Sept. 12, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - The challenge will be formidable for Stanford when it plays No. 2 USC at Stanford Stadium in a Pac-12 opener on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
The matchup always is, though the Cardinal can claim three consecutive victories over the Trojans and four in the past five years.
However, the challenge is magnified when USC confronts the Cardinal with the receiver duo of All-America junior Robert Woods and All-Pac-12 sophomore Marqise Lee – a combination that Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football David Shaw says could be among the best of all time.
Asked if this was the best receiving duo he’s ever seen, Shaw said, “Yes, not even close.
“In all the years I was in the NFL and studied college wide receivers, and since I’ve been here studying different offenses, I’ve never seen a college team with two guys like this. There’s never been in the modern era.”
What sets them apart?
“There are three ‘explosions’ for a recever,” Shaw said. “There’s explosion off the ball, explosion into the cut, and explosion after the catch. Usually, they decrease, with the last one not as big as the two before.
“With Woods, all three are explosive. It’s like (former Ohio State and NFL star) Joey Galloway in his prime. You see the same thing from Marqise Lee, except a bigger version.”
With Heisman Trophy frontrunner Matt Barkley back at quarterback for his senior season, USC’s offense has even greater potential, because of Barkley’s increased knowledge of manipulating the offense at the line of scrimmage, to create better looks for his team.
Last year, Shaw said Stanford defended the Trojan recievers “OK” for much of the 56-48 triple-overtime thriller at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Last year, they combined for 16 catches, 183 yards and two touchdowns. In 2010, Woods had 12 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns.
“There were a couple of times we hemmed them in and they got out, which is going to happen with those guys,” Shaw said. “But for us, it’s about blocking and tackling. It’s about knowing where your help is and about funneling those guys to your help.
“It’s about minimizing the big plays. Hopefully, they catch it in front of you and you get help from your friends to bring him down on the ground.”
Stanford (2-0) has been exploited to some degree on plays like the bubble screen, where offenses try to isolate a fast playmaker one on one with a defender and hope the defender misses. It also is an attempt to neutralize Stanford’s pass rush, which may be the strength of the Cardinal defense. San Jose State and Duke also implemented the same strategy in Stanford’s first two games, and the Cardinal was mostly effective in stopping it.
“Hopefully, we got some practice at it,” Shaw said. “But it’s different with those guys.”
USC’s version is exponentially more dangerous, and Stanford knows it’s coming.
“We’re not leaving anyone on an island by themselves,” Stanford free safety Ed Reynolds said. “As a defensive backfield, we’re going to have to play sound, play within our rules, and stay on top. And if they catch the ball, we need to swarm.
“It’s not going to be a one man effort. It’s going to be 11 guys – the whole defense will be coming.”
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The most encouraging aspect of Stanford’s 50-13 victory over Duke, for Shaw, was the Cardinal’s ability to throw the ball downfield effectively when faced with a team that dared it to do just that.
Duke often produced nine players in the box to concentrate on stopping the run and forcing Stanford to pass. Quarterback Josh Nunes responded well by completing 16 of 30 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns.
What excited Shaw was not only the effectiveness of the Cardinal passing attack, but that opponents now have to prepare themselves for it too. Nunes threw deep to Ty Montgomery, and went downfield to tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. All must be accountable in an opponents’ film room.
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Freshman left tackle Andrus Peat received his most playing time to date, against Duke, and anticipates even more Saturday and beyond. David Yankey will continue to start at the position and shift to left guard, his starting position in 2011, when Peat comes into the game.
“I wouldn’t say easy,” Yankey said of shifting between positions. “But it’s getting easier with practice.
The biggest challenge is going back to tackle. You have so much more space to deal with and you’re dealing with guys who are a lot faster.”
Peat’s recovery from a preseason hand injury has allowed him to do more on the field and could have the cast removed next week.
“He had a setback with the hand during training camp and missed some time, which set him back,” Shaw said. “But in the 10 days previous to that game, he had been practicing much much better. I think he was confidence with the hand, and is confident with what he was doing.”
Yankey, who is on the Outland Trophy watch list, has handled his roles well. When he is playing alongside Peat, Yankey has taken it upon himself to make sure the freshman knows his role on each particular play. It’s similar to the coaching that Yankey received last year at left guard when he played alongside All-America tackle Jonathan Martin, now with the Miami Dolphins.
“We were nervous about it,” Shaw said. “But he’s done very well. He understands the big picture.”
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Fullback Ryan Hewitt, who has missed the first two games with an injury, is expected to return to action on Saturday.
Hewitt is a versatile player who is a receiving threat both from the fullback position and after shifting to tight end or slotback.
“If Hewitt’s ready to play, he’ll start,” Shaw said.
However, expect to continue to see Lee Ward and Patrick Skov in the fullback rotation. Ward is an outstanding lead blocker, as shown in his clearing block to set up Stepfan Taylor for a 13-yard second-quarter touchdown run against Duke.
“Hewitt poses a lot of problems for a defense because of what he can do because of his versatility,” Nunes said. “He adds that other dimension for a defense to be accountable.”
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Drew Terrell’s performances this season – highlighted by his 76-yard punt return barely a minute into the game against Duke – brought a smile to Shaw. Terrell also outwrestled a defender on a 19-yard touchdown catch. Terrell, a senior, had been a backup receiver before this season, and had never returned a kick for a score.
“I was happy for him because any time along the way, he could have gotten frustrated,” Shaw said. “But that day never came. He’s kept working and kept fighting, and he’s had two outstanding games back to back.”
Terrell had come close to breaking returns in the past, but a key block by Joe Hemschoot was the catalyst for this one. Hemschoot had been knocked down earlier on the play, but got up and reached to the blocking wall in time to clear out the final defender.
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Stanford’s run of success over USC has no bearing on this game, Shaw said.
“There’s no mental edge we have over USC,” Shaw said. “We always have to remind the players there’s nothing that matters before this game. There’s no such thing as momentum. What happened last year, happened, but it doesn’t have anything to do with this year.”
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A look at rosters from the season-opening weekend finds 28 former Cardinal on NFL rosters, including 18 who were active. The list includes 11 players from last year’s Fiesta Bowl team, including five active players: Johnson Bademosi (DB, Cleveland Browns), Coby Fleener (TE, Indianapolis Colts), Delano Howell (DB, Buffalo Bills), Andrew Luck (QB, Indianapolis Colts), Jonathan Martin (OT, Miami Dolphins).
“What it really shows is that we’ve done a great job recruiting,” Shaw said. “We’ve got guys that are Stanford caliber academically, that are NFL caliber athletically.
“The schemes that we run helped those guys to a certain degree. But at the same time, ask any NFL coach, they want the most explosive football players they can find, and they also want guys that aren’t going to make the mistakes that lose football games.
“I think our guys have shown they can be dependable, make plays when they are called upon to make plays and do everything they’re supposed to do.”
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Would Shaw go for a two-point conversion with a four-touchdown lead, as his predecessor Jim Harbaugh controversially did during a 55-21 victory over USC in 2009?
“I would love to have the option to think about it,” he said.
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With so much attention paid to Barkley, Nunes must be careful to avoid trying to outplay his counterpart.
“The worst thing he can try to do is try to compete with Matt Barkley,” Shaw said. “For Josh, it’s do what he’s been doing.”
For Stanford, that means getting to the team to the right play, getting rid of the ball quickly, and managing the running game and protections.
In short, “continue to play smart,” Shaw said.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics