Oct. 12, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - Geoff Meinken is too young to have seen John Riggins or Larry Csonka carry the football, but Stanford's backup fullback has harkened back to the hard-running days of those 1970's NFL stars.
If nothing else, he's earned some nicknames after his jolting collision with Colorado's Douglas Rippy during Saturday's 48-7 victory at Stanford Stadium.
Meinken rammed into the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Rippy so hard, the inside linebacker's helmet flew off as he was bowled over by the Cardinal junior.
The third-quarter play - Meinken's only carry - gained three yards and earned a first down, setting up a Tyler Gaffney scoring run that gave Stanford a 41-7 lead.
"He's a beast," said Stanford cornerback Johnson Bademosi.
"He brings 265 pounds to the party," said defensive end Ben Gardner. "And he brings it low and hard."
Meinken, who has five carries for 70 yards, including a long of 40, already is becoming something of a legend.
"Trust me, the nicknames have already started, from `John Riggins' to `Larry Csonka,'" said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football/Head Coach. "I don't know if he's starting those nicknames, but every time we hand the ball to him, something explosive happens."
Asked which hit was the best, his infamous hit on USC's Shareece Wright last year or Meinken's, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said the answer was easy.
"Geoff's for sure," he said.
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Former walk-on Griff Whalen has been starting at receiver all season, but had something of a breakout game Saturday with career-highs in catches (4) and yards (92), along with a 30-yard touchdown.
Whalen, a 6-foot-1 senior out of Sylvania, Ohio, was a standout quarterback and defensive back at Southview High as well as an all-region lacrosse player.
"A lot of walk-ons that come here are highly recruited by the Ivys and would have had a chance to be really really good in the Ivys," Shaw said. "Griff Whalen was one those guys. His highlight tape was phenomenal coming out of high school, but he wasn't as big or as fast as some other guys so he didn't get a lot of scholarship opportunities.
"I never thought he was too small. One of the crazy things about the time I spent in the NFL, you'd some guys like Calvin Johnson and you say, `Gosh.' And then you turn around and you see Wes Welker, and they're both at the Pro Bowl.
Fullback Ryan Hewitt said he can see the dynamic working on the field between roommates Luck and Whalen.
"They'll be running a play, it'll be a busted play, Andrew will be scrambling and next thing you know, Griff will be running a fade and Andrew will hit him on a fade," Hewitt said. "They absolutely play like they're roommates. It's not like Andrew favors Griff, but they almost know what each other's going to do."
Bademosi said Whalen is "comparable to the best receivers in this conference.
"He's a hard worker. He runs great routes. He's got great speed although people don't say things about that. He's got great hands, he's physical, he likes to get after it, and he's a competitor. He's definitely a competitor."
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Each week at his weekly press luncheon, Shaw is asked for an evaluation of Luck's performance with the hindsight of watching film.
In the 30th start of his heralded collegiate career, Luck may have outdone himself during a 48-7 victory over visiting Colorado on Saturday. At least, that's how Shaw felt.
"Andrew played the best game of his career Saturday," Shaw said. "It was just phenomenal, in every aspect. Unbelievable."
Luck completed 26 of 33 passes for 370 yards - the second-highest yardage total of his career - and fired three touchdown passes. But the impressive statistics had little to do with his coach's evaluation.
"Just the vision, the pocket movement, the ball placement," Shaw said. "Some of his deep passes went over people's outstretched hands and got back down before the safety could get there.
"It's funny, you pause the film, and when he's throwing the ball, it's mathematically impossible."
The coach moves his fingers along the table as if drawing a play.
"The receiver's here, the defender's there, and you say there's no way he gets the ball from here to there before this guy can go from here to there. It's just phenomenal. There was about three of those in the game.
"You can't coach it. He's one of the few guys on the planet that can do it."
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Bademosi was one of the nation's top young rugby players while growing up in Silver Spring, Md., playing on the U.S. national sides at the under-17 and U-19 age levels. Bademosi said he would be interested in resuming the sport after college.
"Rugby's going to be in the 2016 Olympics, so if I have the opportunity, I'm going to take it, depending on how football pans out," he said.
Bademosi said there's little chance he would suit up for Stanford's club team, though he's attended its games and has been encouraged by players to do so.
As for the relative toughness of players between the two sports, Bademosi said football players may have pads, but that doesn't make them any less tough than rugby, whose players don't wear pads.
"They definitely get after it in rugby," Bademosi said. "The thing about football is you have your pads, your helmet, your shoulder pads, and you use them as weapons. Whereas, in rugby, you don't have those so you have to tackle a little bit differently."
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Having a fullback catch the ball like a receiver is one of the luxuries of the Stanford offense. However, the dimension that Hewitt, who caught two touchdown passes Saturday and has 11 catches this year, is a natural byproduct of what the Cardinal wants to do.
"Every good West Coast team ever has had one," Shaw said. "We have high expectations and he surpassed our expectations, as far as being a physical blocker, being an outlet, and on some plays being the primary.
"We flex him out and he's run routes outside as a receiver. We put him in at tight end, we put him everywhere. As a ballcarrier, on third and short, I don't know if he's been stopped all year.
Hewitt has picked up first downs on all six carries this season - all in short yardage. Shaw likes Stanford's chances with Hewitt running behind fellow fullback Meinken behind right guard David DeCastro.
However, Hewitt said he likes to train like a receiver.
"I always joke around and do one-on-ones, but how often is a fullback going to run a fade," Hewitt said. "But I always do that in the off-season when we're working out."
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Washington State coach Paul Wulff said backup Marshall Lobbestael will start at quarterback, as he has since Jeff Tuel fractured his left, non-throwing, clavicle in the opener against Idaho State on Sept. 3.
However, Tuel has been working with the first team in practice this week and, though not cleared to play by Tuesday, could make his first appearance against visiting Stanford on Saturday.
"We always go into games thinking everybody's going to play," Shaw said. "We prepare for everybody. If they don't happen to play, that's fine, but we're not going to be surprised."
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When Michael Thomas intercepted an up-for-grabs floater by Colorado on the first play of the fourth quarter against Colorado, a sense of relief spread among the Cardinal secondary after the team's first interception of the season.
"It's always huge because if it doesn't happen, you get 100 questions on why it hasn't happened yet," Shaw said. "Now, it's happened. Let's try to get it some company."
The worrisome aspect of having no interceptions is that it could become enough of a distraction that players lose sight of their assignments in an effort to go after an interception, and was thankful his squad never got to that point.
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Shaw has made it clear that he doesn't concern himself with rankings and polls, but did take a stab at those who dropped Stanford to No. 5 on the coaches' poll behind a Wisconsin team that didn't even play.
"Dropping to a team that didn't play was very interesting," Shaw said. "It must have been a heck of a bye week."
Shaw said he spends 45 minutes to two hours each week compiling his rankings for the USA Today coaches' poll. He tries to watch as much college football as he can on Saturdays, as well as late-night highlights. He has a list of scores and will read recaps of games he hasn't seen.
"I put some thought into it," he said.
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Stanford had three players - Jeremy Stewart, Stepfan Taylor, and Gaffney - score on 1-yard runs against Colorado.
While praising all three and the need to have multiple threats in short-yardage, Shaw had special words for Stewart, the fifth-year senior who has eight career touchdowns, including three this season.
"I think Jeremy Stewart's got a knack, he's got a knack for being inside the 2-yard line," Shaw said. "His leg drive is very similar to Zack Crockett.
"When I was with the Oakland Raiders, Zack Crockett was a fullback for the entire game until you got inside the 5-yard line. Then, he was the best short yardage and goal-line ballcarrier in the NFL for about four years. Jeremy Stewart has that knack - his body lean, his leg drive. He's a physical runner, who finishes forward."
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Stanford defenders have 17 sacks this season for 139 yards in losses. But sacks are not necessarily the primary goal in pressuring the quarterback. The better gauge? Hits on the quarterback.
"The first guy to tell me that of course was Mr. (Al) Davis: `Ya gotta hit the quarterback. Ya gotta hit `em.'" Shaw recalled. "When you get a sack, the quarterback knows he's getting a sack and protects himself. When you get a hit on the quarterback, he's completely exposed. They feel those hits more than they feel the sack. That's when you make your point sometimes."
If Stanford is playing a passing team, 10-12 hits in a game would be a likely goal. The number would be fewer against a running team.
"We've been hard on guys on not being late - we've had two this year," Shaw said. "We're not going to hit them late, we're not going to be dirty, we're not going to be cheap. But we're going to try to get to the quarterback and get him on the ground as much as we can."
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Stanford's hardest hitter? Strong safety Delano Howell.
"There's no question," Shaw said. "Any of those defensive guys as much as they would want to say otherwise, would admit the same thing. This past game, Delano played about his best game. Just being on the sidelines and just hearing those pops, very refreshing."
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Hewitt, an erstwhile tight end, said he owes much to the knowledge he gained while an understudy to fullback Owen Marecic last season.
"He taught me how to block, how to play," Hewitt said. "When I first got moved to fullback, I really didn't know what to do, how to block, where to be. Watching him and asking him questions, he taught me really everything. He was a great teacher."
Hewitt said he was more than willing to play the role of student apprentice.
"I had to be," he said. "I wouldn't have known how to play if I didn't learn from Owen."
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Hewitt's position change didn't come with deep discussion. Rather, it came without fanfare of any kind.
"It was first or second day of spring ball my freshman year," said the junior. "Coach Harbaugh said, `Ryan, do you want to take some reps at fullback?' I said, `Yeah, absolutely.' So, he put me in there, and I just kind of stayed there."
On the differences between fullback and tight end:
"Tight end, I wouldn't say it's a less physical position, because it absolutely isn't," Hewitt said. "You're hitting just as often. But it's a different type of contact, from two yards away versus eight yards away."
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Has Stanford played its best game?
"I think we're close," Hewitt said. "We've put together good quarters, and put together good drives, but we've not played a full game yet."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics