Despite the dominant nature of Stanford's 21-3 Big Game victory over Cal, David Shaw was still bothered by his offense's lack of second half points during his weekly meeting with the media.
"Offensively, we made too many mistakes in the passing game that we haven't made at home," he said. "What got us is we had so many more opportunities to score."
The Cardinal finished the game with the same lead that they held at halftime, despite an epic performance from their defense that limited Cal to just three rushing yards. These second half concerns killed the buzz created by a 183-yard second quarter, possibly the Farm Boys' best offensive frame to this point of the 2012 season.
Help finishing may be on the way, though: top wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who injured an undisclosed part of his leg October 6 against Arizona, made it through his first short practice Monday. Pending reevaluation in about two days, Montgomery could possibly return for the Cardinal's home game against defensively porous Washington State Saturday.
He would reinforce seniors Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson, who impressed coaches with a career-high three-catch performance and "extremely good" run blocking downfield. Shaw said true freshman Kodi Whitfield, who is still looking for his first career catch, is on the cusp of making a big contribution.
"Kodi's been playing great on special teams and offense," he said. "The ball just hasn't come his way yet."
Whitfield did draw a pass interference penalty against Cal. Six-foot-four sophomore Devon Cajuste also saw his first career action in that game.
Expanding the Arsenal Across the Board
Stanford wide receiver spots are not the only ones in shift and development. Based on Shaw's comments regarding hybrid speedster Kelsey Young, expect the Cardinal to expand the utilization of its bevy of weapons at all offensive skill positions.
"Kelsey is a playmaker. He had a great third down conversion late in the [Cal] game on a fly sweep," Shaw said. "He's like [sophomore quarterback] Kevin Hogan for me. We will create packages for him."
Despite entering Big Game averaging 17.4 yards across five carries, Young only ran the ball twice for eight yards against the Bears. He was targeted deep as a receiver, though, and was part of a six ballcarrier operation that represented the most diverse Stanford rushing attack of the season. Shaw indicated the primary reason for this diversity was to keep Stepfan Taylor fresh. It's also apparent the Cardinal's successful 252-yard ground pounding was fueled by differing looks and formations flashed in Cal's direction.
Stanford also benefited from a novel mix-up at the quarterback position, where the sophomore Hogan was given the liberty to throw the ball in his limited action. He responded with a nine-yard touchdown strike to Levine Toilolo while on the run. Shaw admitted that Stanford had been setting up Hogan's pass "to a certain degree" by only having him run in his previous action.
"The line sold the run really well," Hogan said.
Shaw emphasized that the playing time "litmus test" for Young, Hogan, and fellow sophomore running back Remound Wright is practice. Their performance there will either increase or detract from their actual game repetitions moving forward. Playing time in Saturday's contest against Washington State, a team that is especially weak against the run, should provide a good gauge of the trio's week-to-week improvement, at least in the eyes of the coaching staff.
Brett Nottingham is still listed as Josh Nunes' backup on Stanford's depth chart, but Shaw would not expressly certify that the sophomore would be the go-to man should Nunes get hurt.
"Let's hope we don't have to find out," he said. "Brett is ready to go. He has done some great things in practice. We would see a combination of [Nottingham and Hogan]."
The Cardinal, meanwhile, are still looking for better play from Nunes. His 16-31, 214-yard performance slightly dropped his passer efficiency figure to 118.3, still significantly behind even that of Cal's Zach Maynard (131.5). Shaw has stated that a 60 percent completion percentage is his goal for Stanford at the quarterback position. Nunes dipped slightly to exactly 53 percent Saturday.
"[Nunes] can do so much better," Shaw said.
Stellar Pass Protection
Stanford's offensive line surrendered one sack for a loss of only one yard against Cal, keeping the unit at the top of the Pac-12 statistics in terms of pass protection. The Cardinal have given up only seven sacks through their seven games, two fewer than USC. Remarkably, four of the nine sacks that USC has given up on the season came against Stanford.
Shaw expressed satisfaction in the way that his line has gelled, particularly with its improved play at the guard positions manned by Khalil Wilkes and Kevin Danser. He also was quick to credit Stepfan Taylor, calling him the best pass-blocking running back in the Pac-12. Coaches have said that No. 33 didn't miss a single pass block all of last season, and he has certainly been rock solid again here in 2012.
Much of the protection success was attributed to the fact that Stanford has been almost completely injury-free up front this season, a phenomenon attributed to some luck, excellent conditioning, and the Cardinal's requirement to make all of its linemen wear knee braces.
There were occasional dings that tested Stanford's depth during Big Game. When center Sam Schwartzstein was forced to exit for a play due to helmet loss, junior Conor McFadden spelled a down of solid relief while the Cardinal was lined up in a shotgun formation.
"He really rifled the snap back there," Nunes laughed.
Left tackle David Yankey also missed a play after a minor shake-up put a scare in coaches. When the junior briefly went to the ground, Shaw said there was "collective silence in our headsets, except for [offensive coordinator] Pep [Hamilton.] He said something I can't repeat."
According to the coaching staff, massive 325-pound true freshman guard Josh Garnett has opened eyes with his considerable progress. He has even seen action at fullback in Stanford's 'Hulk' package.
Alex Carter is a Starter
Stanford will be tested by a Mike Leach-coached Washington State team that passes on more than 70 percent of its downs Saturday, and they'll be going to battle starting a true freshman at one of the starting cornerback positions for the second straight game. Alex Carter got the nod over Barry Browning against Cal, performed well, and will immediately have a chance to improve upon his first performance against a pass-first spread, which didn't go so well.
Carter was thrown into the fire against a pass-happy Arizona team following Terrence Brown's early concussion October 6. The Cardinal surrendered 492 yards through the air. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason certainly hopes experience from that debacle will help in shutting down Cougars' quarterback Jeff Tuel and his fellow Central Valley product, stud receiver Marquess Wilson.
"Hopefully this will be the week for my first interception," Carter said.
He certainly has the necessary athleticism to live up to the challenge of a pass-first (almost pass-only) offense. When Stanford first began recruiting the Virginia native, Carter boasted a 10 foot broad jump, a 4.4 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vertical leap, and under 10 percent body fat.
"Those were all NFL combine-caliber numbers," Shaw said. "At age 17."
Like his teammate Rashad-Patterson, Carter was a track star in high school. He was clocked at 10.9 in the 100-yard dash. His father, Tom, starred as a safety at Notre Dame, and acknowledged Stanford was "robbed" in South Bend this season even though he wore Irish gear to the game. Despite Alex Carter's place in the Cardinal program, most of his family still wears Notre Dame garb except his sister, who's an Oregon fan because of the Ducks' creative uniform combinations.
Kick Return Carousel
With Montgomery sidelined, Carter, Wright, and Young have all lined up deep as kick returners, though Carter is the only back-up to have gotten a chance to run one out of the end zone. Shaw gave no indication regarding the future of the position, though Montgomery's return - when it does occur - is likely to play a major factor.
Spider 3Y Banana: Power Outage
A year after grabbing 34 passes for 282 yards, Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt - a former high school baseball player - has caught only three passes for 19 yards in 2012. He's on pace to attain only about a sixth of last season's receiving production, thanks in large part to the fact that opponents are now keying on the "Spider 3Y Banana" flat pass that was Hewitt's bread and butter play in 2011.
ESPN analyst and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden made the play famous in his "Quarterback Camp" segment with Andrew Luck. Ever since then, Hewitt says opposing defenses have usually assigned a defender to watch the flat where he used to roam free for an easy pass out of play-action.
There is good news regarding this equation for Stanford: because at least one defender is at least slightly preoccupied with the play, Hewitt says the Cardinal's running backs have enjoyed bigger running gaps as a result. This was certainly apparent against Cal, when Stepfan Taylor averaged 6.8 yards per rush. If Washington State also pays too much attention to a potential Hewitt pass play, they'll be in trouble, too: the Cougars aren't good against the run to begin with, surrendering almost 4.5 yards per carry this season.
Washington State isn't good at running the ball themselves, either. The Cougars have barely scratched out 2.0 yards per carry, so it's sure to be a pass-fest when Leach's club has the ball Saturday. Stanford's hot pass rush will try to tee off against an offensive line that has surrendered 23 sacks already this season.
"It looked like what it felt like on defense," Shaw said of his club's nasty Big Game D. "We didn't have two guys play great. We had nine."
Offensively, though, Stanford feels less than satisfied.
"We haven't even come lose to playing four quarters of good football," Hewitt said.
Nunes was asked which team would win the World Series. "Giants," was the quarterback's one-word reply.
That'll earn the Southern California product (who cheered for Stanford - and not USC - growing up) a few friends in the Bay Area.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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