Nov. 2, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - The most debated play-call of Stanford's riveting 56-48 triple-overtime epic over USC on Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum actually was a simple one to make.
That was the word from David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football/Head Coach, on his decision to go with Tyler Gaffney in a Wildcat formation from the USC 13-yard line with Stanford trailing 27-24.
ABC-TV commentator Kirk Herbstreit immediately questioned the wisdom of essentially taking quarterback Andrew Luck out of the play on a crucial third-and-8 with just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Gaffney gained only two yards and Stanford backup Eric Whitaker, a game-time sub for injured Jordan Williamson, kicked a 29-yard field goal on the next play to tie the game.
"Win, lose, or draw, that's the right call," Shaw said.
The coach set the scene: Trailing by three, a backup tackle in the game for injured Cameron Fleming, strong pressure from USC, and trying to attack the Tampa Two defense that leaves tight quarters for receivers in limited space near the goal-line.
"I've been going against this defense for a long time," Shaw said. "There are not a lot of throws you can make. We can't take a sack, we can't turn the ball over. If we lose yardage, that's a long field goal for a backup kicker."
The "wise choice," Shaw said, was to go with a counter play away from the USC strong safety, who had moved up to the line. The same play had worked for 15 yards earlier in the game.
"Granted, we've got the best quarterback in America, but dropping back and throwing the ball in a 25-yard area against guys that are dropping and playing the pass, that's futile," Shaw said. "If Tyler gets a first down, great. If he doesn't, we kick a field goal and tie the game late in the fourth quarter."
Shaw explained why he felt the need to suppress some hostility as he explained his reasoning.
"It's the second guessing of something that in my world, or the coaching world, is painfully obvious," he said. "It's the right call."
* * *
On a crucial situation, with Stanford facing a second-and-6 from the 9 in the first overtime, the call came in from the sideline for a hook-and-ladder pass to freshman Ty Montgomery. The only problem: Montgomery had never practiced the play.
"Good thing I pay attention in practice and meetings," he said.
The play always had been run through Chris Owusu, who had been knocked out of the game after taking a vicious hit over the middle in the fourth quarter.
Shaw admitted reservations before sending in the play, but felt it was the right call for that situation.
"We figured it was going to work," he said. "We thought at the very least we could get inside the 5-yard line, possibly score if we get the block and the safety doesn't come over the top."
Luck turned to Montgomery and yelled, "You know the play?" but didn't think the receiver heard him.
"I gave him a thumbs up, to try some ESP somehow," Luck said. "`You know what you're doing?' He gave me sort of a look and lined up. I'm thinking, `Just do it right."
Montgomery recalled that he had no time to feel nervous.
"Either I know what I'm doing or I don't," he said.
Montgomery pulled it off, catching a short pass and flipping the ball to Jeremy Stewart for a five-yard gain to the 4, creating a manageable third-and-1. Stanford scored three plays later.
"To his credit, he's very sharp kid," Luck said. "Since Day One he's asked the right questions in meetings. He's always seemed very insightful as a football mind and as a person. A lot of credit for him to step up in that situation."
* * *
The emotions of Luckwere on display through the ups and downs of the USC game.
After his interception Nickell Robey returned 33 yards for a touchdown with 3:08 left to give USC a 34-27 lead, Luck was "as irate as I've ever seen him," Shaw said. "For about 30 seconds."
Said Luck, "It's hard to let things go like that."
On the play, "I shouldn't have worked the side anyway," he said. "The safety buzzed underneath the route. It's a timing throw. If you're taking a hitch to throw it, it means you're late. It should be five steps and throw.
"I thought I could take a couple of hitches and throw on his outside shoulder. It was a predetermined decision that came out poorly. The guy made a good jump on it, and made an athletic play."
Luck immediately put his head in his hands as he walked off the field and stewed - for those 30 seconds.
"I was not concerned," Shaw said. "I've never ever seen him out of control. I've seen him upset. But he goes unbelievably quick from upset to focused. I wasn't worried one bit."
Said Luck, "I think my teammates were cheerleading me to get me back in the right state of mind. You can lean on them in tough times. David DeCastro was saying, `We can do it, there's still time on the clock.' That really helped lift me up."
Luck's demeanor changed from angry to encouraging, hitting teammates on the shoulder and tapping others on the chest.
"Let's go," he told them. "We're going to get it done."
Shaw quickly relayed six plays from the team's two-minute chart. Luck said, "OK," and the Cardinal was off on its tying drive.
"I looked up, three minutes, we've got the best player in America," Shaw recalled. "We're fine."
* * *
Stanford certainly suffered the pain of going toe-to-toe with USC, with Zach Ertz, Owusu, David Green, Fleming, and Jonathan Martin all having to be helped off the field with injuries.
But despite the injury-induced shifting of personnel, playcallers Pep Hamilton and Mike Bloomgren adapted well.
"The changes didn't keep anything from running smoothly for us," Luck said. "As the quarterback, when you see a guy go down, it's like, Next guy stand up. You can't worry about what could have been or what would happen."
Shaw began his weekly press luncheon Tuesday by praising his coaches. By losing Ertz on the opening kickoff, all of the three tight-end and jumbo sets had to be adjusted.
Hamilton handled the passing game and the red zone, and Bloomgreen called the run plays.
"Those two guys got us in the right place," Shaw said. "We had great discussions, quick discussions - they had to be quick in overtime. They did a phenomenal job."
Since Coby Fleener was lost for most of the Arizona game on Sept. 17, the coaching staff prepared for such moments by creating a depth chart for each of the offense's 25 personnel groupings. This allows quick reference for additional subs such as Drew Terrell or Griff Whalen, who have practiced the same routes that Ertz ran in certain situations.
"We've tried to brace ourselves of potential injury by using guys in different positions," Shaw said.
* * *
Will Ertz return for the Oregon State game? Or Owusu, or any of the other injured players? Shaw provided an injury report.
Ertz: Out at least two weeks.
Owusu: He did not suffer a concussion as originally feared and will play Saturday.
Green: Will play.
Martin: Will play.
Fleming: "We'll see."
Delano Howell: "Doubtful."
* * *
Green, the punter, suffered a concussion when he was hit away from the ball as he was approaching the play.
"He never saw the guy coming and he got hit in the back of the head," Shaw said. "There was no penalty called.
* * *
Injured outside linebacker Shayne Skov has been a valuable resource for his replacements, Jarek Lancaster and AJ Tarpley, after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Arizona.
Skov told them, "If you need help, I'm here."
He has lived up to that promise. He watches film with the linebackers and explains what to pay attention to. He'll provide tips on anything from timing the snap to looking for tendencies and how to defense certain plays.
"We're still young and learning what he's seeing," said Tarpley, a redshirt freshman.
Skov has not fallen into pity mode despite having every reason to do so as one of the defense's standout players.
"The thing about Shayne, he never puts his head down," Tarpley said. "He's always had his head up. He's not a selfish guy. He always wants the best for the team."
* * *
A big-time opponent, a big win, and big emotion. However, there is a game at Oregon State on Saturday. The Cardinal is well-versed on the importance moving on and not looking past any opponent.
"We've talked all year about building," Shaw said. "You win a big game, they only get bigger. You can't win a big game and stop playing. I think our guys understand that."
* * *
There was reason to be boisterous on the flight back to the Bay Area on Saturday night, but that's not how it turned out. Not after a draining four-hour game decided in overtime.
"There were a lot of tired suckers on that plane, coaches included," Shaw said. "A lot of guys slept, not a lot of conversation."
* * *
Other than Vlade Divac and assorted practitioners of the "The Beautiful Game," the flop is not often seen in American sporting circles - until Luck's dive in an attempt to attract a late-hit penalty after being pushed when he was out of bounds in the fourth quarter.
"Watching too much soccer."
* * *
Stanford's comeback was stirring, but the 48 points the Cardinal allowed were disconcerting, especially with an eye toward high-powered Oregon, which comes to Stanford on Nov. 12.
"We made it through some of their big plays," Shaw said. "And we made it through our mistakes. And when you play against really good teams, you've got to limit your mistakes. That's what we've got to concentrate on.
"How can we be more efficient? We can't leave ourselves vulnerable at different times. It was little things: a read here, technique there. But the energy and fire was there from start to finish."
Tarpley provided the defensive highlights with an interception of a Matt Barkley pass and a fumble recovery in the end zone during the third overtime to secure the victory.
"We obviously need to get better," Tarpley said. "All of our players, and the defense as a whole, needs to get more consistent. We're not necessarily getting grinded out, teams aren't pounding us. They're just getting those big plays.
"If one guy isn't sound on their gap, or has their integrity, that's when the ball squirts and that's what happened on most of their touchdowns. If we do our job every play instead of 90 percent of the time, we can shut down those plays."
* * *
Montgomery had his best game, catching five passes for 87 yards, including a 62-yard reception on a flea-flicker. All his catches came after halftime and, counting two kickoff returns, Montgomery finished with 131 all-purpose yards.
The Dallas native first caught the eye of then-assistant Shaw during the summer after his freshman year of high school, at Stanford's football camp.
"We thought he was a senior in high school," Shaw said.
Montgomery definitely impressed the staff, then and now.
"He's got strength, speed, quickness, great hands," Shaw said. "We've known for a long time that he was going to be a special kid."
The coaches told him what it would take to get into Stanford, from athletic and academic perspectives.
"We said, `Here's the roadmap.'" Shaw said. "And he followed it."
* * *
The injury to Ertz has caused some shifting of personnel, such as fullback Ryan Hewitt taking over some tight end responsibilities. But the loss of Ertz will not change the status of true freshman fullback Patrick Skov, who is planning to redshirt the season.
"I wouldn't do that to Patrick," Shaw said. "I wouldn't waste his freshman year for a few games."
* * *
Stanford's trip to Corvallis will not conjure up happy thoughts for Luck, who started in the Cardinal's 38-28 loss in its most recent appearance at Oregon State, in 2009.
What does Luck remember most?
"A tough place to play," he said. "Definitely, no fond memories. They put the beatdown on us the last time we were up there. So, we're expecting a fight."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics