Dec. 30, 2011
PHOENIX, Ariz. - There remains one game to play, perhaps the biggest that many of these players will ever play in.
But with the end of the season no longer on the horizon, but just days away, the subject of Stanford's post-Andrew Luck future is inevitable.
"There's no question, Andrew's going to leave a big hole in our offense," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football/Head Coach.
Luck, the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up, is not only an efficient passer and effective runner, but he has been given great control in play calling and holds enormous leadership responsibilities. And he has excelled in all of those roles in helping the Cardinal to an 11-1 record going into Monday's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.
"We want to take a lot of pressure off the quarterback position," Shaw said. "There's not going to be another Andrew Luck in college football for years to come, let alone on our team right now."
Next year's quarterback - sophomore Brett Nottingham is Luck's backup and heir apparent - will not have to shoulder all the responsibility of Luck. However, he should have plenty of support and offensive weapons, though the Fiesta Bowl depth chart shows 11 senior offensive and defensive starters.
"What I love about our team is we're going to have a really good offensive line coming back next year," Shaw said. "We have outstanding running backs coming back next year, and we'll have more speed on the outside next year, and we've got a lot of great players coming back on defense as well (including, as expected, the return of injured standout linebacker Shayne Skov)."
"We plan on being a very good total team, even maybe without a marquee quarterback, at least for now."
Center Sam Schwartzstein compared the player called to fill Luck's position with how Stepfan Taylor has taken over at running back after Toby Gerhart graduated. Gerhart set a school record for season rushing yards (1,871 in 2008), but Taylor has responded with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons.
"You're not going to be the one to totally match Andrew's abilities," Schwartzstein said. "So, it's just going to be: How does one of the quarterbacks create his own identity with the team? We have a lot of great quarterbacks that are going to have that opportunity."
* * *
Shaw and the starters took part in a media day session in the morning at the Camelback Inn. The format was much like the one used at the Super Bowl, in which each player had their own station and reporters could work the room at their own pace and according to their own interests.
The overriding themes among Oklahoma writers were variations of these questions:
How will you stop the Oklahoma State offense?
OSU has forced 42 turnovers, are you taking special precautions to protect the ball?
How smart are you guys?
On the latter subject, here is how linebacker Chase Thomas handled some of their academic questions:
Q: How has the team best used its collective intelligence?
Thomas: I definitely think our defense is pretty sophisticated for the college level. I guess it shows how much faith our coaches have in us as players. We know that we can understand it and we can grasp the concept of each scheme.
I think we have over eight different coverages over the years. We have various amounts of blitzes and stuff up front. The coaches realize what kind of players they have and know that we can handle all the information.
Q: Do you remember something way back in the fall that just really kicked your butt?
Thomas: My computer science class I took, Intro to Computer Science, and this Perception class I took this last quarter are probably the two hardest classes I have taken at Stanford, just because the Perception class went into great depth about the eye and neurons and stuff like that. I wasn't really expecting all of that.
Q: You have a bunch of smart kids on that campus obviously. Chelsea Clinton went there. Is it your perception that if you walk around as a football player on that campus, that it is at different than a state U?
Thomas: It's definitely different. No question about that. Andrew can walk in a classroom, no one will notice him. That's not to say football is not important at Stanford. Our fans have been great.
Everyone at the school has their own thing that they're incredible at. It doesn't have to be sports. My freshman roommate made apps for the iPhone.
* * *
Jordan Williamson will return to kickoff duties for the first time since he injured himself during warmups before the USC game on Oct. 29.
Williamson missed three games, before returning for placekicking duties in the Big Game, and against Notre Dame.
Sophomore Ben Rhyne, a backup punter, had handled kickoffs for the past four games.
Williamson said he's back to full strength and has been practicing kickoffs for the past two weeks. The sophomore and first-year starter from Austin, Texas, has made 12 of 15 of his field-goal tries this season and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection.
When he began at Westwood High School, Williamson had hoped to play soccer in college. But that changed when he was persuaded to join the football team by the varsity football coach, Anthony Wood.
Because the freshman football and soccer seasons were at the same time, Williamson went to one football practice per week and spent the other non-game days with the soccer team.
Though most high school teams use the kicking game only when they have to, and rarely know how to coach kickers, Wood became a mentor to Williamson, who credits him the most for his kicking career. Wood also tutored Jason Ricks, who kicked at Oklahoma State from 2004-08.
Williamson picked it up so well that he beat the rival McNeil High freshmen with a 42-yard field goal with three seconds left, and was subsequently moved up to varsity. That kick, more than any other, cemented his future in football.
One more thing to consider about Monday's game: The conditions are heavenly for kickers.
"A fully enclosed stadium with no winds," Williamson said. "Plus, the ball just flies here in Arizona."
* * *
Where does Stanford start in its hopes of stopping the Oklahoma State offense?
"You start with Blackmon," Shaw said. "The best receiver in the nation.
"He's great after the catch, he's a big physical kid. He makes tough catches look easy. And as soon as his feet hit the ground after making the catch, he's at full speed. He's a difference maker, he's a game-changer.
"You don't talk about stopping guys like him, you talk about trying to contain him. You talk about trying to limit the yards after catch, try not to give up the big play. And while you're doing that, you've got make sure you still have your run gaps because they've got a couple of good running backs. And then, hopefully, use our offense to keep their offense off the field.
* * *
Senior receiver Chris Owusu will not play after the last of a series of concussions ended his season at Oregon State on Nov. 5.
"We're very happy with how the doctors have treated him," Shaw said. "He's pre-med, he's going to be a doctor. He's a phenomenal person. If he plays football again, great. If he never plays football again, great. Our paramount concern is Chris' health in the future."
* * *
Many predict a high-scoring game between two of the top six highest-scoring offenses in the country. Perhaps in the mold of Baylor's 67-56 victory over Washington in the Alamo Bowl, a game that featured 1,397 total yards and 17 touchdowns?
"I got a little dizzy watching that game," Shaw said. "Hopefully, we'll play better defense than they played last night."
* * *
If Alabama beats undefeated LSU in the BCS Championship game, where does that leave Stanford, if it wins the Fiesta Bowl, in the argument for the best team?
"That is a great question that I don't have an answer for," Shaw said. "For us, we just concentrate on this game. We don't care where we're ranked after this game. We don't care what anybody else says. It just means that we are Fiesta Bowl champs. That's all we can care about."
* * *
Andrew Luck is approaching celebrity status, and consequently is being recognized in public.
"I try not to wear Stanford clothing when I go out," he said. "It's easier to walk around. Some people will notice me, some won't. I think it's just the nature of playing the quarterback position and having somewhat of a spotlight on you. But it's all right."
* * *
Tight end Coby Fleener had his breakout game in last season's Orange Bowl, catching six passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns in the 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech.
Fleener said there was no special gameplan for him in that game, but that his calls came as a reaction to what the Virginia Tech defense was allowing.
"It'd be nice to do it again," Fleener said. "Hopefully, we can beat the Orange Bowl numbers, but ultimately what we want is a win."
* * *
Ryan Hewitt is an accidental fullback, at least that's how he came to the position.
"Owen Marecic was our fullback a few years ago in freshman spring ball and he was playing both ways," said Hewitt, a junior who arrived at Stanford as a tight end. "He wanted to work more on the defensive side of the ball and I just stepped in as the fullback because there was really no other person to play it. I held my own and it became a permanent switch."
* * *
Pac-12 Conference teams are used to Stanford's three tight-end sets by now, but preparing for it is new to teams such as Oklahoma State, which probably has never faced many of the alignments before.
"Some of the old formations, they know what they're doing," said tight end Zach Ertz. "Some of the new ones, they have to rely on the base rules that most defenses use.
"They may be kind of hectic at first until they realize the formation. But then after a few seconds they get lined up and set. Within the conference, most of the teams were already game-planning for us to come out in that set. I don't know how Oklahoma State is going to react but I think we'll have a good fight."
* * *
It wasn't long ago that Stanford had to win in spite of its offensive line, not because of it. Outstanding quarterbacks such as John Elway and Trent Edwards were treated like pinadas during their years on The Farm. Now, the offensive line is one of the best in college football.
"We take a lot of pride in it," Schwartzstein said. "There are no stats for offensive line, but if there are zero sacks and 300 yards rushing, that's a huge deal for us. Those are kind of goals for us to have -- no stops on short yardage and make sure that our quarterback is staying healthy and our running backs get to the second level without being touched."
* * *
Despite two consecutive BCS bowl appearances and a current No. 4 ranking, Stanford remains the underdog, both in the betting lines and in the minds of those who have a difficult time regarding Stanford as a football power.
To which safety Michael Thomas responds:
"Anybody who still doubts Stanford football, they will be surprised."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics