Pac-12: Griff Whalen

While so much offseason drama has focused on who will be delivering passes at Stanford, there is also the question of who is going to be catching those passes.

Gone are leading wide receivers Griff Whalen (56 catches, 749 yards, four touchdowns) and Chris Owusu (35-376-2), who missed a lot of time last year anyway with injury. And we use the term "leading" accurately, but lightly, because often times last year head coach David Shaw was critical of the wide receiver contributions.

Then again, he didn't need the wide receivers to be great. Part of it was the tight end trio of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who accounted for 20 of Stanford's 38 passing touchdowns -- including 10 from the departed Fleener. Part of it was also quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw a pretty darn good ball, but was also very good at distributing to multiple receivers and position groups.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Drew Terrell
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireDrew Terrell is one of only two senior receivers on Stanford's roster this season.
Running backs/fullbacks caught nine touchdowns and the wide receivers accounted for the other nine. That's more than 23 percent. And let's be honest, maybe the best catch of the 2011 season was by the guy usually doing the throwing.

Translation, with a new quarterback and the top three pass-catchers gone -- the Cardinal are going to need stronger wide receiver play in 2012.

"It's vital," Shaw said. "It's vital to our success. We got a really good start. Jamal Rashad-Patterson is in the best shape of his life. Drew Terrell has really attacked his senior year much like Griff Whalen did the year before and Doug Baldwin the year before."

Terrell is an interesting prospect. Of the 15 wide receivers on Stanford's roster, Terrell is one of only two seniors along with Rashad-Patterson -- and ironically, the guy who threw the ball to Luck. He's a standout on special teams and with a very young receiving corps, he's going to have to be a standout in the locker room and on the field.

"It's a big year for him, no doubt," Shaw said of Terrell. "He's got such a great trust from the coaching staff. He knows all the plays and formations ... he's the leader in that room and of the group. How we use him will change week to week. He's a good route runner and he's been our best blocker for two years."

But he only caught eight balls for 81 yards and a score last year. That leaves sophomore Ty Montgomery -- with his 24 catches and two touchdowns -- as the No. 1 threat. As a true freshman, he emerged late in the season as Owusu's primary replacement and in a short time showed why Shaw is excited about him.

"I think Ty Montgomery is going to be a star in college football," Shaw said. "And we've brought in four new guys to compete. They've all shown flashes. We're excited about them. And the gauntlet is out there for these guys. We've proven over time that at every position, if you show us you can help us, we'll put you on the field to help us. The competition is there and we'll see who puts themselves in a position to play."

The Pac-12's 3,000-yard passers

May, 30, 2012
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Taking a cue from the guys at the Big Ten blog, who recently looked at the potential 3,000-yard passers in that conference in 2012, I thought it would be worth a look at the Pac-12 group.

For the B1g boys, 3,000 yards might seem like a bench mark. In the Pac-12, it's more common, given the brand of football played in the league and seemingly never-ending parade of amazing throwers and catchers who grace the Pac-12 each year. Heck, the conference had two 4,000-yard passers on 2011 in Nick Foles and Brock Osweiler.

But those two are gone -- and so are their head coaches, coordinators and offensive schemes.

Here are the members of the 3K club last season:

  • Foles, Arizona, 4,329
  • Osweiler, Arizona State, 4,036
  • Matt Barkley, USC, 3,528 (returning)
  • Andrew Luck, Stanford, 3,517
  • Sean Mannion, Oregon State, 3,328 (returning)
  • Keith Price, Washington, 3,063 (returning)
[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesUSC's Matt Barkley seems like a sure bet to throw for 3,000-plus yards this coming season.
Now let's look at the conference quarterbacks in 2012 and see who has the best chance of cracking the 3K mark.

Matt Scott, Arizona: Rich Rodriguez's spread option is primarily run-first, and I couldn't find a 3,000-yard passer to his credit as a head coach. The closest anyone got was Denard Robinson, who hit 2,570 in 2010. History says probably not.

TBD, Arizona State: Another up-tempo, run-first offense -- though Todd Graham has had more success in the air. G.J. Kinne hit 3,650 passing yards for Tulsa in 2010, but that was also his second year in the system. With a workhorse running back like Cameron Marshall, a deep running back corps and a green quarterback, 3K seems unlikely.

Zach Maynard, Cal: Just 10 more yards. Just one more little swing pass or one broken tackle and Maynard would have joined the 3K club after throwing for 2,990 yards last season. All indications are that he had a good spring, and he looks more comfortable in the offense. Plus, he's got one of the best receivers in the country in Keenan Allen. Maynard should get there.

TBD, Colorado: Tyler Hansen ( who is now gone) almost got there last season, throwing for 2,883 yards even though his leading receiver in catches was running back Rodney Stewart (who is now gone). Toney Clemons (who is now gone) led in yards, and Paul Richardson (who is out for the season with a knee injury) was second. The odds are slim that Connor Wood or Nick Hirschman will improve off Hansen's numbers with so much turnover.

TBD, Oregon: Does it really matter? Darron Thomas knocked on the door last season with 2,761 yards. But establishing the pass isn't exactly priority No. 1 for the Ducks. Whoever wins the job will have the benefit of De'Anthony Thomas, who can turn 5-yard passes into 50-yard completions. But with the Ducks carrying a 62-38 run-pass percentage last season, it's unlikely they'll stray from that formula, which means it's unlikely a new quarterback will reach 3K.

Sean Mannion, Oregon State: One of six quarterbacks in the conference last season to break 3K, Mannion threw for 3,328 yards in his debut campaign. Vows from coach Mike Riley to re-commit to the running game should actually enhance Mannion's numbers. And with receivers like Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks on the outside, there is no reason to think he won't top 3,000 again.

TBD, Stanford: Despite a run-first, pro-style attack, Luck still threw for 3,517 yards. The Cardinal were 55-45 in their run-pass ratio last season, and a lot of Luck's aerial success came from his ability to successfully sell play-action and distribute the ball among many position groups. But the top three receivers (Griff Whalen, Chris Owusu and tight end Coby Fleener) are gone, and you can't bank on the new quarterback being as efficient as Luck. Expect a healthy dose of running back Stepfan Taylor, meaning Luck's replacement probably won't break 3K.

TBD, UCLA: The Bruins joined Utah last season as the only teams that did not have a passer ranked in the top 10 in passing yards in the conference. That will change this season with new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone -- the architect of Osweiler's 4K season. The ball will be in the air a lot more than it was in the pistol offense. But seeing as there is so much uncertainty still -- and we could see multiple quarterbacks this season -- it's too tough to call. If one guy starts the entire season, I could see it.

Matt Barkley, USC: Yes, yes, 3,000 times, yes.

Jordan Wynn, Utah: I'd say it's 50-50 for Wynn at this point. The Utes have a very good running back in John White, and coach Kyle Whittingham likes the control game. But Wynn did toss 2,334 yards in 2010 in 10 games. If DeVonte Christopher has the big season many are predicting, and new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson dials up the aggressiveness, I could see it happening. As always, unfortunately, every conversation regarding Wynn has to be stipulated with an "if he stays healthy" until he proves otherwise.

Keith Price, Washington: Had it not been for a career-high 438 passing yards against Baylor in the Alamo Bowl, Price would have come up way short of the 3K club. But he's in. And without Chris Polk to lean on, we could see Price's passing numbers go up. Prior to the bowl game, he only had one 300-yard game. He has a good chance to repeat as a 3,000-yard passer, but it's not a lock.

Jeff Tuel, Washington State: Mike Leach hasn't named him the starter, but, come on. He lit it up in the spring, and showed to be a quick study in learning the new offense. With a deep and talented crop of wide receivers -- headlined by Marquess Wilson -- and an offense that throws three out of every four times, Tuel should easily clear 3K.

Stanford spring wrap

May, 14, 2012
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2011 record: 11-2
2011 conference record: 8-1 (2nd, North)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter 1

Top returners
RB Stepfan Taylor, OLB Chase Thomas, LB Shayne Skov, FB Ryan Hewitt, C Sam Schwartzstein, OG David Yankey, OT Cameron Fleming, DE Ben Gardner, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo.

Key losses
QB Andrew Luck, OL David DeCastro, OL Jonathan Martin, S Delano Howell, DE Matt Masifilo, WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleener, S Michael Thomas.

2011 statistical leaders* (returners)
Rushing: Stepfan Taylor* (1,330 yards)
Passing: Andrew Luck (3,517 yards)
Receiving: Griff Whalen (749 yards)
Tackles: Jarek Lancaster* (70)
Sacks: Chase Thomas* (8.5)
Interceptions: Michael Thomas (3)

Spring answers
1. And then there were two: The pack of five has been funneled down to two quarterbacks competing to replace Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. There are plenty of questions left (see below) but at least we know that it's not a three-, four- or five-man race heading into spring. Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack. That's a start.

2. Running back depth: In case Stepfan Taylor gets the flu, and Tyler Gaffney trips over his batting gloves, and Anthony Wilkerson stubs his toe, we know the Cardinal still have a viable running back option in Ricky Seale, who impressed Shaw this spring with his vision, quickness and elusiveness. Oh yeah, there's a Barry something or other coming in the fall whose supposed to be a pretty good running back. RB depth is not a concern.

3. Scary front seven: The Cardinal have so much talent and depth at defensive line and linebacker that defensive coordinator Derek Mason has to be scratching his head on how to get everybody in. Linebacker James Vaugthers is a star on the rise -- but that means taking reps away from A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster. Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy are two of the best at what they do. Stanford's run defense was really good last year. It could be great this year.

Fall questions
1. Who's the guy? Nunes or Nottingham? Nottingham or Nunes? That's the question everyone will be asking on the Farm for the next few months. This might be the most intriguing quarterback competition in the country. But the Cardinal don't need a 50-attempt guy. They need someone who can put them in the best play against the right defense and hand off to Stepfan Taylor. Then repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And then pop a play-action to Ty Montgomery, Zach Ertz or Levine Toilolo.

2. The Fleener factor: Much of Stanford's offensive success came from the three-tight-end formations, which included Coby Fleener, Ertz and Toilolo. In fact, about 35 percent of the offensive playbook is triple-tight sets. How much does that change with Fleener's departure to the NFL? Ertz and Toilolo are both outstanding tight ends in their own right. But the three of them together was something special.

3. Drop-off? Aren't you tired of reading about the drop-off Stanford is going to suffer with the graduation of Luck? Well, so are the players. Several have said off the record that it's a great motivational tool because they believe the defense and running game are stronger than they've ever been. Whatever the public thinks, it hasn't penetrated the locker room. Not yet, anyway.
For those who don't remember, Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener had a pretty funny exchange in the post-game news conference following a 28-14 win over Notre Dame -- Stanford's 2011 regular season finale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's exactly how it should be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little did we know, that was only the end of the beginning.
Some good news for fans of Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu. Evan Silva of NBC sports reported yesterday that Owusu has been medically cleared to continue his football career.

For many, the lasting image of Owusu's Stanford career will be a thumbs up as he was carted into an ambulance on the field at Oregon State. It was his second concussion of the season, his third in a 13-month span and one of the most chilling sights of the 2011 college football season.

[+] EnlargeChris Owusu
Chris Morrison/US PresswireChris Owusu has been cleared "to play football now" by a doctor with the NFL Head, Neck, and Spine Committee.
Others, at least those who noticed, watched him play the final snap of the regular season finale against Notre Dame after missing the previous two games -- a subtle, yet classy gesture by head coach David Shaw to get Owusu on the field one last time on Senior Night.

But it now appears that Owusu is moving forward. No doubt, he's received the best medical advice -- the article states Owusu was looked over by an NFL doctor. And in this concussion-conscious world, chances are a doctor wouldn't clear a potential player if he didn't pass the strict tests with flying colors.
From the article:

Per [Owusu's agent], Owusu has been symptom free since November 6 of 2011, one day after his last concussion. A doctor with the NFL Head, Neck, and Spine Committee has diagnosed Owusu as “perfectly normal” and cleared Owusu “to play football now.” The doctor also determined that Owusu is not at greater risk of concussions due to his history.

Up until his injuries, Owusu had been having an average season at best. On several occasions, Shaw stated that he had hoped Owusu would be more productive. He finished the 2011 season with 35 catches for 376 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a couple of drops that led to interceptions.

In 2010, he saw action in only seven games because of assorted injuries.

Owusu has been training at the Stanford campus along with Michael Thomas, Coby Fleener, Johnson Bademosi and Griff Whalen. He'll join Fleener, Jonathan Martin, Delano Howell, Andrew Luck and David DeCastro at the NFL combine in Indianapolis later this month.

You can guarantee when he gets there, he's going to have a massive "Fragile" stigma that he's going to have to work off. Owusu has the speed to impress and his return skills make him more marketable. But just because a doctor says his melon isn't busted, doesn't mean that some teams won't be wary about taking a flyer on him. And that could hurt his draft stock.

The few times I spoke with Owusu this year, I really enjoyed them. He was charismatic, funny and always had something good to say about someone else on the team, even when the story was about him. There's something to be said for not letting anything get in the way of following a dream. Here's hoping the doctors -- and Owusu -- are making the right call.
Michael Thomas is not one of them. He's one of those.

The former Stanford safety is one of those players spurned by the postseason bowl games and combines. Not one of them, the ones who get all of the draftnik attention and are perceived to be the next crop of elite NFL talent.

Thomas would be lying if he said that didn't bother him. And it should. Anyone who has spent 30 seconds with him knows he's a competitive guy.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
Kyle Terada/US PresswireMichael Thomas will try to draw the attention of NFL scouts during Stanford's pro day workout.
"It was frustrating at first, waiting for invitations that didn't come," Thomas said. "Especially when you feel like you are on par with some of those guys who are going. I feel like I can compete with the best of the best. But you can only play the hand you're dealt. So I'm training hard. But I was disappointed that I didn't at least get the opportunity to showcase myself."

Instead, he's relying on his game film from 2011 as his résumé. On that film, scouts will see 66 tackles -- 41 solo -- three interceptions and a 62-yard pick-six against Washington. They'll see a savvy, four-year player sitting underneath on a slant route and then taking it back with a good burst of speed. They'll see good ball instincts, a team-high eight passes broken up, smart angles and above average tackling.

But what they won't see is the size. At 5-11, 185 pounds, Thomas might have a heart and a brain for the NFL, but his physique is working against him.

"The feedback I've gotten so far is that I'm an interesting prospect," Thomas said. "But because of the height, that's going to affect me in a negative way."

But Thomas has something a lot of other NFL hopefuls don't have; a pro day that includes one of the best quarterback prospects in more than a decade in Andrew Luck; three probable first-round picks with Luck and offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro; and a possible fourth in tight end Coby Fleener.

"My pro day is going to be my Super Bowl," Thomas said. "That's a good thing for guys like me because you know everyone is going to be at our pro day because of Andrew and those other guys. Hopefully it will be a great opportunity for me to improve my stock and draft status. If not, I'll hopefully be a priority free agent."

And if Thomas has to claw his way into the league, he said he's OK doing that. At least for a little while. He's given himself a timetable of about three or four years to put everything he has into making it as an NFL player.

Unlike a lot of prospects who like a change of scenery after the season and go to other parts of the country to train, Thomas is staying on campus. The sociology major will have a Stanford degree at the end of the year, and in the meantime he's working out with teammates Fleener, wide receivers Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen and defensive back Johnson Bademosi in preparation for the March 22 pro day.

"I've had a lot of success with our offseason training program here," Thomas said. "I feel like I've always gotten faster and stronger working with those guys.

"I'm open to taking whatever route I can to accomplish my goals. If I don't make an active roster after a few years, I'll hang it up and try to figure out life after that. I've thought about coaching and I'll always have my Stanford connections."

Pac-12 recruiting needs: North Division

January, 25, 2012
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Every team needs to hit every position group each recruiting season, but there are always priorities. It's not just positions where starters are lost or going to be seniors, it's about addressing weaknesses where a true freshman might be a better answer than a returning player.

Up next is the North Division.

California
QB
: Zach Maynard will be a senior, and it says something about the depth behind him that he never lost his job during his midseason swoon.
WR: Keenan Allen is back, but that's it in terms of returning production and experience.
S: Three of the top four safeties from 2011 are gone.

Oregon
Skill:
In Chip Kelly's offense, you can never have enough fast guys. Sure, Kenjon Barner, De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff are back, but there's a lot of youth and uncertainty after that at running back and wide receiver.
TE: His name is David Paulson, but he's gone. Colt Lyerla was a productive backup -- at least in terms of finding the end zone -- but after him things are uncertain. Tight end is one of the most underrated positions in the Ducks offense, so having more than one Kelly trusts is significant.
S: Eddie Pleasant is gone and John Boyett is a senior. Avery Patterson, Erick Dargan and Brian Jackson are next in line, but the young talent isn't as certain as it is at corner.

Oregon State
OL:
Oregon State lost three starters from a line that led the worst rushing attack in the conference and surrendered 27 sacks. Quarterback Sean Mannion has potential, but he needs time. And a running game.
DT: The Beavers had the worst rushing defense in the Pac-12 in 2011. 'Nuff said.
LB: The Beavers had the worst rushing defense in the Pac-12 in 2011. Almost enough said. Cameron Collins is gone, and all the contributors on the two-deep will be seniors, other than junior Michael Doctor.

Stanford
WR
: Perhaps the weakest position for the Cardinal in 2011, this need is augmented by the loss of Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu and the lack of up-and-comers other than sophomore Ty Montgomery.
DB: Three of four starters are gone, including both safeties. In the Cardinal's two losses -- to Oregon and Oklahoma State -- an absence of top-end athleticism in the back half was exploited.
OL: Three starters are back, but the losses are huge: Tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro. And backup tackle Tyler Mabry and backup guard Matt Bentler also are gone. If coach David Shaw intends to remain a physical, downhill running team -- and he does -- he'll need to continuously stock up on linemen who can get the job done.

Washington
DB:
Lots of guys are back in the secondary, but the Huskies gave up 284.6 yards passing per game, which ranked 11th in the Pac-12. They couldn't cover anybody and often seemed out of position. So new blood might help.
DL: (See if you can notice a theme here that ignores questions at wide receiver and running back). Two starters are gone from a line that consistently underperformed based on preseason expectations.
LB: Second-team All-Pac-12 middle linebacker Cort Dennison is the only one of the eight men on the depth chart who won't be back, but he was the team's only consistent linebacker.

Washington State
DL:
Three of four starters are back, but all three will be seniors.
OL: Three starters are back, but to make the next step on offense, the Cougars need to run the ball better. They ranked 10th in the conference in rushing offense. And that might reduce a conference-high 3.3 sacks per game. Mike Leach's quick-hit offense also might help.
RB: 170-pound sophomore Rickey Galvin is back, as is senior Carl Winston, but the backs need to share responsibility for a 3.1-yards-per-carry average, worst in the conference (of course, losing 237 yards to sacks doesn't help).

Season grade: Stanford

January, 18, 2012
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The 2011 season is over. That means report cards are due.

Up next: Stanford

Offense: The Cardinal had one of the most productive offenses in the country -- mostly because they had one of the most productive quarterbacks. Andrew Luck was efficient and potent orchestrating Stanford's pro-style scheme. He was brilliant in the red zone and proved his NFL-readiness with his play-calling. He also put Stanford's running backs in the best possible plays to succeed, and they did. Stepfan Taylor netted 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns, sending him over the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year. The tight ends were the featured players in the passing game with Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo combining for 86 catches, 1,356 yards and 20 touchdowns. The offensive line matured quickly with three new starters and returners David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin were outstanding -- which will be reflected when they are taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Wide receiver Griff Whalen turned in a steady season and true freshman Ty Montgomery emerged late as a deep threat following a series of concussions to Chris Owusu. But for the most part, the wide receiver position was the one area that lacked significant production in an otherwise potent offense.

Grade: A-

Defense: Regular readers of the Stanford blog know that I reference this David Shaw quote from Week 1 a lot: "Missed tackles in the secondary lose football games." That was never more evident than in the Fiesta Bowl, where no one seemed to be able to bring down Justin Blackmon. Stanford's front seven was one of the best in the country -- and with six of the seven returning (plus the return of linebacker Shayne Skov from a knee injury) they should be even better. OLB Chase Thomas was one of the best pass-rushers in the Pac-12 and Ben Gardner emerged as one of the top defensive ends in the conference. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley grew into their middle linebacker spots and were extremely productive. The secondary gave up a lot of yards -- though played pretty well against some of the top wide receivers in the country -- that is, until the Fiesta Bowl. Up until that game, they had not allowed a 100-yard receiver. Finding replacements for safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas will be a top priority.

Grade: B

Overall: For all of the hype surrounding the Cardinal in the preseason, it's pretty safe to say they lived up to it. Luck took a step forward in his maturation as a quarterback, they reached 11 wins in David Shaw's first year as head coach and the Cardinal returned to a BCS bowl game. For much of the season, they were major players in the national championship conversation and boasted the nation's longest win streak for a good chunk of the 2011 campaign. They are on the verge of signing a Top 20 recruiting class and though many are leaving, a lot of very good talent returns. But an extremely successful 2011 season will forever (or at least for a really long time) be overshadowed by the image of a wide-left kick.

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch links: Lots at stake in rivalry games

November, 17, 2011
11/17/11
2:30
PM ET
Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.

Halftime: Oregon 22, Stanford 16

November, 12, 2011
11/12/11
9:46
PM ET


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

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

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

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

Pregame: Stanford-Oregon

November, 12, 2011
11/12/11
7:10
PM ET
STANFORD, Calif. -- It's probably safe to assume that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Stepfan Taylor will play a major role in the outcome of this game – one way or the other.

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

Stanford's long wait ends tomorrow

November, 11, 2011
11/11/11
9:00
AM ET
Tomorrow is the judgment day
Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in heaven has in store!
One more dawn
One more day
One day more!
-- Ensemble, "Les Miserables"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow could prove likewise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 6, 2011
11/06/11
3:01
AM ET
Who gets a helmet sticker for a job well done (on a bad day for the Pac-12)?

California's defense: The Bears held Washington State to 224 yards in a 30-7 win. The Cougars rushed for just 69 yards and were 4-of-16 on third down. The Bears had three sacks.

John Hays, Utah: While John White -- 109 yards and 2 TDs -- was the star for Utah in the 34-21 win over Arizona, Hays passed for 199 yards and two TDs with no interceptions. Most important: No interceptions.

Eddie Pleasant, Oregon: The Ducks safety grabbed two interceptions in the 34-17 win over Washington. His 65 yards of INT return also helped set up two short Ducks TD drives.

Matt Barkley, USC: The USC QB set a school record with six touchdown passes in the Trojans 42-17 win over Colorado.

Derrick Coleman, UCLA: The Bruins running back rushed for 119 yards on 17 carries -- 7.0 yards per carry -- and scored two TDs, including the 1-yard game-winner over Arizona State with less than a minute left in a game they won 29-28.

Griff Whalen, Stanford: The underrated Whalen has become Andrew Luck's favorite target, and he'll need to be with Chris Owusu hurt. Whalen caught six passes for 87 yards with a TD in the 38-13 win over Oregon State.

Halftime: Stanford 17, OSU 7

November, 5, 2011
11/05/11
5:24
PM ET
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.

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