Getting Ready for a Roadie

As we reach the end of two idle weeks since Stanford's last game, Cardinalmaniacs are bursting with questions. How is the team preparing for the elevation? The noise? The 3-3-5 defense? Are we really burning another redshirt this weekend? For these answers and much more, read the most complete report on the planet on your Stanford Cardinal football squad heading into Saturday's BYU game.

First of all, let's clear up the personnel notes from the week.  On the injury front, several players have returned to action.  Receiver David Lofton has fully participated all week, while center Tim Mattran has gotten himself back on track to help with the offensive line.  Also on the OL, right tackle Jon Cochran has played well throughout the week on an ankle he had rolled the previous week.  Strong safety Timi Wusu has moved from a rigid brace to a playing brace and is getting some flexibility back in his knee, but he may still be a week away from action.

The player that has drawn swarms of interest from Stanford fans on our message boards, though, has been defensive tackle Casey Carroll.  The redshirt sophomore strained his shoulder in the San Jose State game and was held out of workouts all of last week.  The good news is that he practiced both Wednesday and Thursday, with heavy repetitions both days.  He is on track to play this Saturday, which is big news for the Cardinal defense.

Cardinalmaniacs will next ask if the returned health of Carroll will remove the impending incineration of freshman Nick Frank's redshirt.  We broke the news this week that Frank was tabbed to play this Saturday by the Stanford coaches, and many fans took that to be a direct correlation to Carroll's injury.  Frank would be needed for the Cardinal to go four deep in the defensive interior, and that depth will be crucial to a sustained pass rush at the 4,500 feet of LaVell Edwards Stadium.

So I asked defensive tackles coach Dave Tipton after Thursday's practice if Carroll's return would change plans for Frank to play this weekend.  He emphatically shook his head.  "Not at all," the 15-year Cardinal coach replied.  "This is a long term decision for Nick and Stanford."

There you have it.  Nick Frank is still scheduled to play this weekend and through the remainder of the year.  It was telling that in Thursday's practice, even a healthy Casey Carroll did not keep Frank out of the defensive rotation.  The true freshman from New Orleans played at least a third of the snaps of the second team defense, alongside Scott Scharff.

There have been other moves on the depth chart this week as well, and they have also come on defense.  At the "Will" linebacker position, Michael Craven has made great gains.  Earlier in the week he was picking up some time at the second team spot which has previously been held by Michael Okwo.  By the end of the week, Craven has been seen taking the bulk of the rep's in the second unit.  There is no question he will see significant action this Saturday.  Do not expect to see him start, though, as Kevin Schimmelmann still holds that spot after his fantastic play in the team's season opener.

The other intriguing note is that true freshman cornerback Tim Sims, who just two weeks ago was switched from wide receiver, is getting some run on the second team defense.  It should be clearly indicated that the first team cornerback "pair" is actually three players.  Leigh Torrence, T.J. Rushing and Stanley Wilson are all just about even, and they play in different combinations in practices.  They are also of course the trio on the field in nickel situations.  The second team defense has been Sims and Calvin Armstrong this week, which is a strong statement to how quickly Sims is impressing the coaches.  The scout cornerbacks have been Nick Sanchez and Nick Silvas.

One final change in the practice rotation is that Michael Sgroi has started taking a bigger role in kickoffs this week.  He has boomed several shots out of the back of the endzone, but more important is the fact that the coaching and medical staffs are allowing him to increase his kicking load.  That's good news for the kicking game, but don't assume that Sgroi will take the role this Saturday.  His accuracy on kickoffs is still a concern to the coaches.  Punter Eric Johnson may not have the leg strength of Sgroi, but he has good height and placement.  When you then consider that the ball will naturally carry better at the altitude Saturday, Johnson looks like the man for the job.  Expect him to take the kickoffs at least this week, unless he fails to continue with his placement.

Unfriendly environment.  BYU is known as one of the toughest home stadiums in the West, and the crowd noise is a big part of that.  The stadium is not as large as some others in the Pac-10, but it sells out routinely and it puts the fans close to the field.  Cougar backers are also loud fans, despite their characteristic sobriety, and that could be trouble for a redshirt freshman quarterback in his first college road game.

"I've never really been heckled before," Trent Edwards admits.  "The crowd will be something different for me."

But Edwards and the other players have gone through a variety of exercises to help prepare them for Provo.  At the beginning of the week they were tested on their concentration while a tape recording of the BYU fight song was played, and images were flashed of LaVell Edwards Stadium and the fans.  Thursday's practice was entirely conducted with massive stereo speakers blasting music across the practice field while they conducted drills and scrimmages.  Though I doubt that Lenny Kravitz or Puff Daddy will be heard at LaVell's Lair this weekend, fewer surprises should be in store.

Elevation obsession.  Ever since this game was put on the schedule, Stanford fans have wondered about the effect the 4,500-foot altitude will have on the visiting Cardinal.  Conventional wisdom says that you need at least two weeks of practice and conditioning at such an environment to start to become acclimated; arriving two or even three days early will do no good.  In fact, the exhaustion and dehydration that come with exertion at this altitude could hurt the team leading up to Saturday's game.  The team will travel Friday and conduct only a light walk-through.

"We will go up there a day early just like we normally do," says head coach Buddy Teevens.  "Our research has told us that you feel a little tightness in your chest, but you become accustomed to that.  We will be playing a lot of players; there won't be as big an effect as if guys were to play all day long."

That is why depth at every position on the field is critical for this game.  Look for some rotation at every position on the defense, with heavy rotation in the front seven.  On offense there is ample depth at running back, wide receiver and tight end.  Both offensive guards can rotate easily as well.  Only the offensive tackle position lacks depth, though fifth-year senior Drew Caylor worked out extensively at both left and right tackle with the second team OL this week.  For the record, that makes six positions Caylor has manned in the last 12 months for the Cardinal.  He is playing both tackles and center this fall on offense, but he worked at defensive tackle and defensive end the previous spring and fall.  Finally don't forget that Caylor is your first team long snapper.  If pay-for-play were currently in place for college football players, I would say that this senior is due for a serious bonus... if not some overtime pay.

During the game, look for the players to be taking in a lot of fluids.  Dehydration is the fear the medical staff holds with his elevation, so players are being well hydrated the days leading up to the game as well as plans in-game.

Deep six the 3-3-5?  When analysts look at this game, most of the talk will center around Stanford's offense versus BYU's 3-3-5 defense brought by defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall from New Mexico.  The scheme should not be confused with a dime defense, simply sitting back with pass coverage backs to stop the big play.  BYU uses their defensive backs in a variety of fashions, including corner blitzes to pressure the quarterback.

"They can give you a lot of different looks," Teevens says.  "It's a pressure package.  And it's tough to replicate in practice.  They do a good job disguising their plays, which puts pressure on your quarterback to discern the plays at the line of scrimmage.  The offensive line needs to be able to protect in blitzing situations."

You couldn't draw up a more difficult scenario for Trent Edwards, but he is confident in the preparation and game plan his offensive coaches are delivering.  "The scout team has given us a good look, and the coaches have really prepared us," he opines.  "It's been good to have two weeks to prepare, for sure."

"Once the play occurs," he continues, "It resembles regular defenses you've seen before.  It's just before the snap you have the uncertainty.  But what people don't consider is that we have schemes that will put them off-balance.  We call it the Coach Cubit Chess Game.  It's a question of who will put whom back on their heels."

There is certainly a lot we've seen this week in practice from the offense that will surprise Stanford fans who watched the San Jose State game, as well as the BYU coaches who have scouted from that very tape.  But with a redshirt freshman quarterback and a handful of redshirt freshman offensive linemen, can timing and poise hold up to execute the creative playcalling?...

Looking for Luke.  It's easy to predict that Luke Powell will fall short Saturday of his 12 catches and 172 yards he produced in his opener.  BYU will have all eyes on the fifth-year senior dynamo and make sure he can't break loose.  But Powell doesn't expect double-teams to come from excessive safety help.  

"Their defense is already set up to not give up the big play," he explains.  "My two touchdowns [in the opener] came over the top because I could do that.  But this defense specifically keeps you from going long like that.  We'll take our shots when they're there, but we'll also take what they give us.  I'll expect a lot of things underneath, and breaking those plays after the catch won't be easy.  They move to the ball really well."

Special Senior Sentiments.  This is the first ever game between Stanford and BYU, and the matchup has special significance for at least three Cardinal players.  Seniors Kirk Chambers, Cooper Blackhurst and Drew Caylor are all Mormon, and no university is held higher than the "Y" for LDS football fans.  Chambers and Blackhurst also both hail from Utah.


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