Nov. 9, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - It’s time.
Stanford against Oregon: The Game of the Century, West Coast version.
Saturday’s game at Stanford Stadium will determine the first champion of the Pac-12 North Division, ensure a berth in the inaugural conference title game and, if Stanford wins, enable the Cardinal to remain in the running for a national championship.
Actually, it’s time for just about everybody but Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
“Did you circle this game on your calendar?”
“I don’t have a calendar,” he said.
“Do you use your iPhone?”
“I don’t have an iPhone.”
“Do you have a watch?”
“I don’t have a watch.”
So how does Luck keep track of time?
“I read the syllabus,” he said.
Luck certainly doesn't need a syllabus to be aware of the stakes.
“When you’re thinking about the upcoming football season, you’re thinking about Oregon,” Luck said. “If you want to do something on the West Coast, you’ve got to beat Oregon.”
David Shaw, Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football/Head Coach, said there is a different feel around the undefeated Cardinal team this week.
“They know,” he said. “You can tell to a certain degree. I don’t know if there’s a certain amount of anxiety. It’s not about being nervous. It’s about saying, Hey, you know what, we’ve played well this year, but in this game we’ve got to play better than we’ve played all year. That’s just a fact.”
Shaw said energy and attention to detail will not be an issue in practice this week.
“Our guys know they have to play their best game to have a chance to win,” he said.
* * *
Shaw took exception to a comments made by former NFL quarterback Phil Simms about Luck last week.
Simms said on Sirius NFL Radio, “I just don't see big-time NFL throws. I don't care what anybody says. I've watched a lot of him. He never takes it and rips it in there. And you can say what you want but, man, you've got to be able to crease that ball every once in a while.”
“He hasn’t been looking closely enough,” Shaw said. “No offense to Phil, I loved watching Phil play. He was a heck of a quarterback. But, at the same time, for him to make that comment just means he hasn’t watched enough.”
Asked to mention a specific play that illustrated Luck’s arm strength, Shaw said, “How many do you need?”
Shaw described a play at Arizona State last season when Luck was hit as he threw and, while falling, threw the ball 50 yards in the air to Doug Baldwin on a post pattern.
“To say he can’t make NFL throws is comical,” Shaw said.
Luck, for his part, stayed away from the controversy.
“Everybody has the right to their opinion,” he said. “You understand it comes with the territory of being in the spotlight.”
* * *
To no one’s surprise, receiver Chris Owusu will not play against Oregon, after suffering a concussion from a hard hit during Stanford’s 38-13 victory at Oregon State on Saturday.
“He feels great right now,” Shaw said. “He’s in great spirits. As with all competitors, he wants to play right now. But that’s not his decision.”
“The last three weeks, he’s made a lot of big jumps,” Shaw said of Montgomery, who caught a 62-yard pass against USC and played throughout the three overtime periods after Owusu took a hard hit in that game.
“Last week, he didn’t catch a pass, but he blocked well, ran the right routes, had good releases, and did his normal good job on special teams. We feel comfortable leaning on him.”
As for Owusu’s chances of playing again, in light of at least three concussions in the past 13 months and the sickening impact of each repeated hit, Shaw said that has not been determined.
“We’re still talking about what to do after this week,” Shaw said. “We’re going to be overly cautious.”
* * *
Strong safety Delano Howell, the most physical player in the Cardinal secondary, will return after missing the past three games with a hand injury, though he’ll most likely play in a cast.
This is significant for the sake of familiarity and communication as much as the physical presence he brings as Stanford attempts to slow down Oregon’s fast-paced, no-huddle option attack, said free safety Michael Thomas.
“He’s someone who knows the defense in and out, sees the same thing I’m seeing, we just react together.” Thomas said.
* * *
As for the status of Stanford’s other injuries:
Tight end Levine Toilolo, who missed most of the Oregon State game, is fine and ready to go.
Right tackle Cameron Fleming is going to be a late-week decision after missing the Oregon State game.
Tight end Zach Ertz is doubtful after being forced out of the USC game with a knee injury on the opening kickoff and missing last week’s game.
And kicker Jordan Williamson, who missed two games, will be a “gametime decision,” Shaw said.
* * *
A question on the mind of just about everyone who witnessed Stanford’s 52-31 loss at Oregon last year is how can the Cardinal stop, or at least slow, the Ducks’ attack. LaMichael James ran for 257 yards as Oregon piled up 626 yards of total offense.
“You can play well against Oregon and give up 35 points,” Shaw said. “It’s just if one guy’s out of position on one play, it’s a touchdown. That’s just the way it is.”
Such is the danger of Oregon’s attack, which not only features James, a 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist and a former Oregon sprinter, but also the speed of freshman running back De’Anthony Thomas, running back Kenjon Barner, and dual-threat quarterback Darron Thomas, among others.
“They do as great a job as anybody of running their plays, finding a weakness, and getting a matchup in their favor,” said Shaw, who praised Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s ability to diagnose an opposing defense and adjust his offensive scheme.
Stanford could try to confuse Oregon with a variety of defensive alignments and looks, but Shaw cautions against relying on that strategy.
“You want to show them different looks, but if you try to do too much against them … as we all know, this game is being played by 18-22 year olds,” Shaw said. “If you ask them to do a lot against an offense that does a lot, there’s a lot of variance there where one guy could be out of position to give up a big play.
“Yeah, you want to give multiple looks, but at the same time, you’ve got to trust your base defense to a certain degree because the guys know it, and they know where to line up to get their jobs done.”
* * *
James was a Texas high school state 100-meter champion (10.51 seconds) and placed fifth in the Pac-10 while on the Ducks’ powerhouse track team.
De’Anthony Thomas was the 2011 Los Angeles Section 100-meter champ (10.57) while at Crenshaw High and posted the nation’s fastest high school time in the 200 (20.61).
And Barner also sprinted for the Ducks, placing fourth in the Pac-10 on their 4x100 relay.
“They have two speeds: fast and really really fast,” Stanford linebacker Jarek Lancaster said. “You think they’re running at a good clip and think, I’ve got ‘em. And all of a sudden they turn it on and they’re gone.”
“Explosive,” was Michael Thomas’s description.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” Thomas said. “We know it. But now we finally get a chance to talk about it. We’ve been keeping this under wraps the whole season, but this is what we’ve been playing for since last year.”
Lancaster said James is “a lot faster in real life than he is on film.”
Given the difficulty of making split-second decisions to defend a fast option team in an up-tempo offense, how tough will it be for Stanford defenders to process their reads and react?
“It’s pretty tough,” Lancaster said. “Well … it’s really tough. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”
However, Lancaster and Michael Thomas provided three tips for success:
• “We’ve got to cage them in,” Lancaster said. “We’ve got to set the edges and force everything inside. That’s where the teeth of our defense is. If we keep them caged, we’ll do really well. We just can’t let them out.”
• “Angles,” Thomas said. “You have to always take the right angles. If you’re a step late, or if you get the wrong read or take the wrong angle, that’s when you get in trouble.”
• “We can’t miss tackles,” Thomas said. “These guys are too talented. Once they get the ball in space, which they will, you’ve got to tackle.”
* * *
Asked what fans might not know about the Ducks, Lancaster thought for a moment before mentioning the effectiveness of their offensive line.
“They don’t want to come up and hit you right in the mouth,” he said. “They want to let you run and push you to the side and leave that much of a gap, and LaMichael James will hit it. Their line is extremely athletic and it’s not something I was expecting to see when I turned on the film. But it’s good to now instead of on gameday.”
* * *
Stanford has used rotating scout teams to match the tempo of Oregon’s offense in practice. The scout teams switch on each play, running onto the field and ready to snap the ball as soon as the previous play is stopped.
“It’s just rapid fire,” Shaw said. “Trying to get a lot of plays down, and get a lot of guys communicating.”
“It’s not just Oregon’s personnel, it’s the tempo of running the plays,” Shaw said. “We’re making sure we get the right looks, so that our defense can feel to a certain degree that pressure. But there’s no way we can simulate exactly what Oregon does.”
* * *
Luck said Stanford can’t afford to think about scoring 40 or 50 points to win the game.
“As an offense, you’re aware of how prolific their offense is. But I don’t think you want to change your mindset and put too much pressure on yourself and maybe do something out of character or force something.”
* * *
Does Stanford carry any advantage to playing on natural grass as opposed to the artificial turf at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium?
Oregon has played only once on grass, in a 56-31 victory at Arizona on Sept. 24.
“They’re explosive and fast to begin with, but you put them on turf, it’s like lightning speed,” Michael Thomas said. “It will definitely be great to play them on grass.”
Shaw, however, downplayed the importance.
“They’re fast everywhere,” Shaw said. “We can play on sand. They’re fast.
“Grass, it doesn’t matter. Lamichael James is fast. Kenjon Barner is fast. We’re all playing on the same surface.”
* * *
An unsung standout from the Oregon State game was starting fullback Ryan Hewitt.
“Hewitt was our player of the game because he played more positions in one game than I’ve ever seen anybody play,” said Shaw, who helped coach two-way starter Owen Marecic last year.
Without Ertz and with Toilolo removed early because of injury, Stanford needed to adjust and Hewitt needed to be versatile.
Shaw listed Hewitt’s specific positions from that game: fullback, slotback, tight end, backside tight end, and H-back.
“He graded out outstanding as he has in every single game,” Shaw said. “He saved our bacon.”
* * *
The question comes weekly, and Shaw hasn’t changed his feelings on the importance of the BCS rankings, which has Stanford No. 4 this week.
“It has absolutely no bearing on what happens on Saturdays,” Shaw said. “The BCS matters when all the regular season games and conference championship games are over. That’s the only time it really matters because that’s when you decide what bowl games you go to. Up until then, it’s a TV show.
“They could put us at 3, they could put us at 2, they could put us at 10. We’ve still got to play Oregon. It doesn’t matter.”
* * *
There certainly is a buzz around campus for what could be the biggest home football game in school history.
But, it is Stanford, one of the world’s great academic institutions.
“This campus does a great job of keeping your perspective,” Shaw said.
“I talked to a doctor who’s working on campus. He’s working on the steps toward curing cancer. Stanford vs. Oregon is not high on his list this week. He’s going to be at the game, but he’s got a lot of stuff to do between now and then.”
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics