Gameday News & Notes

Here is quick run up and down the offense, defense and special teams issues at the forefront of our Cardinal conscience before today's game for Stanford (2-2) at Arizona (1-4). Who will play where on the offensive line? Should Trent Edwards dive or slide at the end of runs? Does the D-Line have any legs left? How solid are the kicking and punting games right now? Read on for this and much more...

  • One odd statistic on the season thus far which has jumped out at everybody is Stanford's 2-0 record on the road, while the Cardinal are 0-2 at home.  Stanford plays on the road again today at Arizona, hoping to continue the trend.  But the Card cannot hope for a bowl bid with only road wins this year, which would finish their season at a 5-6 mark.  The simple answer is to learn how to win at home, but here is another idea...  Dump the remainder of the home schedule.  With the exception of Notre Dame, who cannot stand their own weather in South Bend for 10 or 11 months of the year, schools would be giddy to get an extra home game.  Let's start the demolition of "The Old Lady" and get rolling on the construction of the new Stanford Stadium right now.  A six-week head start on the construction schedule would give a lot better chance of finishing the project in time for the home opener on September 7, 2006.
  • One man who could not travel last week was fifth-year senior center Brian Head.  Unable to play with a shoulder injury he sustained in the UC Davis game, Head stayed home while the Cardinal traveled their Pac-10 65-man road roster.  This week, Head medically retired from football and was elevated to an undergraduate coach.  The paperwork went through to allow him to travel with the team this weekend without counting against the 65-man limit.  He will be asked today to serve as an extra pair of eyes for the offensive line coaches, as they try to keep track of what all five of their big bodies are doing on a given play.  Head also says that aims in his new role to provide support and teaching to the younger linemen.  Not only are freshmen and sophomores backups and scout team players, but also remember that Stanford has two redshirt freshmen starting today on the five-man line, for the second straight game.
  • The newer of those two frosh starters is 6'5" offensive tackle Allen Smith.  He started last week in Pullman at right tackle but moved to left tackle when Jeff Edwards left the game gimpy.  Smith excelled on the left side beyond anybody's expectations and has been the toast of the town this week.  Individual player improvement is a cornerstone of team improvement during the season, and the much-maligned offensive line needed a boost as much as any unit for Stanford.  "A lot of credit has to be given to Allen and his position coach, John McDonell.  Allen had to come a long ways to play in a Pac-10 game as a redshirt freshman," praises head coach Walt Harris.  "We had two redshirt freshmen there side-by-side, which is a scary proposition.  He did a nice job.  He probably did better than we expected him to do - not because he is not good enough, but because it was his first game.  They had two really good rushers off the edge, too...  We were excited to see Allen come through.  That gives us more options...  Honestly when you are a redshirt freshman, if you don't get your name mentioned when watching tape, that's nothing but a great thing.  The goal is to be invisible, so to speak.  That means your guy didn't get to the quarterback or you didn't miss a block.  Now, he had some mistakes.  But all in all, he tried to do what we asked him to do the best he could, with the experience he had.  He tried to be a good football player.  He obviously has a long ways to go, but we were pleased with his first effort."
  • Thus far this year, we have seen rotation at the offensive guard positions in all four games.  Redshirt freshman Alex Fletcher and redshirt junior Josiah Vinson have started at the right and left guard positions, respectively, while redshirt junior Ismail Simpson has rotated to spell them both in every game.  With the emergence of Smith, suddenly Stanford feels like they have depth at the offensive tackle positions.  Smith will start today at left tackle while redshirt junior Jon Cochran, who had his best game of the year last Saturday, starts at right tackle.  We expect to see Edwards, also a redshirt junior, to rotate and play significant time at tackle off the bench in this game.  Redshirt freshman Ben Muth, who was not healthy last week, saw a significant amount of time in practice this week and may get into the rotation to help at right tackle.  This offensive line was searching feverishly for five decent players not long ago, so it is surprising and refreshing to see this kind of depth now emerge.
  • Fans have been excited by the play they have seen thus far from Fletcher, who brought to The Farm more hype of out high school than any lineman since Kwame Harris.  Teammates and coaches have praised him for his play as a starter in every game this year, though just a redshirt freshman.  But there remains the concern that Fletcher's desire to be so good can occasionally compel him to attempt plays beyond his abilities at this early part of his development.  "Alex is improving.  He's a freshman.  That's a challenge, to be a starting football player as a freshman.  He's not a 330-pound guard, either," Harris offers.  "It's been a challenge for him, but he loves to play and he's into it.  He's excited about football, and we love that attitude about him.  I told him a couple weeks ago... to just be consistent is great.  Don't try to be an All-American in your first year.  To be a freshman and just to get by is outstanding.  You don't know how much you don't know.  He need to just try to be consistent and not try to be a dominant player.  When he tries to be a dominant player, he ends up being the opposite - being dominated...  He wants to be a good football player.  It's really, really important to him to be a good football player.  He's starting to play better.  He'll be up against some big horses this weekend that he'll have to play against.  That's coaching jargon for big, strong athletes [laugh]."
  • Questions were asked of the line, and the entire offense, all week about where they found improvement.  The answer given by every single player and coach was that Stanford had a great week of practice before the Washington State game.  That's not something Allen Iverson will appreciate, but better weekday workouts are being given all the credit for Saturday improvement.  "I think we put more emphasis on practicing with the intensity more like a game,"  Haris explains.  "I'm sure that you've read about coaches that come up with motivational techniques.  I'm not a big Knute Rockne guy, but I try to appeal to the players.  I'm a broken record about playing like your practice.  If you have a practice tempo versus a game tempo, then you are really hurting your chances of being as good a football player for your team.  I think they're starting to understand that what we're asking them to do will really help them to win...  If you make practice like a game, then you're not thinking in a game.  You create habits, and they're all positive and good habits.  You have a lot more consistency.  Hopefully the fourth game was a turning point for us."
  • One area where Harris still nitpicks for improvement is how Trent Edwards runs with the ball.  After more than 100 yards of gains at Washington State, an incredible number for a non-option quarterback, that may astound you.  To be clearer, it is the way Edwards finishes his runs which had Harris on pins and needles sometimes last week.  "I think his coach was nervous the whole time," the Harris comments with a half-hearted laugh.  "He has to do a better job of protecting himself, so that he doesn't take any shots.  That's really not part of the design...  He needs to improve his running technique, but also he needs to get on the ground.  Dive out and get on the ground.  I am a John Elway fan of diving out, even before I became a coach at Stanford.  I think diving is better than sliding.  I also told Trent you can slide once you for sure once you have the first down, but in college they don't protect you like they do in the pros when you slide.  I think you're safer, and you make more yards."  Fans should watch, going forward, if Edwards indeed finishes more of his runs head- or feet-first.
  • That detail aside, Harris is visibly excited about the progress that Edwards and the offense is making.  In particular, he admitted this week that he found a comfort zone in calling plays for the Stanford offense, really for the first time, in Pullman.  He has been quoted after every game as saying that 'the players have had X games to get to know us, and we have had X games to get to know them.'  The Washington State game, Stanford's fourth in 2005, apparently crossed an important threshold in that two-way relationship.  "On a personal note, calling plays has been extremely difficult here up until this last game," Harris admits.  "The word I talk to our players about is 'guarantees.'  You are looking for guarantees.  You are looking for a guarantee that we can run the ball to the left.  We can guarantee we can beat this guy on a route.  We are going to guarantee we can protect the quarterback well enough so he can throw this pass.  There had not been any guarantees, so it had been excruciating on the sideline trying to figure out what will work up until this last game.  I thought this last game was the best game offensively we have had, and that made it so much better for me as a playcaller, with the help of my staff, to get into the flow."
  • Over on defense, Stanford fans bemoaned the absence of junior inside linebacker Michael Okwo, who did not play with a sprained ankle.  His status for today's game was still undetermined when the Cardinal left for Tucson on Friday.  But his replacement, redshirt junior Mike Silva, played very well.  Silva recorded a career-high nine tackles in Pullman, nearly matching his totals of the entire 2004 season (12).  Okwo is not an athlete who can be replaced by any player on this roster, but Silva is underrated.  He had a strong week of practice again this week and has his teammates declaring their confidence in him, should he be needed to start again.
  • One player who did return last week from the injured list was redshirt freshman Trevor Hooper.  The free safety dislocated his shoulder in the season opener at Navy, though to be lost for a large part of the season.  But he made his return in Pullman and played a heavy number of snaps as the game wore on.  No starter was named by the end of the week between Hooper and classmate David Lofton for the free safety position, and we can probably expect both to play today.  Says cornerback teammate Nick Sanchez of Hooper's return, "He brings a little bit of excitement that helps guys play harder.  Plus, he was one of our guys this whole year, so it's tough when you have one of your better players out."
  • Another veteran who surprised by his presence last week was fifth-year senior cornerback Calvin Armstrong.  The Georgia native has been forgotten and left for dead this year, buried deep on the cornerback depth chart.  But he has risen into the role as Stanford's fifth defensive back in their nickel package against obvious passing down-and-distance situations.  Armstrong in fact was one of Stanford's three game captains last week in Pullman.
  • The talk this week on defense for Stanford, though, was the defense line.  Redshirt freshman Pannel Egboh was injured with a broken leg and lost for the season in the Washington State game, which was also his first start of his college career.  "That's really one of the sad parts of the game," Harris bemoans of the injury.  Egboh is the second starting defensive end lost for the year for Stanford this year, which has their front trio scrambling for depth.  One answer came in the form of 6'6" 290-pound redshirt freshman Mike Macellari switching from offensive tackle to defensive end.  Typically, Harris would downplay the readiness of a player so soon after a position switch.  This week, however, the Cardinal head coach admitted that the need for a game rotation of defensive line depth makes it more likely that Macellari has to play this weekend than he would normally prescribe.  The only other reserve defensive end who has played this year is redshirt sophomore Chris Horn.  Either Horn or Macellari will have to step up today to give Stanford a pass rush.  The early source of excitement with Macellari in practices this week was the power he provided with his bull rush...
  • Stanford fans assumed or hoped that one of their vaunted true freshman defensive linemen might be called into duty after Egboh's injury.  The Cardinal did not take that plunge this week, keeping all of those frosh on the scout team defense.  On that note, we saw this week Tom McAndrew play with his hand on the ground as a defensive lineman on the scout team.  While the coaches are not yet prepared to call this an official position switch, it could be a glimpse into the future.  Egboh was similarly an outside linebacker as a true freshman who grew into a defensive end role on the scout team, and by the following spring, he was a full-time lineman.
  • Sealing the game for Stanford last week was the final-drive interception by redshirt sophomore cornerback Nick Sanchez.  It was his third late-game interception through four contests this year, but only two were of course officially credited.  The infamous interception that was botched and ruled otherwise by officials in the UC Davis game still sticks in Sanchez' craw.  "I was thinking in my head, while I was on the ground holding onto the ball, 'What can go wrong here?  How can they try to take this one away from me?'  But I was pretty sure there were no flags or anything.  I was just trying to hold on tight so they couldn't say I dropped it or anything," he says of the Pullman pick.  "I think about [the Davis call] a lot...  You know ref's are going to make bad calls on the field, but it's hard to forget.  I should have three interceptions and we should be 3-1.  The season would be looking a lot prettier, from that angle."
  • Prettier, indeed.  The deathly fear for Stanford right now is that the Cardinal finish the year 5-6 and miss a bowl game because of the UC Davis debacle.  But to point a finer point on it, any finish this year will include the sting of missing that victory.  4-7 should have been 5-6.  6-5 should have been 7-4.  In the aftermath of the infamous loss, Harris proclaimed that the loss hurt like any other loss simply because it was a loss.  He praised Davis for their 35 straight winning seasons and deflected the infamy of losing to a Divison I-AA program.  Today, the Aggies are just 2-3 on the year after dropping to South Dakota State last week.  Stanford's historic upset loss in that gimme game becomes even worse as Davis bumbles and stumbles this fall.  Harris understands how bad the loss looks, despite his earlier public protests.  This week he referenced the loss as "the infamous game."
  • There may appear the risk for fifth-year senior placekicker Michael Sgroi to accrue his own infamy this year, if he continues his field goal kicking woes.  After starting the season strong, with two huge field goals in Annapolis, Sgroi has missed attempts in each of the last three games, including two field goals twice.  He has displayed booming distance this year, but the problems have come on shorter yardage attempts.  Sgroi is currently just 2-of-5 inside 40 yards this fall, while he is 4-of-6 from 40 or longer.  Three of his attempts have been low and blocked at the line of scrimmage.  When asked if Stanford should open up the kicking competition to redshirt sophomore Derek Belch, Harris stands beside his fifth-year senior.  "Mike is our kicker.  He kicked a huge one at the end of the [Washington State] game, in the fourth quarter.  We had the ball in the middle, too, which was more helpful.  I think with Mike, the most important thing is that he knows he is our guy, so we're going to hang with him.  He did a tremendous job on kickoffs.  We think he has the talent and the mindset to be a great kicker.  He is our kicker.  We need to give better protection, and we need to put the ball in a better spot - it's not all the kicker.  He's like the quarterback - gets too much credit when it goes through and too much credit when it doesn't go through."
  • Special teams will be a focal battle in today's game against Arizona, with their strong-legged kicking and punting games.  Most observers assume that Stanford will face a disadvantage in the punting game, in particular.  Arizona's punter, Danny Baugher, leads the nation with a 48.4-yard average.  We could make some remark about the long fields he has had at his disposal, given the cellar dwelling position Arizona owns at 10th in the conference in both offensive yardage and scoring...  But Stanford will counter with their own big boomer today in redshirt sophomore Jay Ottevegio.  He had his best game of the year at Washington State, hitting for a 44.0-yard average.  And that came on short fields, with Ottovegio putting four of his five boots inside the 20-yard line, with the fifth going for a touchback.
  • The statistic where Stanford hopes to take advantage today of Arizona's basement position in the conference is not their offense, but rather their rushing defense.  The Wildcats rank last in the Pac-10 heading into today, with 227.4 yards per game allowed on the ground.  That is lip-smacking news for a Stanford team that last week went over 200 yards rushing for just the first time this year.  However, Cardinalmaniacs™ should keep cautious.  The last time Stanford traveled on the road to a team so sorry against the run, a disaster ensued.  Stanford last October played at UCLA anxious to ignite their running game against a terrible Bruin rush defense, but UCLA instead played just six men in the box and smothered the Stanford receivers.  The Cardinal mustered only 83 rushing yards despite enormously favorable conditions, while the offense was shut out in a 21-0 loss.
  • Stanford appears sufficiently respectful of Arizona, including their run defense, headed into this game.  Though USC ran all over the Wildcats last week for 337 net rushing yards, redshirt sophomore tailback Jason Evans is far from overconfident.  "I thought they played really, really good against USC last week," Evans offers.  "I thought they stopped Reggie Bush, pretty much in his tracks.  LenDale [White] had a couple good runs.  They've got a good team, and it's just the fact that they've had to play some good teams.  Their rush defense should be higher than what they are."

Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg?  If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine.  Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!

The Bootleg Top Stories