoff situation set? Despite kicker Jordan Williamson's return after missing three games with an injury, it was Ben Rhyne who handled the kickoff duties last week against Cal. With 58 kicks on the year (66.3 average) Williamson has been the primary kicker. Though in his absence, Eric Whitaker (57.9 average) filled in. Rhyne has 13 kicks on the year for an average of 62.4 with one touchback. It will be interesting to see if Williamson returns to kickoffs or if this is a permanent change for the remainder of the season.
  5. How much emotion can these teams handle? The loss of Notre Dame running back Jonas Gray hurts from a team morale standpoint. Though Cierre Wood is the primary back, Gray was an emotional leader for the Irish -- who barely squeaked by Boston College last week. The Irish could rally -- or the lack of running back depth could hurt them against an aggressive Stanford front seven. Stanford has its own emotional issues at work. Already coming off back-to-back games rife with emotion, Saturday will be senior day -- and more than likely (pending the outcome of Oregon-Oregon State) -- the final home game for Andrew Luck and a cast of fourth- and -fifth-year seniors who turned the program around.

Halftime: Stanford 17, OSU 7

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

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

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

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

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

Pac-12 players of the week

October, 31, 2011
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Washington running back Chris Polk, UCLA safety Tevin McDonald and Stanford kicker Eric Whitaker have been named Pac-12 Players of the Week.

From the Pac-12 release:

Polk, a junior from Redlands, Calif., broke or tied a number of school records in the Huskies’ 42-31 win over Arizona. Polk became the first player in Washington history to have 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. He finished the night with 144 yards on 34 carries and an additional 100 yards on four receptions. Polk scored five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving) to tie the UW modern school record for touchdowns in a game. Additionally, he notched his 18th career 100-yard rushing game to set a new record. Polk joined Napoleon Kaufman as one of just two players in Washington history to rush for 1,000 yards in three seasons as he broke through the mark on Saturday.

McDonald, a redshirt freshman from Fresno, Calif., had three interceptions in UCLA’s 31-14 win over California. The three interceptions tied the school single-game record, and McDonald became the fifth player to accomplish the feat. Rahim Moore had the last three-interception game for the Bruins in 2009 against San Diego State. McDonald also tied the Pac-12 freshman record with three picks in one game. He added three tackles as well.

Whitaker, a junior from San Diego, Calif., made both of his field goal attempts (33 and 29 yards) and all six of his PATs in Stanford’s 56-48 triple-overtime win over USC. Whitaker was filling in for the injured Jordan Williamson, who entered the week leading the Pac-12 in scoring at 10.6 points per game.

Also Nominated (Offense): Cameron Marshall, ASU; Tony Clemons, COLO; Andrew Luck, STAN; Kevin Prince, UCLA; Curtis McNeal, USC; John White, UTAH.

Also Nominated (Defense): Clint Floyd, ASU; A.J. Tarpley, STAN; Nickell Robey, USC; Tevita Finau, UTAH; Princeton Fuimaono, WASH.

Also Nominated (Special Teams): Alex Garoutte, ASU; Bryan Anger, P, CAL; Jeff Locke, UCLA; Andre Heidari, USC; Coleman Petersen, UTAH

Despite adversity, Cardinal prevail

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

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

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

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

Consider:

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

And they almost did.

But they didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOS ANGELES -- Quick observations on an epic game in Southern California.

How the game was won: First, Stepfan Taylor scored from 2 yards out with 38 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 34-34. Then Taylor plowed in from 5 yards out in the third overtime period and Andrew Luck completed the 2-point conversion to Coby Fleener. USC’s Curtis McNeal fumbled to end the game.

Turning point: USC wide receiver Robert Woods failed to get out of bounds at the Stanford 35 as time expired. Despite two timeouts, USC was unable to get a field-goal attempt because Woods went for the sidelines rather than going down and taking a timeout.

Stat of the game: Two — the number of times Luck was sacked this game after being sacked just twice in the previous seven games. Both came on third down.

Best call: Stanford’s double-reverse, wide-receiver pass out of the wildcat. Running back Tyler Gaffney took the direct snap, handed off to Anthony Wilkerson on an end-around, who flipped it to Luck, who was lined up as a wide receiver. Luck then connected with Ty Montgomery for a 62-yard gain.

Unsung hero of the game: Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley played his best game of the season, notching an interception in the first half and finishing the game with nine tackles. He also recovered McNeal’s fumble on the game’s final play.

Second guessing: With Stanford knocking on the door, trailing 27-24 in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal went back to the wildcat on third-and-8 on the USC 13 with 5:20 remaining. Gaffney took the direct snap and ran for just 2 yards. Eric Whitaker converted the 29-yard field goal to tie the game, but I wasn’t a fan of taking the ball out of Luck’s hands at a crucial point in the game.

What it means: The Cardinal are still in the conversation for a spot in the national championship game.

2Q: Stanford 10, USC 3

October, 29, 2011
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LOS ANGELES -- Midway through the second quarter, the Stanford Cardinal continue to punish opponents for committing turnovers.

A.J. Tarpley intercepted Matt Barkley, which led to a 33-yard Eric Whitaker field goal.

The Cardinal are now 12-of-12 on the season turning turnovers into points -- with 10 touchdowns and two field goals.
LOS ANGELES -- Should today's Stanford-USC game mimic last year's contest -- which the Cardinal won on a last-minute field goal -- it might not be Jordan Williamson doing the kicking.

The Stanford kicker will be a game time decision, according to a school spokesman, who did not elaborate on the injury.

On the season, Williamson is 11-of-12 on field goals. His only miss of the season came on a 47-yard attempt against Colorado.

If Williamson, who also handles kickoffs, is unable to play, Eric Whitaker will handle the kicking. Williamson did not take any kicks during pregame warmup.

Ironically, it was Whitaker's older brother Nate who hit the 30-yard field goal as time expired last year to lift the Cardinal to a 37-35 victory at Stanford Stadium.

Preseason position reviews: kicker

July, 5, 2011
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Kicker is typically a strong position in the Pac-12. That is not the case -- at least based on preseason appearances -- this fall.

Just five teams welcome back experienced kickers. The pickings is so slim in terms of quality that Phil Steele named Arizona's Alex Zendejas third-team All-Pac-10 in his preview magazine.

So how does this thin group stack up? Read on.

Great shape

Washington: Erik Folk was perfect on 33 PATs last year while also connecting on 13 of 20 field goals with a long of 54 yards. Most years, these numbers would rate as "good" rather than "great," but having the best returning kicker in the conference, even if his numbers aren't scintillating, is a significant boost.

Good shape

Oregon: Rob Beard made 10 of 13 field goals last year -- coach Chip Kelly doesn't like field goals -- and was 63 of 64 on PATs.

Arizona: Zendejas had some, er, notable issues -- we won't even bring up the PATs in the Arizona State game -- but he did make 14 of 19 field goals with a long of 47. His 73.7 percent field goal percentage ranked third in the Pac-10 in 2010, ahead, by the way, of UCLA's Kai Forbath.

Washington State: Washington State only attempted 11 field goals last year. It made seven of those, three from Andrew Furney, who tops the post-spring depth chart. He also was 18-of-18 on PATs.

California: Giorgio Tavecchio is probably not going to be a great kicker, but he's experienced. He made 11 of 16 kicks last year with a long of 53. He missed two of his 39 PATs.

We'll see

Stanford: Jordan Williamson and Eric Whitaker battled this spring to replace Whitaker's older brother, Nate, who was first-team All-Pac-10 in 2010. Williamson seemed to have a slight lead heading into the offseason, though Whitaker has more experience.

USC: True freshman Andre Heidari was the nation's top-rated prep kicker last year. It's unlikely he will do worse than last year's kicker, Joe Houston, who ranked last in the conference in field goal percentage, though he was perfect on 43 PATs.

UCLA: The post-spring depth chart included an "or" between junior Jeff Locke -- the Bruins' punter -- and redshirt freshman Kip Smith.

Oregon State: Trevor Romaine was ahead of Max Johnson after spring practices to replace Justin Kahut. Both missed two attempts in the spring game. Romaine showed a good foot on kickoffs.

Utah: Coleman Petersen beat out Nick Marsh, the Utes' kickoff specialist last year, this spring to replace Joe Phillips. He's never kicked in a game.

Arizona State: Thomas Weber is gone. His replacement looks like redshirt freshman Alex Garoutte, who wasn't consistent this spring.

Colorado: Justin Castor topped the depth chart this spring -- he wasn't terribly consistent -- but incoming freshman Will Oliver might give him some competition.

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