One of the last things you would like to see heading into a late season college football game is your team battered and bandaged while your opponent is on the mend. That unfortunately is the outlook I see for this weekend's game against Oregon State. The Beavers have the luxury of healing up coming off a bye week while Stanford is facing its most serious injury setbacks of the year. One of the most costly injuries has come on the offensive line, with starting right guard Jeff Edwards out indefinitely with an MCL injury. That right guard position may now be the most closely watched by Cardinalmaniacs™ in Corvallis on Saturday.
Edwards left the Arizona State game in the first quarter, which thrust redshirt freshman (and classmate) Josiah Vinson into an every-down situation for the first time in his college career. The 312-pound athlete handled himself rather well, though his performance faded late in the game.
"The biggest adjustment was being on the field that many plays," Vinson describes. "When we were watching it on film the next day, I thought I did a good job in the first half and third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter I was so sloppy on my technique."
That was conditioning catching up with Vinson, a player who already started the fall behind the curve as he was recovering from a leg injury suffered in the spring. During that entire spring/summer off-season, Vinson was unable to take part in many conditioning activities. He could conduct upper body workouts but not full body. Then preseason camp began in August, and Vinson was not yet cleared to completely join the team. And as any former college athlete can tell you, it is not possible to play catch-up on conditioning during the season with school in session.
"I actually felt in pretty good shape when practices started this fall," the Texas lineman declares. "But I could not keep up with the cardio. I've gained about 10 pounds since the beginning of camp. That's hurt a bit."
Though the experience of playing nearly a full game last Saturday will be a giant step forward in his renewed game conditioning, it is unlikely that one week will revolutionize his cardiovascular readiness. Look for fellow redshirt frosh guard David Beall to play a significant role as OL coach Steve Morton rotates him regularly for Vinson Saturday. Though Beall has spent the last year at the left guard spot, he did fill in for at least one series on the right side in the fourth quarter of the ASU game when Vinson was sucking wind. That rotation will be more proactive in Corvallis, rather than reactive.
If you look at the official depth chart, it would appear that Beall is the only reserve for both guard positions at this time. The woefully thin offensive line continues, but look for a creative solution to come if Stanford needs to dig deeper still at right guard with another injury. Putative right tackle Jon Cochran could fill in at RG in a pinch, and there is in fact a school of thought that it is easier for a younger player like the 6'7" monolith to "play in a phone booth" early in his college career before he spends more extended time out on an island at the tackle position.
Depth and fresh legs are important, for sure, but Vinson is still the starter and the man who will primarily determine Stanford's success at right guard this weekend. He projects very confidently as he prepares for his first collegiate start.
"I'm pleased with my run blocking," Vinson states. "I think I came off the ball aggressively and finished through the whistle last weekend, which I enjoy. I'm really comfortable with the running game. There were some minor issues playing next to [center] Drew Caylor, just because I've been used to playing next to Tim Mattran in practices so often. But those are kinks you work out in a hurry. I feel like I'm going to do a good job, though I hope Jeff [Edwards] can get back soon."
Another troubling position of depth this weekend will be the wide receiver corps. We all know that true freshman 6'7" weapon Evan Moore is out with a dislocated shoulder, but two more wideouts are likely out for Saturday's game. One is redshirt junior Nick Sebes, who will unfortunately be back in Pennsylvania attending a funeral after a sudden death in the family. Another player's identity is being withheld, as he might have some chance to play through pain if the doctors can help him in Corvallis, though I think his contributions are improbable.
That drops Stanford's receiving group to five all of a sudden, and that includes veteran Brandon Royster, who has contributed mostly this year on special teams and during weekdays on the scout team. The redshirt junior was a consensus prep All-American out of Virginia just four years ago, but his knees have limited his success at Stanford during his college career. Necessity will call Royster back into the limelight this weekend, and fans and friends are all rooting for a rousing performance to help push his team to an upset victory.
Though Royster brings maturity and poise to the table, one thing he cannot replace from the missing Evan Moore is size. The absence of the 6'7" target takes away one of the rare size advantages the Cardinal enjoyed out on the perimeter. While most fans think of size differential against defensive backs as important on catching jump balls, there is a decisive advantage for bigger and stronger receivers getting off the line of scrimmage against press coverage.
Oregon State is a defense that loves to jam receivers at the line, and they can do that with their long defensive backs. Six of their eight DBs in the two-deep are six-feet or taller, including 6'4" starting cornerback Brandon Browner and 6'3" starting free safety Mitch Meeuwsen. By way of comparison Stanford only has two defensive backs in its two-deep taller than six-feet: Trevor Hooper (6'1") and Brandon Harrison (6'2"). Smaller receivers like a Luke Powell can spend a crucial second or two tangled at the line of scrimmage against the long arms of these aggressive OSU defensive backs, which throws timing on receiving routes into chaos.
With a somewhat pessimistic outlook on the passing game, Stanford offensive coordinator David Kelly has looked to the ground game this week for answers. Not only is Kelly hopeful that a new twist in the running attack could keep the Beavers off balance, but he also figures an innovation could help solve a long-standing problem the offensive coaches have struggled against all year.
"We worked on the option in the spring, in several different implementations, and we did so again in August camp," Kelly begins. "We did not find the right time and execution to bring it to the forefront, but we think the wishbone could help us this weekend. We think we can put Kenneth Tolon, J.R. Lemon and David Marrero all on the field at the same time and give Oregon State some problems. We're proud of our success in recent practices and are optimistic of how these three backs can help our offense at a time when our receivers are dwindling in numbers. And it finally answers the question we've been asking all year: how do we get all these backs into positions where they can help us in games."
Does Kelly really think it wise to talk about a new wrinkle like this before it is unveiled Saturday?
"What is Oregon State gonna do?" the savvy offensive coach replies sharply. "They don't have an inch of game film to help them prepare. We want this game badly this weekend, and so do they. It will come down to execution. It always does."
- One big body you would love to have available in your receiving arsenal this Saturday is 6'4" redshirt freshman David Lofton. Unfortunately he moved himself to quarterback a couple weeks ago, where he lingers deep at #4 or #5 on the depth chart. The Stanford offensive coaches are almost cartoonish this week, with the proverbial smoke coming out their ears. Lofton moved himself out of a position where he could have enjoyed incredible success as an individual athlete at Stanford, but this week he is depriving his team of a much-needed weapon in the receiving game. What a shame...
- On the subject of Evan Moore, there is some hope that he might still return in time for the regular season finale against Notre Dame. The medical staff was surprised that the big receiver did not incur more damage when his shoulder came out of the socket, and he appears to be a quick healer. Don't count on it, but it's possible...
- More good injury news: outside linebacker Jon Alston, who sat out almost the entirety of the Arizona State game after sustaining a deep thigh bruise on the opening kickoff, is on the mend. He practiced today for the first time this week, and the coaches were surprised at what he could do. Alston might already be 80% and could be close to 100% by gametime on Saturday...
- Another ailment from last weekend was the ankle injury to punter Eric Johnson. To allow him to walk through some drills this week, including the holding on field goals and PATs, he has been wearing a boot in practice. While railbirds took that early in the week to be a sign that Stanford will be without Johnson for the Oregon State game, the fifth-year specialist did some kicking this week. I expect him to at least take kickoffs this Saturday and possibly still punt. If Johnson cannot punt, then look for redshirt sophomore kicker Michael Sgroi to take over the duties. We have seen Sgroi boot some incredible punts in recent weeks in practices, and he might surprise in Corvallis...
- I have seen some fans pontificate that the 2003 Steven Jackson is not the same threat of the 2002 version, and though statistics might bear that out, I have a sinking feeling he could rip up something terrible against the Cardinal. No disrespect to the troika of tailbacks at USC or the dynamic duo of Maurice Drew and Tyler Ebell at UCLA, but Jackson is the most dangerous and complete back in the conference. Though he has stumbled in some individual performances, his 227 yards against Cal a few weeks ago still stands as the best single game in the conference this year. He also leads the Pac-10 in per-game rushing (124.2) and scoring (9.3) by very large margins. Jackson is big and physical, but also can fluidly catch the ball in the flat. And he has gamebreaking speed that can score from any spot on the field. He went crazy against Stanford last year for 230 net yards and has to be licking his chops for a repeat performance. One Stanford assistant said this week, "If I had to start an NFL club, Jackson is one of the first guys I would go out and get."
- The Oregon State defense is a force in its own right, as well. Three players to keep your eyes on Saturday are middle linebacker #51 Richard Seigler, defensive end #90 Bill Swancutt and defensive tackle #98 Dwan Edwards. Siegler (15.5) and Swancutt (13) both rank in the top five in the conference in tackles for loss. Siegler is also fifth in the Pac-10 in sacks with seven and a half. As a comparison, that 7.5 number is more than any two Stanford players combined through eight games...
- A less reputable league-leading category for the belligerent Beavs comes in the penalty column, where they outpace all others in the Pac-10 with 117.6 penalty yards per game. By comparison, Stanford is giving up 76.1 yards per game on penalties, and I do worry a little about the Cardinal's susceptibility to being sucked into the OSU style of play. Even in this past weekend's glorious win, I saw dead ball personal fouls called on Evan Moore and Taualai Fonoti, plus some serious extra-curricular skirmishes from Ismail Simpson. Discipline will be a key when the bad boy Beavs fire off before and after the whistle in this game...
- One of the fun sidebar stories in this game is the meeting between the current Stanford staff and their former co-defensive coordinator and DBs coach Mark Banker, who now leads the Oregon State defense. Banker left Stanford on amiable terms, but the Cardinal coaches took notice this week when Banker delivered a back-handed compliment in the media to his former mates. Banker said that the Stanford offense is no longer putting the Stanford defense in such bad field position. "Was he talking about last year's offense or this year's?" asks current offensive coordinator David Kelly with half a smile. "I'd very much like to know exactly what Mark meant by those comments."
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