Back To Work: Football News & Notes

It's hard to isolate just one thing to remedy on this football team as Buddy's Boys look to rebound from a tough loss in South Central last Saturday. But the old adage that "everything starts with the offensive line" appears a safe assessment of where to cast one's eyes. Not only is the group young, they are now without their starting center and must lineup first-year players at all interior positions...

We are sitting right about where I thought we'd be.  I thought there was a hard ceiling of three wins for this team this year, and the offensive line would be an insurmountable challenge that would remain unfixable.  Anything above three wins would take a huge upside surprise for this very young group... and it would take some good luck on the health front.

The season-ending injury to center Brian Head was precisely the type of thing this line could not stomach.  Though not a stellar performer, he was improving and had the most experience under his belt out of the starting interior trio.

"Brian was very, very steady," says offensive line coach Steve Morton.  "He had made a lot of progress and had a good grasp on the position."

There was a time in the spring or even the start of August camp when a starting fifth-year Drew Caylor at the center position was seen as a goal - a welcomed endpoint of progress for this line.  Caylor after all is a great athlete, and if he could learn the center position and take the reigns, then Head could move to one of the guard positions and bolster the experience and maturity on the line.  Instead we have Head on crutches on the sidelines, and Caylor has been thrust into a starting position for which he is sub-optimally prepared.

You see, Caylor had spent more than 50% of his snaps in practice the three weeks leading up to the USC game at the two tackle positions.  The injuries at that time to Mike Sullivan and Matt McClernan forced him into the role of the #2 tackle on both sides of the line.  Caylor's versatility helped tremendously, but he has not been able to devote the time needed to learn the position where he will have to start the remaining seven games of the year.  It's a load of pressure to put on the 6'6" Texan, but his play is now the greatest determinant of success or failure for the line and this offense.  Cardinalmaniacs™ everywhere should hope for a rapid ascension up his learning curve.

"Drew's role was greatly expanded," says Morton of the last two months of duty at three OL positions, plus long snapper.  "There have been a lot of things put on his plate.  Now he has to put all his focus on the center position.  He is cable of doing everything we want, and he brings some nuances to the position that Brian didn't.  Just as Brian could do some things that Drew won't do.  There won't be a change in what we do as an offensive line - just what we choose to do within our package.  We'll increase some things, decrease others."

Morton also recognizes that despite the public criticism of several missed blocks on his line last week, there is a greater shared responsibility among offensive personnel.  "The offensive line has given up four sacks this year," the coach informs.  "The guys at other positions have given up other sacks.  The backs have to block.  The quarterback has sacked himself."

"They played their asses off for 60 minutes," Morton continues, in reference to his offensive linemen.  "They played their asses off.  We were so much better in the USC game than in the San Jose State game - it's not even close.  Mistakes were made, but not a lack of effort.  If someone got through, for the most part it was teamwork.  That can't happen.  Somebody would zig while the other would zag.  Guys need to get comfortable with each other again, and that's something we have to go through now that Drew is in the middle instead of Brian."

When asked about the right tackle position, which appeared to endure the greatest torment last weekend, Morton only replied:  "It is what it is."  Neither starter Mike Sullivan nor second string Jon Cochran fared well.  Morton calls Cochran "a developing freshman who was good enough to start and win for us at BYU, and good enough to start and put us in a chance to win with two and a half minutes to go at Washington."

USC certainly was a lethal defensive opponent to put up against the right tackle and center positions, though.  Their defensive linemen were good enough to beat Stanford's counterparts straight up in single matchups.  That front four possessed incredible strength and quickness, and it appears that Washington State this week will give no breather.  Their defensive tackles are every bit as lethal, while the defensive ends are lighter and quicker than what USC presented.  Putting an even faster pass rush up against Stanford's right tackles is cause for serious heartburn throughout the Cardinal Nation.  But Mike Sullivan says that he, and the others on the line, will do something a little different this week.

"We're going to get a little more aggressive," the fifth-year senior, first-year starter says.  "We want to be a lot more aggressive on short passes.  Last week we were pushed back into the quarterback more than we would have liked.  Against speed moves, like I'll see against Washington State, the most important thing to do is to stay in front of your man and make him go through you.  Once he gets on your shoulder, he can squeeze down the pocket."

For his own part, Sullivan also admits that he was not at his best last Saturday.  "I was a little rusty," he offers.  "I feel a lot better this week - ready to go.  And honestly it feels great just to be back home.  It seems like forever since we played here."

Though Stanford fans have universally lamented the schedule of the past six weeks, the players are articulating just what it has meant to endure it.  "Our intensity was definitely higher coming into the season," says wide receiver Luke Powell.  "All the weeks off and away from home have drained us.  But the coaches have addressed that this week and really lit a fire under us."

Another question this week was how the team would rebound from such a decidedly lopsided loss at USC.  A year ago they dropped a scorcher at Arizona State, during which many of the older players on the team instigated finger-pointing and infighting.  Powell says he sees a different crew in 2003.

"I haven't seen all the bickering and arguing like there was last year," the fifth-year senior reveals.  "We're still together, and we think we can still do something in this conference.  I mean, how often does a team go through the Pac-10 undefeated.  We still think that we can string together wins and finish 2nd or 3rd.  I suppose we could even still win it with some help."

As Steve Morton might say of the offensive line - it is what it is.  So what can Powell and the rest of the skill players do to engender success in the offense?

"If I told you that, then Washington State would know what we're going to run this weekend," the elder receiver grins.  "USC is probably the most athletic team we will face this year, and now we should have the experience to make that adjustment.  That goes for protection, but it also goes for receivers getting open against better defensive backs."

Powell put up 172 receiving yards and two scores in the opener against San Jose State, and for a brief time led the nation in receiving.  But he has managed just 72 yards in his last three games, without any touchdowns.  "Honestly my routes weren't that good against San Jose State, but I still got open," he allows.  "The defenses we are facing now are a lot better.  I'm still confident in my abilities."

Is there anything he can fix to get open and help a young QB and OL?  "I've tried to rush the defensive back, while I need to try to set him up and get by him.  The faster I can get off the line, the faster I can give the quarterback a target," Powell answers.

While the passing game has been a justifiable concern the past three games, with an average of just 124 yards in the air, players and coaches alike seem to feel that the ground game is the key that can unlock success.  There needs to be a turnaround, with Stanford's running attack dropping each week in this young season.  The rushing yardage has declined in each and every game, by an average of 15%.  At this rate, the Cardinal will pick up just 73 yards on Saturday.

"We need to run the ball," says redshirt junior tight end Alex Smith.  "That's a must.  Once we can run the ball, it will open things up downfield."

And now for more et cetera notes on the Stanford team and upcoming game...

  • With Brian Head out of action Drew Caylor may be the starter, but you also need to look at where the depth will stand beyond the senior.  Redshirt freshman and former walk-on Tim Mattran took the bulk of the work this week as the team's #2 center in practices, but it would not be unprecedented for two injuries to befall one position in a game.  Recall the game at Texas in 1999, where a pair of center injuries forced true freshman Mike Holman into the game.  His redshirt was unnecessarily burned, and he resented that coaching staff forever as a result.  He later transferred to Rice.  It would not seem wise to burn Mikal Brewer's redshirt at this point if a parallel set of events presented themselves, and indeed Morton has a plan.  Josiah Vinson took some work at center this week on the second team OL, switching with Mattran at guard.  It is even more interesting to note that this started last week, before Head's injury occurred.  A contingency play with Vinson at center was already in the works...
  • One player who received quite a bit of criticism in Stanford's disappointing defensive effort last week was redshirt freshman starting strong safety Trevor Hooper.  The ferocious youngster who has made his reputation with incredible hits in both practices and games this fall encountered something new in his football career during the USC game, and it came early in the first quarter.  Running back Hershel Dennis carried the ball on a sweep to the left side and turned up the sideline for what would be a big gain and first down.  The run was one of the big plays that led to the Trojans' first score - you probably remember it.  What you may not remember is that Hooper put his head down and tried to lay the wood to Dennis just past the line of scrimmage.  Hooper had knocked players flat on their ass in the previous three games, including the Washington game, with his hits, but this time the Mountain View (CA) man bounced off in almost cartoonish fashion.  Hooper gave his best shot, and it was scarcely noticed by Dennis as he continued to gain speed up the sideline.  The Stanford safety was stunned at the result and was never the same the remainder of the game.  It was almost akin to the cutting of Samson's golden locks.  This weekend, it is worth keeping an eye on Hooper to see how he rebounds - to see if he regains his confidence and swagger.  He looked fine this week in practice, but he'll meet some better athletes Saturday on the field...
  • If you wondered why you didn't see defensive tackle Scott Scharff through the latter parts of Saturday's USC game, you aren't the only one who can't remember his participation that day.  Scharff suffered a concussion on a special teams play and didn't know which actor was set to be the next governor of California, much less what stadium he was in.  As a precaution the redshirt junior was held out of Tuesday's practice but is back to 100% participation.  There are no obvious after-effects that should hamper him against Washington State...
  • Another player who could not finish last Saturday's game was starting "Sam" linebacker Jared Newberry, who reinjured the knee that has bothered him off and on the last several weeks.  The redshirt junior spent the remainder of the game on an exercise bike, and the good news is that he did not tear or damage anything structurally.  Newberry however is likely to fight this knee and play with pain or problems the remainder of the season.  This week, he scarcely participated in any practices.  Tuesday he was almost completely held out.  Wednesday he was allowed just a little bit of work.  Yesterday he was allowed a little more, but still sat out most of the practice.  Today he will rest.  Tomorrow Newberry will see how the knee feels and how much he and the doctors think he can do.  The Minnesotan has a six game starting streak going back to last season, but if he is not able to start Saturday's game, the defense will have the very capable and exciting Jon Alston to take his spot.  Alston started five games last year.  Ironically, it was also the Washington State game at Stanford (the 5th game of the year) where Alston earned his first start of the 2002 season and his career...
  • Fans universally have cheered the hits and crushing blows that true freshman "Will" linebacker and special teams standout Michael Okwo levied late in the game against the Trojans.  Many fans are calling that Okwo should have played in the stead of either Kevin Schimmelmann or Michael Craven, both of whom were rather ineffective against USC's running game.  I agree to the extent that Okwo merits some time on the field.  Newberry's injury might force Craven to play a little on the weakside this Saturday and that might create an opening for Okwo there.  He is also an interesting consideration for the "X-backer" when Stanford goes to a 3-4 formation.  But I do not think Okwo was at all the answer for the sweeps that USC ran last weekend.  Pulling offensive linemen, tight ends and 230-pound backs were pancaking the quicker and lighter of Stanford's LBs, and I have a hard time believing that the six-foot true freshman Okwo would have fared any better.  In open space, I don't think Schimmelmann has done anything this year but surprise us positively.  Okwo is doing the same.  But defending the running game that SC ran was not a place where the true frosh would have had any success, in my opinion...
  • A lot of people are calling for David Marrero to get more touches, and I find myself in agreement.  He needs chances to break "the big one," not just a few paltry carries per game.  However, we have to live with the consequences for all the other times he will carry the ball that don't break a big play.  Keep in mind that the true frosh tailback picked up just seven yards in eight carries other than his 15-yard scoring scamper last week.  For the season, he is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, which significantly trails Kenneth Tolon (4.0) and J.R. Lemon (4.7).  If you are calling offensive plays for this anemic offense right now, do you take the likelihood of meager gains when you hand Marrero the ball, in order to get that one big gamebreaking play?  That is not an obvious call, which is why professional coaches run things rather than us amateurs...
  • On Tuesday I saw freshman fullback Emeka Nnoli running through more participation drills than I had seen at any time since he arrived on campus in August.  My interest was immediately piqued, and I sought out the obviously good breaking news on his medical clearance.  Turns out Nnoli was just pushing himself on the field without any clearance.  There have not been any positive developments with his medical situation, which to be clear is a condition/disease and not just a simple matter of blood pressure.  The news for which Nnoli and the Stanford coaching staff is waiting is whether medication can cure his condition and allow him to play.  Under his current physical state, he is at risk to his health if he sustains many hits.  There should be a determination of his future by the end of this calendar year.  At this point, I am not optimistic about Emeka Nnoli's chances to play football in college...
  • Washington State linebacker Will Derting, who leads the Cougars in tackles (37 in six games), was arrested on a DUI charge two Saturday's ago when he reparking a friend's truck.  Bill Doba issued a one-week suspension that conveniently kept Derting out of action for the classic collision against that classic Coug rival: "bye."  Way to make a stand, Billy!  Earlier this week Doba said that he did not know what the status for his star linebacker would be for Saturday's game, and that would depend on Thursday's arraignment and court hearing.  Without any explanation, the news came out yesterday that the court date was moved to November 4.  Doba now says that playing time determination for Derting (who will not start) will be a game day decision.  Game day decision?  With injuries, that's a fine way to make the call, but do you really need to feel which way the wind is blowing and look across the field at your opponent's warm-ups to make a disciplinary decision?  After all, the coach has had two weeks to chew on this one...
  • I do give Doba credit for giving the following opening statement this week when he was on a conference call with the Stanford media (all six of us): "It's not like I'm some kind of a genius, there was a darn good football team here left by Mike Price. So when I got the job it wasn't like the cupboard was bare."
  • We have a good idea of what Wazzu will do to the Card in the air (ranked first in the conference with 287.3 yards per game), but their ground game is equally lethal (second in the Pac-10, 146.5 ypg).  However, figuring the running back personnel won't be an easy chore for Stanford's defensive scouting preparation.  Starting RB Jermaine Green is not making the trip to Northern California due to a rib injury, and leading rusher Jonathan Smith has an ankle injury that will put him on the bench at the start of the game (though he is able to play and will be #2 for the Cougs).  The starter will be JC transfer Chris Bruhn, who happens to lead the team with a 6.9 per-carry average in the four games he has played this year.  At 6'3" Bruhn is a big back who has a knack for hitting the line of scrimmage quickly.  He has only lost four yards on 37 carries this year, though his handle on the pigskin may be suspect...

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