By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - Given his hobbies include steer wrestling, it should come as no surprise that Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy spends a lot of time in opposing backfields. The 6-foot-6, 261-pound senior from Tempe, Ariz., recorded 10 tackles for loss last year, including 6.5 sacks. Through four games in 2012, Murphy has 5.5 tackles for losses and two sacks.
"He's the one guy on our defense that gets lost," said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "All he does is collapse the pocket from the short side of the field. I think he's got a chance to be a really special football player." Murphy showed that potential last week at Washington, where he intercepted a pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown, both career firsts.
"I definitely didn't surprise myself," he said. "I've kind of kicked myself a few times because that play has been there before in previous games, and either I just got my hand on the ball or I dropped it. So I was definitely happy to finally make that play."
Murphy showed good speed on the return and said he had no worries about reaching the end zone.
"They had a big scoreboard overhead, so I was just looking up at that and could tell he (Husky player) wasn't too close behind me," said Murphy. "If he was gaining on me, I would have probably put two arms around the ball because he was probably going for the strip."
As it turned out, it was the only touchdown the Cardinal produced in a 17-13 defeat. Stanford (3-1), ranked 18th, will look to get back on track Saturday afternoon against Arizona (3-2) on Reunion Homecoming Weekend at Stanford Stadium.
"It was definitely an exciting play," Murphy said. "People have been high-fiving me all week for it. It was one play out of the game and it didn't decide it, so it's hard to be too happy about it anymore."
The highly-regarded Cardinal defense played well except for allowing two big plays, but they were the difference in the outcome.
"Coach (Derek) Mason said it best," said Murphy. "He said we played 70 snaps out there, and 68 of those were fine. You don't play well for the entire game to let two plays decide the game. So for us, it's that consistency, playing sound football, tackling and guys just doing their jobs. You have to play the entire game great if you want to be a great defense."
Murphy does not receive the accolades of All-America outside linebacker Chase Thomas or inside linebacker Shayne Skov, but he is tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 19 and will start his 18th-consecutive game against the Wildcats.
"I don't worry about that too much," Murphy said. "If I wanted to be in the limelight I probably would have been a quarterback because that's who everyone watches. I just do my job. If I make the play, great. If those other guys make the play, great. As long as somebody's making it, I'm perfectly content with that."
Last week, the offense did not find consistent success against the inspired Huskies, putting added pressure on the defense. Murphy said the unit was never frustrated and just kept trying to make plays.
"You try not to let that bother you at all," he said. "That's going to happen to the best offense in the world in any game. They're going to have a three-and-out or it's going to take them a quarter to get going. So, as a defense, you have to be relentless. You just put your chin down and chop wood the whole game."
Murphy grew up five minutes from Arizona State, and his sister, Kayli, played basketball for the Sun Devils. Attending ASU was almost a no-brainer, until former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh came for a visit.
"Once I looked in Coach Harbaugh's eyes and knew he was serious about what he meant, I knew this was the place for me," said Murphy.
A standout at Brophy College Prep in Phoenix, where he also lettered in basketball and won a state discus title in track and field, Murphy has many friends and former teammates on the Arizona team. He is one of 10 players on the Cardinal roster from the state of Arizona.
"There's definitely some significance," he said of Saturday's game. "It's my home state, so I always kind of play up Arizona week for sure."
Murphy said it did not take long to get over the Washington loss. Last Saturday night, players ran wind sprints with extra energy, and every member of the team finished in their allotted time.
"That's kind of the best way to get any bad taste out of your mouth is to just get back to work," said Murphy. "That's kind of what we did. It was not an easy run. Some guys that would have a hard time making it, dug deep. They were diving across the lines and they made their times."
Besides, with eight regular-season games remaining, there is still plenty to play for this season.
"We fell down, but we've got to get back up and keep chugging," Murphy said. "They were a good team and they played well and we didn't. The season's long and you can't harp and obsess over one loss if you want to have any chance of being successful."
The defense will need to do its part Saturday against a potent Arizona offense that averages 538 yards, 10th-best in the nation, and 34 points. Senior quarterback Matt Scott leads the Pac-12 Conference and ranks fifth nationally with 1,606 passing yards, while elusive sophomore running back Ka'Deem Carey ranks third in the conference in rushing with 107 yards per game and has scored eight touchdowns.
"The biggest thing is just everybody doing their jobs," said Murphy. "We saw that last week when a couple guys didn't play sound football. We've got to contain that quarterback and tackle that running back. Those guys are on scholarship, too, so they're going to make a guy miss at some point. But if you have 11 hats get to the ball, they can't make all 11 miss."