Gameday News and Notes

Here are the quick hits up and down the offense and defense for all you need before today's Pac-10 road opener for Stanford. Will star linebacker Michael Okwo play today? What will the Cardinal do at the running back position? What is the key to finding offensive success today? Where does Stanford find confidence in playing in Pullman? Read on for all this, and much more.

  • By gameday, one of the biggest building questions on the mind of every Cardinalmaniac™ is injuries.  That is a bigger question this week than it has been in several weeks this fall.  Walt Harris continues to keep a tight lid on injury information, but we can report a telling sign from Wednesday's practice.  Keep in mind that Thursday practices and the Friday walk-throughs have been thus far been closed this year, which leaves Wednesday as our last chance to observe Stanford players in action.  It is Harris' pattern to practice his team on Wednesday in full pads, but this week saw the players in shorts.  Moreover, they did not run their customary sprints late in practice.  A solid dozen players, including at least seven starters, were donning either yellow or green injury-indicative jerseys, and Harris was obviously cognizant of that situation in how he ran the Wednesday workout.
  • The biggest injury story for both Stanford and Washington State this week come at linebacker.  The Cougars are expected to miss senior middle linebacker Will Derting today, who injured his MCL against Oregon State and may miss the entire month of October.  Derting is his team's biggest defensive playmaker and was a preseason pick by at least one publication to be the Pac-10 defensive player of the year.  WSU will look to a pair of true freshmen, both from Texas, to fill the void.  On the Stanford side, junior inside linebacker Michael Okwo was injured in the first half last week against Oregon and did not return.  A team captain for the game, Okwo did not even walk out to the middle of the field after halftime.  Harris offered up his customary "I don't know" when asked Thursday if Okwo would be available today in Pullman.  We believe that the third-year 'backer will play today for Stanford.  His presence is important for the Cardinal, with an unmatched combination of reaction time, closing speed, tackling ability and overall ferocity.  "Mike's one of the most explosive players I've ever had the privilege to be around," Harris praises.
  • Stanford might see Okwo on the field today and breathe a sigh of relief.  They might get back another player or two, as well.  But the sting is still felt sharply from the long-term losses of two starters: fifth-year senior defensive end Casey Carroll and junior wide receiver Evan Moore.  Those were two playmakers that both coaches and teammates knew would make big impacts on the field this fall.  "We lost two of who we thought were going to be outstanding players, and I don't think we have been able to consistently replace them," Harris comments.  "We replaced Casey with a redshirt freshman [Gustav Rydstedt], who has never played a down.  Then we were replacing Evan with a variety of people, and one of them [Justin McCullum] got hurt...  We are struggling to make that part of the offensive team productive."  Most fans have come to terms with how big a loss Moore is to the offense.  Simply put, he is the biggest weapon - both figuratively and literally - on the entire field for the Cardinal offense.  Points come off the board every game he cannot play.  But few may appreciate what Carroll's absence has meant.  Before the Oregon game, Harris called Carroll the "best knee-bender" he has ever had on a football team.  What does that football parlance mean?  Battles at the line of scrimmage are won with leverage, and the Cardinal head coach is saying that Carroll played lower better than any other lineman he has coached.
  • All the talk on the above injuries, plus those we have seen at quarterback, center and offensive tackle, is justified.  But when is the last time anybody lamented the loss of redshirt junior free safety Trevor Hooper?  In a defensive backfield that lost three starters to the NFL and is struggling this fall against the pass, Hooper was a player with 11 games of starting experience coming into the season.  A shoulder dislocation took him out early in the opener at Navy, which thrust classmate David Lofton into action.  Lofton has more size and is hailed by most fans as a better athlete, but he only switched to safety a year ago and is currently learning on the job.  Whether Lofton's innate athletic ability translates into football speed and playmaking ability remains to be seen, but he at this time has struggles executing in coverage and assignments.  A number of observers believe that Hooper is Stanford's best coverage safety, which is why he was moved this year to free safety.  The good news is that we are hearing that Hooper could return to the field soon.  If you are one of the few Cardinalmaniacs™ in Martin Stadium today, keep your eyes peeled for #24.  His return either this week or next could be the lift Stanford requires for a much-needed Pac-10 road win.  Not only does Hooper help on defense, but also he is one of the team's most valued special teams players.
  • In case you missed this factoid, pay attention.  It's blood curdling.  Washington State quarterback Alex Brink threw last week for a school-record 531 yards, topping the old mark set by Drew Bledsoe.  Is that who you want to face Stanford's secondary just seven days after allowing 453 yards passing, the third-most in school history?
  • To offset that fright, here is a more comforting statistic.  The Cardinal have fared better in Pullman than any other Pac-10 destination over the last 15 years.  Stanford is 4-1 at Washington State over that span, including winning their last two trips to the Palouse.  Since 1974, Stanford is 10-2 up there.  That is a statistic that Walt Harris delivered loudly to his team to start this week, as a foundation of confidence in what is today their first Pac-10 road game of the year.
  • Another statistic that might build confidence: WSU blew a 17-point lead last week against OSU, outscored by a 28-3 margin in the second half.  Stanford has had weak second-half performances in all three of their games thus far this year, particularly on offense.  Maybe, just maybe, their opponent has a similar frailty today.
  • A big theme within the Stanford team this week was the need for senior leadership to take over.  After Sunday's practice, Walt Harris pulled aside his seniors and delivered a very forceful message to them.  While the head coach has said that he wants underclassmen to believe that they took can be leaders, he is handing the reins of this team to his seniors.  "If anyone can do it, it should be our seniors," Harris says.  "That's the best way to lead: by example.  It's hard to tell somebody to play better when you are not playing better yourself - you are not doing your requirements or your assignments or executing your techniques the way you to.  We need to overachieve as seniors."  A quick scan of the depth chart shows that most of the team's seniors are currently starting on defense, which leaves the leadership question open still on offense.  Of the four seniors on the offensive roster, only one will start today (either Justin McCullum or Gerren Crochet at receiver).  Running back J.R. Lemon missed so much of training camp and the start of regular season practices that he stands third on that depth chart, while center Brian Head was out of the lineup injured last week and did not travel to Pullman this weekend.
  • In the 44-20 loss last week to Orgeon, it was lost that the Stanford offense played well and made strides in their first half of play.  If redzone conversion was better, the Cardinal would have put four scores on the board (and more than one touchdown) and likely led the Ducks at halftime.  What went well?  The offensive line protected the best we have seen in 2005, and Stanford ran the ball well.  That set up play-action, which combined with single coverage against Mark Bradford, gave the Cardinal a vertical passing offense.  Once the score started to get away in the second half, Stanford had to throw more and abandon the run.  Ask anybody on the offense, from players to coaches, and they will tell you that the running game was the key to first half success and second half struggles.  "We've got to run the ball well," Harris charges.  "Guys need to make people miss and get into the endzone."
  • Immediately following the Oregon game, Walt Harris made locker room comments praising redshirt sophomore running back Jason Evans as having "separated" at his position.  We expected that there might be a switch at the starting tailback spot for this Washington State game, but after review of the film and consultation with running backs coach Wayne Moses, Harris changed his tune slightly during the week.  He gave praise to both Evans and redshirt freshman Anthony Kimble for their running against Oregon.  We expect Kimble to stay in the starting spot today, though Evans will again see action, as he has rotated in each of Stanford's three games this fall.  Look for the Cardinal coaches to go with the hot hand as the game plays out.
  • The other half of that successful first half offense was the execution and playmaking in the passing game.  In his play through three games, we have been impressed with redshirt junior quarterback Trent Edwards.  He has made tremendous visible strides since last year, and he looks in this offense like a future pro.  But Edwards did not have help in the receiving end of the game since Evan Moore went down just before halftime in Annapolis... until Mark Bradford stepped up last week against Oregon.  He snared seven catches for 110 yards, including two plays for 30 or more yards.  Bradford had a fantastic off-season and was poised to have a junior year more like his breakout frosh campaign than his slumping sophomore season.  A painful dropped pass in the first quarter of the UC Davis game set the tone for an historic downward spiral and defeat, but that struggle help set him up for a bounce-back performance against Oregon.  "That was a very long two weeks," the junior admits.  "That really motivated me - having that bad game.  I did want to get out there and make big plays.  I was looking forward to the chance - once my number was called, I knew I had to make a play."  For Bradford, consistency remains key in determining his feast or famine.  A follow-up performance today would be welcome confirmation that he is stepping up.
  • There is still hope that Evan Moore might return this year.  While Walt Harris downplays those chances, Sunday will provide the first meaningful news of the 6'7" receiver's future.  While Moore has been walking without crutches lately and talks about an aggressive rehabilitation schedule, his ability to ever play football again still depends upon whether normal bloodflow has returned to the injured area in his hip.  Inadequate blood circulation, a condition known as Avascular Necrosis (AVN), could lead to deterioration of bone and cartilage, arthritis, and compromised range of motion.  The scheduled MRI to check that in his right hip was set for four weeks, which comes up tomorrow.  Moore, as well as his family and the Stanford family, have their collective fingers crossed for good news Sunday.  If he gets the green light, then we will start to explore his recovery timeline.  At this time, Moore says that he could play in November if recovered and ready, provided that his team can make a bowl game with his help.

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