Stanford was a program floating on clouds entering Saturday's game at Utah. The Cardinal may have even forgotten what it was like to lose. That hadn't happened to them in 364 days, after all. National title hopes and the dream of an undefeated season were still firmly intact, and their head coach had just further fired up an already-buzzing fan base with an impassioned retort aimed at a rival from the Pacific Northwest.
How quickly the mood can change.
Fast forward about 100 hours, and Stanford (5-1) is no longer undefeated. Suddenly, they're in a very precarious situation, hanging by a wisp from the clouds they floated on just four days ago. A once-mighty defensive line is now thin and hobbled at a particularly bad time: Undefeated UCLA is coming, with a visit to red-hot Oregon State and a much-anticipated rematch against Oregon looming after that.
Utah exposed Stanford's defense last week, and they used a nearly identical formula to the one UCLA employed against the Cardinal in last season's Pac-12 title game. One can be sure the Bruins are drawing up what they hope will be successful encore to the Utes' performance, so the pressure is on Stanford's defense to adapt in the same way that they did in the second half at Salt Lake City, when the Farm Boys finally stonewalled the Utes. The complication: the Baby Blue is more talented than Utah, especially with Brett Hundley's presence at the quarterback position.
Needed perspective must be applied here, though. Remember that at this point last season, Arizona roasted Stanford's defense to the tune of 48 points and 617 yards. The Cardinal subsequently tightened the screws to produce college football's most impressive defensive effort of the year (a shutdown of Oregon at Autzen Stadium) and The Farm's first Rose Bowl title since 1971. The pressure's now on to repeat that feat, though this year's version of the challenge presents unique complications.
A Decimated Defensive Line
Stanford's defensive success last season was rooted in dominance on the defensive front. When Henry Anderson routinely relocated the line of scrimmage in Eugene, a host of potential difficulties in defending the Ducks were rendered moot. But injuries have had a specific focus here in 2013, and it's fallen almost exclusively on the defensive line. The Farm Boys are now scrambling to replace Anderson (knee), a task which would be more manageable if David Parry were healthy. Instead, the nose tackle is playing through a lower abdominal issue while his back-up Ikenna Nwafor (leg) is shelved for several weeks. Meanwhile, defensive end Ben Gardner is battling through intense pain in his arm.
"It hurts like a son of gun," Shaw said.
Anderson, who was originally expected to miss 4-6 weeks, may miss slightly more time now: Shaw predicted Tuesday that he'll be back for either the Oregon game on November 7 or the USC contest November 16. The six-foot-six, 295-pound terror is expected to begin running and conditioning again this week.
Meanwhile, it appears that both Parry and Gardner will play through lingering issues for the indefinite future. Gardner undergoes frequent treatment for his arm injury, while the Cardinal is holding Parry out of practice until Wednesday for his body to at least partially recuperate. These nagging issues are compounded by a lack of trusted depth on the defensive line. Two weeks ago, defensive coordinator Derek Mason stressed to me that he "needed more" from youngsters Nate Lohn and Aziz Shittu so that he could employ a legitimate rotation. Shittu, however, saw action on only one unproductive play at Utah before being removed from the game. His development has obviously come along slower than Stanford's brass had hoped.
These issues certainly encouraged Mason to ask Shaw if tight end Luke Kaumatule could switch positions to defensive end after the loss to Utah. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Hawaiian, who was recruited to The Farm as a defensive player and only switched to offense after Shaw asked him to do so following the graduations of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, seemed content with the move.
"That sounds like fun," he told his coach.
Now, it sounds like the only thing standing in the way of Kaumatule and defensive end playing time is knowledge of the playbook.
"He has no idea what he's doing, but he's running around full speed and getting after it," Shaw smiled. "He brought us some energy and life on the defensive side. Now, we just have to get him pointed in the right direction."
Shaw said that he anticipates the move being permanent, at least for now. Kaumatule becomes the Cardinal's tallest defensive lineman, and his Saturday playing time will be determined by how well he practices this week following the sudden position switch. His bull-rushing motor, on excellent display during a pile-driving punt block against Arizona State earlier this year, certainly gives reason for optimism.
Randy Hart's defensive line certainly needs some of that right now: It's gone from Stanford's deepest unit (just a few months ago, the Cardinal were converting players away from it because of the oversupply) to the team's thinnest.
- Shaw said that Stanford's players, especially the older ones, are bothered by the Cardinal's loss to Utah. "Certain guys have an edge to them," he said. "What we put on film last week is not who we want to be."
- Joe Hemschoot was one of Stanford's solutions to Utah's swing passing attack in the second half. The senior linebacker, who has been taking some practice repetitions at nickel back since the second session of spring practice, rotated with Usua Amanam at that role to bring more physicality to the perimeter of the line of scrimmage when the Cardinal began aggressively challenging the Utes' outside blocks. Hemschoot intercepted a tipped pass in the flat before stumbling on the return. His explanation for the fall was simple: "Turf monster."
- Shaw was not pleased with a third down roughing-the-passer penalty called on Gardner that extended Utah's back-breaking 99-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. Unnecessary roughness? No, according to Stanford's coach. "It was a judgment that was unnecessarily rough," he said.
- Newark mayor and US Senate candidate Cory Booker was in the Bay Area around the time of Stanford's game against Washington, and Shaw wanted his former teammate to come speak to the team, but scheduling difficulties prevented that from happening. Still, Shaw remembered when Booker delivered a "riveting" talk to a Stanford team a few years ago. "It was one of the first true impulsive standing ovations from a team that I've seen," he said.
- Ty Montgomery tied Chris Owusu, Damon Dunn, and T.J. Rushing for the all-time Stanford record with his third career kickoff return for a touchdown against Utah. Shaw said that Owusu, who posted the second-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.36) at the 2011 NFL Combine, is faster than Montgomery, but he also noted that No. 7 is stronger and brings better balance to the table.
- Remember, Stanford still needs one more win to attain bowl
eligibility for the fifth consecutive season.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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