In a mostly unwatchable game last week against Washington State, there was one man in cardinal and white worth the price of admission all by himself. Stanford senior inside linebacker Michael Okwo was a wild man, running down Cougars at every turn. Though still marginalized by a broken thumb injury last month that keeps him from shedding blockers and making tackles like he is capable, Okwo racked up a career high with an eye-popping 15 tackles. That came one week after his 2006 debut, notching 10 tackles against Navy - at that time his new career high.
"I was just doing what my coaches tell me to do. There is nothing too complicated about it," Okwo offered humbly after the superlative performance in a disheartening defeat. "They ran some plays that happened to come my direction, and I just had to make some plays. Some of them I missed, which is something I have to clean up."
"Mike Okwo has real gifts," a more excited Walt Harris comments on the senior standout. "You saw how explosively quick that he is and how he gets all over the field."
Okwo has played just two games this season, yet he is already tied for fourth on the team in tackles and ranks second in tackles for loss. The more incredible aspect of the 15-tackle performance is that Okwo is still playing with only one good hand. He is weeks away from being his old self, and for now continues to keep his right hand wrapped up. The good news is that Okwo began the rehabilitation process for his thumb this week, which means he is on the path to strength and health that will eventually let him be a two-handed tackler.
Not only is he handicapped on the field, but Okwo is also nowhere near the conditioning he possessed before he broke his thumb. He estimates that he was playing at just 75 percent of his capacity.
"I have a quarter tank to still fill up," he grins.
Let's see... 15 tackles at just 75%... That means we should expect at some point this season to see 20-tackle games from Okwo, right?
"You do the math," Okwo laughs.
Let's dig a little deeper to demonstrate just how difficult a game and how spectacular a performance Okwo gave us. It starts with the opponent. Okwo missed a month of football after breaking his thumb, including an important piece of training camp. The 10 tackles against Navy was a career-high and one heckuva debut after all the time he missed. But Okwo explains that the triple-option offense that depends so heavily and predictably on running the ball was an easy transition, relatively speaking for him. Washington State's pro-style offense that spreads the field and can put the ball so many places was a markedly more difficult test.
"I think Washington State challenged us on defense in different ways than Navy did," the senior explains. "I was able to focus a little more on the run and the downhill stuff versus Navy, and for that reason the game against Navy was easier. You definitely have to be more aware of different threats [against Washington State]. They threw the ball much more than Navy did. They compromised us in different ways."
The Cougars more than "compromised" Stanford out of the gate. They kept the ball for all but 99 seconds in the first quarter, which put Okwo and his defensive mates on the field for what was tantamount to an entire half of play.
Okwo did not leave the field. During the entire game, he never left the field. For the breadth of Stanford's 84 defensive snaps, Okwo was manning the middle of the field. For somebody with at best 75 percent of his conditioning, that was an inopportune time to play the first every-snap game of his college career.
"I took a lot of snaps early on, and it was difficult with the wear and tear of the game. I was definitely worn out there," he allows. "It did come into my mind in the second quarter. I was pretty exhausted. We have a lot of sub's going in at the other linebacker positions. I just remember thinking that I need to stay in this game."
"When your back is against the wall, you have to keep fighting," Okwo adds. "When they're charging down the field, there is no time to catch your breath. It's time to go."
With each successive week back in football practices and games, the Stanford senior will regain his conditioning and playing form. He is also unlikely to suffer again a first quarter where the defense is so distressed. But despite a career performance from the one-handed bandit, it was a dreadful day for the Cardinal. That underscores how Okwo needs help from his teammates and his coaches to give him support on several levels.
"I think that the area where we have to try and help him a little more is that we have to get him out there when he gets tired, which is understandable. He's not in near as good of football shape as those who have been playing because he's been out," Harris opines. "But he played a magnificent game and was pretty good at doing what he was supposed to do, as well. He has some superlative talent that he showed."
In order to feel like Stanford can substitute Okwo from the game, there needs to be better playmaking from the positions around him in the front seven. The Cardinal coaches also need to feel that the backup linebackers at his position can provide a lesser drop-off when they give Okwo a breather.
"We have to keep getting better around him, as well as getting him some rest, so that he can play at the high level that he does," Harris declares. "I think that will make our defense a lot better."
And Okwo will become better, too. He did fail to wrap up some ballcarriers last week, and he could have put himself into other positions to make plays - hard though that might be to believe given what he achieved.
"I missed some tackles," Okwo laments. "It's just a confidence level with my ability to wrap up, to shed offensive linemen and to play against offensive linemen. All of those things are little things, but they they improve your ability and the possibilities that you have as a defensive player. The more weapons that you have as a defensive player, the more difficult it is to be stopped. The more weapons that I get back, the better I will be as a player and the more confident I will feel."
There is also another feeling for Okwo tonight at the Rose Bowl. He carries an intense fire to win what may very well be the last football game he ever plays in Los Angeles, where he grew up. Okwo has lost his four football games played in the City of Angels. It started with the final game of his senior year, when the Manhattan Beach (Calif.) Mira Costa High School standout lost to Notre Dame High School of Sherman Oaks in the CIF championship game and lost an undefeated season. It has continued with three losses in three years of college at USC and UCLA.
With no NFL team in Los Angeles today, this may be the last time he plays at home before friends and family. The fact that he tonight plays against the Bruins, where he almost committed as a high school senior before his father made him reconsider, is an extra edgy dimension to the drama.
"It would be a great feeling to walk away from UCLA - especially UCLA being one of the top schools I was looking at going to college - it would be a great win to close out my career in L.A," Okwo describes. "It's really important to go out on top against UCLA, just being from the L.A. area. Knowing those guys I grew up with, played against in high school and played with in all-star games games, it's important that I get the last laugh. It would be a great feeling."
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