The Stretch Run: A Chance for Payback
Stanford is again in a unique end-of-season situation. A year after playing UCLA in consecutive games to punch their ticket to the Rose Bowl, the Cardinal are set to face archrival Notre Dame in a de facto exhibition game just one week before they play in the all-important Pac-12 championship.
If this were the NFL, David Shaw would almost certainly take his foot off the gas in this coming Saturday's regular season finale. In the world of college football, though, that isn't an option. This weekend's game presents Stanford's seniors with a one-time shot at revenge for last season's nightmare finish in South Bend, a controversial 20-13 Irish overtime victory on a dreary, wet South Bend evening. Trent Murphy zeroed in on this opportunity just minutes after the Cardinal secured their second consecutive Pac-12 North crown.
"We want to hand it to Notre Dame," he said on Saturday. "Especially for what they did to us last year."
Through the Years: Brian Kelly's Notre Dame Teams
The Irish (8-3) are significantly weaker on the defensive side of the ball this year. They're giving up 22.5 points per game, almost 10 more than their stellar 12.8-point allowance in 2012. Injuries have severely punished Brian Kelly's squad on both lines of scrimmage. There's a definite opportunity on the table for Stanford to administer decisive payback for 2012.
Though there were several critical moments of controversy last year (a personal foul flag against Usua Amanam that extended Notre Dame's tying drive, a phantom whistle from the crowd that derailed a potential Cardinal touchdown, and Stepfan Taylor's disputed final goal line dive), Shaw refused to focus on officiating during Monday's press conference.
"It's all about finishing," he said. "And in that overtime [last year], we didn't finish."
Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes struggled throughout the contest. Shaw reminisced on three Cardinal third down drops and Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees' excellent play in relief of injured quarterback Everett Golson.
"Tommy Rees came in and threw some lasers," Shaw said. "He came in and was on fire... Those critical plays that we didn't make and Notre Dame made were the real difference in the game, in my opinion."
Rees is Kelly's starting quarterback this year. He's been prone to turnovers throughout the campaign, and he may again be vulnerable to them given the depleted state of Notre Dame's offensive line. Center Nick Martin tore his MCL last week, meaning that Stanford's rugged front will have the opportunity to face a reserve at that crucial position for the first time since they punished USC's Cyrus Hobbi in 2012. For the Cardinal, capitalizing on these advantages will come down to maintaining an even keel through what has been a violent roller coaster ride. Exhilarating home wins over Oregon and Cal (clinching the Pac-12 North title) sandwiched a gut-wrenching loss for the ages at USC.
"The post-Oregon and post-USC mentalities are exactly the same," Shaw said. "You take the [positives and negatives] forward and apply them to next game."
That next game is for pride, and the one after that is for a championship.
Stanford's Health Advantage
After Stanford pounded Notre Dame 37-14 in 2010, Kelly vowed to bring his team up to physical par with Stanford. He admired the muscular juggernaut that Jim Harbaugh and Shannon Turley had created and used that display of strength as a template for his own Notre Dame program. The Irish obviously held their own in the trenches against Stanford last season, but replicating that feat this year will be very difficult for them. The Cardinal have managed to keep their roster almost completely healthy heading in the regular season finale, while Notre Dame hasn't.
For Stanford, only defensive linemen Ben Gardner and Ikenna Nwafor will miss this game. Yet again, the team is impressively healthy on the tail end of a rugged three-month schedule. Shaw credits the work of sports performance director Shannon Turley, team physician Dr. Jason Dragoo, head trainer Steve Bartlinski, and therapist Floyd Vito Cruz for this success.
"Just like other teams, we had a lot of guys get dinged up throughout the year," he said. "But we've been able to get everybody back in short time."
Stanford has also gradually tweaked its practice schedule as the year has progressed to put players in the best position to recover. Players occasionally skip a day of contact to maintain freshness: Josh Mauro did not don pads Wednesday after getting "kicked" on Tuesday, but he is expected to be fine for kickoff this weekend. Barry Browning has also seen limited action this week after bruising his shoulder against Cal, but he's also expected to be full-go soon.
"We try to be smart," Shaw said. "Because it's all about getting to Saturday."
Notre Dame's injury situation, meanwhile, is bleak. The aforementioned center situation has added to a bevy of problems along the offensive line, one of which has forced a true freshman into action at right guard. On the defensive side of the ball, stalwart Louis Nix will not play against Stanford, while the rest of the Irish defensive line is precariously thin.
Stanford football has posted a 100 percent graduation rate for the second consecutive year. With that, another American Football Coaches Association Academic Achievement Award trophy is on its way to The Farm.
"To put the numbers in front of [recruits and parents] shows that we are doing what we say we're doing," Shaw said. "We're not just putting lip service to it."
Meanwhile, Stanford placed 10 players on this year's Pac-12 All-Academic football teams, while another 15 received honorable mentions. Pat Skov (3.39 GPA, International Relations), Jordan Pratt (3.84, Engineering), Henry Anderson (3.56, Political Science), Jordan Richards (3.42, Public Policy), and Ben Rhyne (3.88, Engineering) all qualified for the first team.
- Several players' family members are in town for the Thanksgiving holiday. Stanford will hold a large team meal for the special day tomorrow before players are released to spend time with their families before the club enters game preparation mode on Black Friday.
- Some fourth-year draft eligible juniors (academic seniors) may choose to be honored at Saturday's Senior Day festivities at Stanford Stadium, even if there's still a chance that they'll return for a fifth year and be honored again at Senior Day in 2014. Guard David Yankey may be the most high-profile player in this bunch, though Shaw said he's ready for the jump to the NFL and that "he wouldn't be surprised" if Yankey did indeed declare for the draft. There's also a chance Henry Anderson may decide to move on to the next level, though Shaw has stated that he doesn't expect that to happen after No. 91 missed much of this season with a knee injury. Players who are considering declaring for the NFL Draft after this season will meet with Shaw to discuss their options within the next month.
- Shaw was especially pleased with the play of receiver Francis Owusu during Saturday's second half. The true freshman caught his first two career passes, registering nifty grabs on both plays. The second was a touchdown. He also again impressed on punt coverage. "Francis Owusu, I mean, wow," Shaw raved. "That Owusu speed has carried over."
- Sophomore defensive end Aziz Shittu, meanwhile, busted through the Cal line twice and narrowly missed a pair of sacks. "It was his best complete game as far as getting off the ball, getting off blocks, playing with energy, passion, and great technique," Shaw said. Shittu, who has struggled to move up the depth chart this year, figures to enter a critical offseason of development in just a few weeks.
- Stanford's offense has completed 29 passes that have gone for 25 yards or more, just two shy of their best mark of the Harbaugh-Shaw era (31 in 2011). Receiver Michael Rector has been an essential component of this explosiveness, and he's earned a significant uptick in playing time over the past two weeks. Shaw says that improved blocking abilities have been Rector's ticket to increased action. "He's always been really good at running routes," Shaw said. "He's just so doggone fast.... I have to give him a lot of credit for emphasizing the run blocking and being physical because that's making him a good football player."
- The Dallas Lloyd package has produced two turnovers already this year, and Stanford hasn't used the sophomore quarterback since his one-play appearance resulted in a fumble at Oregon State about a month ago. "Kevin [Hogan] does such a great job with [the package] also and we've gone back to just letting Kevin do it because it's less of a red flag," Shaw said. "But I don't think it's completely on the shelf."
- Key Stanford players have close family ties to the Cardinal's next two opponents. Hogan's father, sister, 10-20 cousins, and about five aunts and uncles attended Notre Dame. "I lost count," the quarterback joked. The Irish did not offer him a scholarship during the recruiting process.... Cornerback Alex Carter's dad and sister both wore Irish gear in South Bend for last year's Stanford-Notre Dame match-up.... Looking ahead one week, Phoenix-area native Trent Murphy's three sisters graduated from Arizona State. One is currently a graduate assistant coach for the women's basketball program, where she also played for the Sun Devils.
- Murphy, by the way, says he's not upset with his omission from the finalist lists of the Bednarik (best defensive player) and Butkus (best linebacker) Awards. Both selected UCLA's Anthony Barr as a finalist over him despite the fact that No. 93 has a significant edge over his Bruin counterpart in most statistical categories. A comparison is below. "Unless awards help you pass rush, I'm fine with where I am," Murphy said.
- When asked what he was thankful for this Thanksgiving, Shayne Skov had a simple answer: "Ka'Deem Carey and Rich Rod."
Trent Murphy v. Anthony Barr: Statistical Comparison
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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