State of Stanford: Washington Week

As Stanford ventures to the unfriendly territory of the Pacific Northwest, the team is blessed with relatively great health and the confidence produced by a 3-0 start. Practice for Thursday's game began on Monday, while the team will travel on Wednesday. Here's The Bootleg's weekly look into the Cardinal's inner workings.

Country Strong
I discovered a potentially new reason for the Stanford defensive front seven's dominance today. Supposedly, outside linebacker Trent Murphy once spent some free time wrestling an 800-pound cow.

"My mom wasn't too happy about it," he laughed. "I was able to push it back on its heels, and then I turned around and ran away as fast as I could."

Murphy, a senior with remaining eligibility from the Phoenix area, spent some of his time growing up roping steers and participating in "small rodeos" back home. Then, football became a priority so his focus shifted to roping quarterbacks. The Bootleg's own Jim "Emeritus" Rutter, who described Murphy as "country strong" just a couple months ago, was on to something with those words. Muscling up against an 800-pound farm animal certainly sounds more strenuous than squaring off against those 300-pound lightweights at tackle.

Like many of his defensive teammates, the 6-foot-6, 261-pound Murphy added considerable mass this past offseason. This year, he has churned out two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss through three games, well ahead of last season's impressive 6.5-sack, 10-TFL production.

"He was trying to gain weight for two years," David Shaw said. "He finally has. He has been a force. He has really matured over two years."

Stanford fans are now enjoying the fruits of that labor. Perhaps Shayne Skov should have also mentioned Murphy when he announced that he and Chase Thomas would treat Matt Barkley to a "sack lunch" back when the USC quarterback announced he would return to school last November.

The Matchup with Washington
The play of Murphy along with fellow outside 'backers Thomas and Alex Debniak will be instrumental this Thursday at Washington, when Stanford faces its first mobile quarterback of the season in the Huskies' Keith Price. Steve Sarkisian's team also features a collection of massive tight ends. None of those big boys are as fast as the Cardinal's Zach Ertz, but leader Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-6, 266) is athletic enough to play basketball for Lorenzo Romar (though he is a fouling machine). Quarterback containment and tight end coverage will both frequently fall to Stanford's linebackers.

Preparing for the Road
Venturing away from the comforts of home for the first time in 2012, Stanford should be extremely wary of Washington. Yes, the Cardinal have rushed for a season's worth of yardage (1,050) in their past three meetings with the Huskies. Yes, they will be running against light linebackers: two of the Huskies at that position are converted safeties.

Still, Stanford's quarterback is making his first start in a place famous for manufacturing crowd noise. CenturyLink Field, the Huskies' temporary home during their stadium reconstruction, has been credited as the loudest stadium in the NFL, pulsating at up to 116 decibels. A college game might not generate the same electricity as the Seahawks-Packers Monday Night Football matchup (the Simultaneous Possession Bowl) in the same stadium, but this Thursday night's "blackout" crowd is sure to bring its fair share of rowdiness. If it isn't dealt with properly, this noise has the potential to rip the wheels off the Stanford wagon before it has a chance to start rolling.

An integral part of the Cardinal's recent success running the football against Washington (446 yards last year) was Andrew Luck's ability to shift the team into the correct running play. As a result, the Huskies defense (and their fans, in the 2010 case) simply quit when the Farm Boys began trampling them. Shaw emphasized that non-verbal communication (primarily hand signals) at the line of scrimmage will be paramount should his team wish to duplicate that success, with Josh Nunes being the key cog.

"I don't anticipate us running for 400 yards," Shaw said. "I anticipate us running the ball effectively, though."

Ertz supported that notion, saying that Nunes is "very similar" to Luck in his capability to get Stanford into the right running plays.

The Huskies are still surrendering 4.5 yards per carry a year after their atrocious defense forced Sarkisian to fire the team's entire defensive coaching staff. The Cardinal, who had a "great passing game plan" ready for Washington last year, were able to put it in their "back pocket" because run dominance came so easily. But although this year's Washington linebackers are indeed lighter, Shaw expressed concern about improving 340-pound defensive lineman Semisi Tokohali and 317-pound man Danny Shelton. He said it will be difficult, if not impossible, to push both back.

Maybe Trent Murphy can join the offensive line if the Cardinal have trouble. He's dealt with far heavier beings.

School Starting
Monday marked the first day of class for Stanford's players and the first day of college for the Cardinal's freshmen. Shaw is most worried about the team's youngsters, who will face the "biggest challenge" of time management. He emphasized that players must learn to eat and sleep properly.

That's a relatively unknown facet of the college game that Luck mastered handily. Shaw said his former star quarterback always found a way to get at least nine hours of sleep, despite the rigors of academic life and the fact that "someone is always awake in the dorms." He continues to do so, except for some very rare exceptions. One came last week: Luck stayed up to watch Stanford finish off USC before his game against the Vikings the next day.

By the way, the team's new iPad playbooks allow players to watch film on their own time, which will help Stanford players in their quest to be as efficient with their time as possible during the school year. One thing that runs counter to efficiency, though: weeknight games.

"I would like [Thursday games] a lot better if they were before school started," Shaw said. "It's contradictory to our educational mission."

Open-field Tackling
Sophomore strong safety Jordan Richards, whose conference-best play has thrown his freshman struggles far into the rear-view mirror, credits the team's offseason focus on lower body flexibility as the biggest key to its improved open-field tackling. He also says that experience has taught him how to take better angles to the football.

Speaking of flexibility, an entire group of Stanford players incorporated yoga into their conditioning routine over the offseason. This collection included Stepfan Taylor, who is looking mighty nimble on the field.

Injury Report and Other Notes
- Anthony Wilkerson is definitely out this weekend against USC with a lower leg injury, but is progressing well. Shaw indicated there's a solid chance the running back will return in the next few weeks.

- Fullback Geoff Meinken, who severely injured his knee in Stanford's Spring Game, is also making progress. Shaw said he is probably a few weeks away. "It's going to be a close call" as to whether Meinken sees the field this season.

- Much has been made of Zach Ertz's soft hands this year. The tight end talked about catching 100 balls a day one-handed from the Jugs passing machine in the offseason.

- You can't make this up: the name of the Nunes-to-Ertz play that scored Stanford's game-winning touchdown against USC: "Trojan."

- Stanford will wear different cleats for the team's first game on an artificial Field Turf surface this year.

- In response to a writer's question, Shaw did acknowledge that late head coach Bill Walsh did call Washington's players "mercenaries" in 1994, but only in a pregame locker room speech whose contents were never supposed to be leaked. Shaw was a receiver on that Cardinal team.

David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.

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