Last year’s Washington matchup: Total domination.
This year: Don’t expect the same.
Stanford’s 65-21 football victory over the Huskies last season set the standard for the type of game Stanford aspires to play – a down-and-dirty power-running carnival.
Besides the fact that Stanford rushed for a school single-game record 446 yards – and had three rushers (Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney, and Anthony Wilkerson) over 90 yards – the game was notable because All-America quarterback Andrew Luck described it as his proudest performance.
Luck passed for only 169 yards – a figure that may have damaged his Heisman Trophy chances – while completing 16 of 21 passes for two touchdowns without an interception. But it wasn’t his passing that defined his performance. Rather, it was his play-calling. Luck came to the line of scrimmage with several options, and make the call that could best exploit the defensive scheme.
“We put a lot on him,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “We were changing plays, checking plays, putting three different front plays in the huddle, and he could throw all that out and change to a fourth play.”
Judging from the results, Stanford rarely took a snap against a bad look.
“He did not make a single mistake in that game,” Shaw said. “That is phenomenal.”
Stanford’s rushing success was largely a reflection of Luck’s ability to put the offense in the best position possible.
“Whenever we feel like we’re running the ball really well, we stay with it,” Shaw said. “We had a really good passing gameplan for that game, but we just put it in our back pocket.”
Washington, under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, switched to a 3-4 scheme this season that seems to better fit their personnel, Shaw said. Plus, the Huskies play a more physical style. Shaw is doubtful the Stanford will even attempt the volume of running plays featured in the 2011 rout.
“We don’t anticipate that happening again,” Shaw said. “We expect more of a balanced attack from us.”
Price to Pay?
Washington quarterback Keith Price is dangerous not just because he’s mobile, but because he also has a strong arm. The combination of the two adds to the demands facing the Stanford secondary on Thursday at 6 p.m. for their Pac-12 North showdown in Seattle (ESPN).
“The big thing is the defensive backs realizing that the average play is five or six seconds, but with this guy it might be seven or eight,” Shaw said. “He’s the X-factor, and when a quarterback can make the defensive backs cover for three more seconds, that’s tough.”
With school having begun Monday, demands on players has grown. The team had spent eight weeks on campus before players reported to class.
What is the key to handling the vast responsibilities of being a Stanford student-athlete?
“Time management,” Shaw said. “I’ve been harping on it for a week now. Guys make sure they get their sleep, guys make sure they eat enough and eat properly. Make sure they communicate with us when they have time constraints or time conflicts.
“Bottom line, when it’s time for academics, there should be nothing else in the world that matters. And when it’s time for football, there should be nothing else in the world that matters.”
The Future Showed Up
Outside linebacker Trent Murphy is 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds and finally is coming into his own as a redshirt junior.
Murphy arrived from Brophy Prep in Phoenix at 217 pounds. He sat out his first two years due to injuries and rehab. Last year, he established himself as a starter despite missing nearly two full seasons.
Going into the Fiesta Bowl, Shaw said “Trent has the ability to be one scary football player. It's scary to think how good he's going to be when he has an off-season to not just rehab, but truly train and continue to get more explosive. We're really excited about his future.”
Well, Murphy finally got a full off-season to prepare. He had six tackles, forced a fumble, had two tackles for loss, and one sack against Matt Barkley and USC in the Cardinal’s 21-14 victory.
“He’s been trying to gain weight for two years,” Shaw said. “He’s finally gotten there. He’s becoming a force and he’s going to continue to improve.”
Murphy will be one of those players who bears watching after the season. He could be a tempting pick in the NFL Draft, but also has up to two years of eligibility remaining.
“He’s one of those guys who we’ve seen mature on our defense,” Shaw. “He’s a valuable part of that group, of tough physical guys who have a lot of experience.”
Stanford has made it a priority to use the screen pass more often this season, Shaw said. It would accomplish two things, to get Stepfan Taylor out in space, and slow down the pass rush by giving the rushers something else to think about.
"Getting the ball to Stepfan in space is one our priorities," he said. "We won't be able to blow those guys off the line. We have to make sure to get positive yardage."
Kicking It Around
Jordan Williamson will be on the spot after missing three field-goal tries against USC, including one that was blocked. But Shaw reports his kicker has looked good since.
“The field goal is all about timing and technique,” Shaw said. “When he’s on, he’s as good as anybody in the country. When he’s not, then he’s not. He knows that. It’s all about consistency.
“He’s coming off a great week of practice. We’ve just got to make sure it transfers to the game.”
The team can’t fully simulate a game situation in practice, but it can try. Williamson has kicked against a live rush and with a play clock running down. In addition, they simulated timeouts, so that Williamson repeatedly has to leave the field and return, and recalibrate his step pattern.
Let's Make a Run for It
Remound Wright and Ricky Seale have combined for only nine carries and 24 yards rushing this season, but with Stepfan Taylor’s backup, Anthony Wilkerson, out for this game, Shaw promises that the two will receive much more playing time.
Against USC, neither player had received enough practice reps for the coaching staff to feel comfortable giving them a lot of responsibility. Plus, Taylor was in the midst of a 213-yard all-purpose performance, which kept them largely off the field. Now, with greater practice time, the opportunities for Wright and Seale are here.
“We only recruit complete backs,” Shaw said. “And those guys are complete backs. They’re very good at everything. They’re very good at pass protection,they can catch the ball. For those guys, it’s just about opportunities.”
The Trojan Horse
The play call on the go-ahead touchdown in Stanford’s 21-14 victory over USC, on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Josh Nunes to tight end Zach Ertz with 10:20 left, was aptly called “Trojan.”
However, that call had been in the playbook for a couple of years, and was used by Griff Whalen to score against Oregon last year.
Ertz paid special attention to improving his pass-catching ability during the off-season, going out with assistant equipment manager Ted Hanson to use the Jugs machine.
Ertz made an effort to catch 100 balls a day, including a number of one-handed catches each session.
While fellow tight end Coby Fleener took advantage of his speed to get open last year, Ertz uses strong breaks and cuts in his pass patterns.
"Coby really helped me more with the mental side of the game," Ertz said. "How to take care of your body, that kind of thing."
Safety in Numbers
Sophomore strong safety Jordan Richards has formed a strong partnership with free safety Ed Reynolds in the secondary. The two have combined for five interceptions this season.
Richards said it’s only fair.
“With the front seven that we have, we know we have to uphold our end of the bargain as a defense,” he said.
The Folsom, Calif. native said he was influenced by the big hitting of former teammate Delano Howell, now with the Buffalo Bills.
“Watching him, I said, ‘That’s how I want to play,’” Richards said. “I pride myself on being in the right spot to make big hits."
This week, Richards knows he has to pay attention to the receivers a little longer because of Price's ability to scramble.
"We need to be cognizant of where the receivers are," he said.
Stanford right tackle Cameron Fleming was disappointed to miss the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s ceremonial flight over the Bay Area last week.
“I didn’t know about it,” he said. “I just saw the pictures in the paper.”
Fleming has an interest in the space industry. His father was an Air Defense Officer and the family lived in Houston, NASA’s home base.
Fleming is majoring in aeronautics and astronautics. He once considered being an astronaut.
“But I was too big,” said the 6-6, 314-pounder.