A Real Rotation

Fans spent so much time discussing the late-game scare last week against Washington State that many missed a precipitous change in personnel on the field. Several reserve linebackers who had been shelved on the sideline this year got into the game with surprising frequency. For an explanation of this defensive shift, plus talk from OJ Atogwe on his humbling demotion, read on.

While there has been much focus on the curbed production of the Stanford offense in second half gameplay this year, there has been a quieter though equally disturbing trend late in games on the other side of the ball for the Cardinal.  Opposing teams have been increasingly running the ball as the game wears on, and doing so with great impact.  USC made its final surge and struck the go-ahead blow to win that famous contest on the back of Reggie Bush runs, then later ran out the final 3:30 of the clock by handing the ball to Bush every play.  When the Card hit the road for their first away game, they led into the fourth quarter but again suffered late defeat as Notre Dame ran and controlled the clock.  The Irish possessed the ball for more than 19 minutes in that second half, and sure enough, on the go-ahead touchdown drive they ran it all seven plays.  Last week in Pullman Stanford nearly let another game slip away as Jerome Harrison ran wild for Washington State in the second half, fueling a 14-0 run that put the Card back on their heels.

It would certainly help the defense in the second half if the offense could do a better job possessing the ball and putting points on the board, but there are other factors at work well within the defense's domain.  Poor tackling was the most obvious failing last week at Washington State, and we have seen that in other failed run-stopping efforts before.  Assignment football has waned as well.  To see those failings in the second halves of games, when they are absent or less pronounced in first halves, you logically point to the legs of your defenders in the fourth quarter.  Within the front seven, the defensive line has maintained a consistent rotation of its two-deep all year, but the starting linebackers have played massive minutes... until now.

Inside linebackers coach Tom Williams takes the responsibility squarely on his shoulders for limiting the rotation of his players.  His intentions were good coming into the season, but he found himself reticent to pull his high-performance starters when games rolled around in September.  Now he is making the adjustment and helping the Stanford defense for its stretch run the remainder of the season.

"It was my original intent to split the rep's 70/30 between the starters and reserves," Williams admits.  "But I didn't do a good job with that.  Especially in the two games we lost, the guys were worn out late."

The inside linebackers coach and outside coach Tom Quinn took assessment of the problem and made a concerted effort last week at Washington State to play the reserves more, spelling the starters.  In the interior, we see more of Michael Craven, Michael Okwo and Mike Silva in non-garbage action than at any other time this year.  Outside, Timi Wusu played in relief at the "rush" OLB position.  The only linebacker who did not rest in the game was Jared Newberry at the "Sam" position, but The Bootleg has learned that backup Emmanuel Awofadeju is planned to see some action today against Oregon.

While the Cougars did run well in the second half, Williams is convinced that the effort worked for the linebackers.  "Our starters were definitely fresh and made plays late in the game, especially on those goalline stands," the coach contends.  "They weren't perfect, but there wasn't a drop-off from the beginning of the game to the end of the game with their freshness.  They weren't worn out."

"I felt better in the fourth quarter," supports inside linebacker David Bergeron.  "Come the fourth quarter, I had a ton of energy.  I think all that helped the whole team out."

In Stanford's 3-4 defense, the linebackers race all over the field, whether they are blitzing from a variety of positions, dropping back in coverage or chasing down ballcarriers.  When you also consider that the Stanford schedule has this team playing nine straight weeks to close out the season without a bye, players will only fade as October turns to November.  The move to play more linebackers in the game to give the starters a breather makes sense, so why not employ the strategy weeks ago?

In some cases, the gap between a starter and his backup can be so significant that a coach fears the drop-off in consistency and productivity that will result.  During the season, that backup can improve and start to show things in practice that engender more trust from a coach.  Right now, Williams has a rising confidence in his insider 'backers.

"The bottom line is those guys are getting rep's," he comments.  "We expect if we have injuries to our starters, they will go in.  So why not get them into the ballgame now?"

Okwo, Craven and Silva have the ability and through repetitions are acquiring the experience.  But it was a personal fear for Williams that kept them on the sideline most of the first five games this fall.

"It's a superstition of mine that I don't like to screw with chemistry, and that's why I got away from my [70/30] plan," he shares.  "My concern is not that those guys will make mistakes, now, so much as screwing up the chemistry on the field with the starters."

Swallowing that superstition, Williams showed last week a willingness to play more of his players last week.  We expect the same, and maybe more of it, this week against Oregon.  It should be noted, though, that Craven played so much last week because of his role in the nickel defense.  When Washington State went to a single back or empty backfield and spread the field with receivers, the Cardinal put in their "robber" [nickel] package, which utilizes Craven.  Should the Ducks run more of their offense from a two-back set against Stanford, you would expect less nickel and consequently not as much Craven.  Furthermore, Silva and Craven both play at the same "Mike" inside linebacker position, and there is a zero-sum game for their playing time in backing up Bergeron.  Williams calls the two "co-starters" and believes in playing whoever performs the best that week in practices.  Silva had the better week this week, so we expect to see him primarily spell Bergeron in the base defense.

In the defensive backfield, fifth-year senior free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe officially was recorded as making the start last week in Pullman, but he in fact stood on the sideline early while sophomore Brandon Harrison took his position and Trevor Hooper played at Harrison's customary strong safety spot.  The official record doesn't reflect it, but the demotion broke a 27-game starting streak for the team captain and The Bootleg Magazine cover boy.  When we broke the news of the surprising move last week, fans were shocked - some were incredulous.  How can you bench one of the most experienced and respected players on the team?

Contrary to expectations, the move went off well.  It was intended to light a fire under the underperforming senior, and it did just that.  Atogwe admits he has been unhappy with his play this year, and he probably needed the wake-up call.

"I wasn't making enough plays for my liking.  I wasn't playing how I envisioned I should be playing this year," the senior safety reveals.  "I definitely didn't play well against Notre Dame."

His deep coverage execution was inconsistent, and he too frequently was freelancing outside the defense.  In one case, he lost containment and gave up the go-ahead touchdown in the Notre Dame game when he freelanced.  The cumulative mistakes of the season reached a breaking point for the Cardinal coaching staff after the loss in South Bend, and Atogwe was moved out of the first team defense.  The move rocked him.

"It was a humbling experience," he admits.  "You're a three-year starter and a fifth-year senior, then Coach Teevens tells you that you're not going to start.  That was tough."

The move by Teevens was risky.  Disciplining such a revered member of the roster could tear the fabric of the team to shreds and turn players against the coaches.  But in this case, the move paid off.

"I can't be the one to tell you for sure what they were trying to do," the senior says of the demotion.  "But it definitely lit a fire under me."

Atogwe came off the bench and led the team in both total (nine) and solo (eight) tackles, while recording a critical interception plus another fantastic pass breakup.  His play earned him Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week.  Still, Atogwe was not completely satisfied with his performance in Pullman.

"I missed a sack and a couple tackles.  I also missed some deep ball coverage," he details.  "Everybody is counting on me.  I have to clean that up."

While the Washington State game went well for Atogwe, a more intense test awaits him at home today when Oregon comes calling.  The Ducks rank second in the conference with an impressive 453 yards of offense per game, with prolific threats in the air and on the ground.  Their offense is just hitting its stride, and that should legitimately scare Cardinalmaniacs™.  For Atogwe, it's just the challenge he wants right now to test himself.

"It's definitely going to be a really big challenge.  They have a great offense - an explosive offense," he offers.  "It's a big challenge, but we'll be ready for it."

"Somebody told me once that big players make big plays in big games," Atogwe adds.  This just might be the biggest game of the year for the Cardinal defense, and as the team's top playmaker, this is indeed his focal moment.  The spotlight is bright, and all eyes will be on Atogwe today to measure him in this crucible contest.  Stay tuned.

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