I blame Jack Salisbury for inadvertently taking my
original idea for his Daily article today: a piece about different Stanford
players stepping up. We're throwing down at midnight in the Wilbur parking lot.
Winner gets the byline.
But enough of the shenanigans: let's get to Cardinal football.
It's not hard to see why Alex Loukas was a much-hyped recruit coming out of Deerfield High School just a few years ago. He has prototype quarterback size, a big arm, and good mobility. But until Saturday's game, he hadn't been trusted with the Cardinal offense for more than a few plays at a time. He redshirted in 2006 and backed up Tavita Pritchard and T.C. Ostrander in 2007. He had a chance to win the starting job this spring and summer, but was unable to beat out Pritchard. Loukas entered the year second on the depth chart, but was replaced by Andrew Luck and then Jason Forcier. Now, with Luck all but guaranteed to complete his redshirt this year, and with Forcier's wildly erratic performance against Arizona coupled with Loukas's cool hand, the redshirt sophomore is back to No. 2.
Pritchard is listed as questionable for this weekend's road trip to UCLA. If he can't go, then the reigns will be turned over to Loukas. If he is as successful over an entire game as he was in the fourth quarter last Saturday, then Stanford has, at the least, found itself a competent backup and a passer that could conceivably start down the road if needed. Loukas has the talent and the measurables; let's see what he can do.
Speaking of arriving…
Jim Harbaugh hailed Chris Owusu as one of his biggest recruits for the class of 2008. Owusu went on to have a nice summer camp, and was slotted in for a reserve receiver role this season. But the freshman injured his knee before the season and was kept out of the Cardinal's first six games. With half the year already in the books, some coaches might have used a redshirt, but Harbaugh wanted to use his new weapon. Owusu saw his first action of the year on Saturday and did not disappoint: he saw significant playing time at wide receiver, hauling in three catches for 22 yards. He also got a rep as a kick returner.
Owusu is fast, sure-handed and is certainly in Stanford's plans for this year and the future. If he can continue to progress and impress, then the Cardinal is going to have quite a formidable receiving corps for the next few seasons. Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin are both sophomores. Freshman Warren Reuland has also seen action. Jamal Patterson highlights an incomplete, yet already formidable 2009 receiver recruiting class. Stanford passers like to distribute the ball to different players, and with the young talent this team has and will have, their options will be numerous.
Overheard on the Stanford sideline
I do sideline reporting for KZSU, so most of the time, the crowd and players are muted by my headset's gigantic earphones. But, alas, we had some technical difficulties this past weekend, so I spent my time on the field listening to the action.
I saw one thing in particular that I felt was pretty neat: just after Aaron Zagory's kick narrowed the Wildcats' lead to 17-10, Owusu was standing on the sideline when a voice started yelling his name. At first I thought it was just a friend in the Red Zone, but then I saw Whalen trotting over to him. He put his arm around Owusu, and started speaking with him — the freshman seemed to hang on every word. Now, they could have been discussing their halftime In-N-Out order, for all I know, but I'd wager that Whalen was giving Owusu some pointers on his game.
It is hardly the exception, for example, Bo McNally did the same thing with the younger defensive backs during the San Jose State game, but it's great to see Whalen step up into a leadership role now that the receiving corps has practically no upperclassmen.
Redemption is sweet
Hats off to the Cardinal secondary. One week after being embarrassed by Jimmy Clausen, they stepped up against Willie Tuitama and the Arizona offense. Sure, Terrell Turner had a big day, but Stanford did a nice job of preventing too many big plays and surrendered no touchdowns through the air. The Wildcats' Mike Thomas was a non-factor after the first quarter, and Rob Gronkowski never found his way into the game.
Props especially to Wopamo Osaisai. He was lit up by Notre Dame's Michael Floyd but rebounded with a very good game against Arizona. It's also time to start giving Kris Evans his due. He was the only Cardinal defender that played particularly well in pass coverage against the Fighting Irish, and followed it up with another nice performance against the Wildcats. He led the team with nine tackles and was a finalist for Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week. Michael Thomas had a break out game of sorts, as he played well in coverage (including a big deflection on 3rd and goal in the fourth quarter) and was second on the team with seven tackles. Bo McNally is, as always, a force to be reckoned with.
The one defensive back who did not have a particularly good game was Sean Wiser. I wrote last week that Wiser looked a step slow all afternoon against Notre Dame, and nothing really changed against Arizona. He missed a few tackles and was caught badly out of position on some pass plays. I have to wonder why Taylor Skaufel, who saw significant action last year as a freshman, hasn't been used as much this season. Wiser certainly hasn't distinguished himself as substantially better.
It all starts here
While we're throwing praise around, let's give some to the unheralded Cardinal offensive line. They controlled the trenches all day, gave all three quarterbacks plenty of time to throw, and opened up some massive running lanes for the backs. And they've been doing it all year, particularly against San Jose State, Washington and Oregon State. At this point, they have to be mentioned among the top lines in the conference. USC has five Goliaths with the tenacity of five Davids, and both Cal and Oregon have impressive lines too, but after them, Stanford is right up there. Not bad for a team that was ninth in rushing yards and sacks allowed last season.
Not to be a Debbie Downer, but…
When is the Michael Thomas quarterback gimmick going to stop? It seems as if Thomas lines up at quarterback at least once a game, at this point, and it hasn't been effective yet. The defense knows that it is a guaranteed run, either by Thomas or a back, and they arrange themselves accordingly — Thomas is averaging less than four yards a carry on the year. On Saturday, the freshman came in for a play and promptly fumbled the ball, which lead to an Arizona touchdown and swung momentum back to the Wildcats for practically the rest of the first half. What's more, Tavita Pritchard was just getting into a groove. I understand that Thomas is an excellent athlete who played running back in high school, but this is just a bit too much. If you want to use him as a runner, have him line up as a back, like Corey Gatewood did last season. But if you just want to be tricky, it's not worth it. Thomas is starting to come into his own as a cornerback, and the offense is starting to click. No reason to fiddle with either one.
Will he last?
Toby Gerhart is a bull — there's no two ways about it. When he collides with a defender, chances are, he'll remain on his feet. He thrives on contact and is successful as a bruiser. But at some point, his physicality may start to take a toll.
He was knocked out of the Washington game with a concussion, and despite his nice performance last week against Notre Dame, he was slow to get up a number of times. This past Saturday, Gerhart again took his time rising from the turf, and had to head into the locker room before the first half ended — he was diagnosed with a right shoulder contusion, but came back in the second half
None of this shows in his play — he toughs it out and is very successful. But at some point, will this catch up with him? Hopefully not, but the physical toll on his body has to be tremendous.
Recipe for success
Stanford got back to basics against Arizona — they used the run. After only going to Gerhart and Kimble sporadically against Notre Dame, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator David Shaw gave the duo 34 carries, which resulted in 227 yards and two touchdowns. The Cardinal has one of the best rushing attacks in the conference, and one of the more mediocre passing games. There is no need to force the pass when you can run on practically anyone. Additionally, a grind-it-out rushing attack allows Stanford to control the clock, which they did, with good results, against the Wildcats. With Pritchard hurting, we should see heavy doses of Gerhart, Kimble and company against UCLA next weekend.
• The announced attendance Saturday was just over 30,000, or 60 percent of Stanford Stadium's capacity. And it was Homecoming weekend. This is actually a fairly good team, people: fill the seats.
• Harbaugh used four different kick returners: Delano Howell, Anthony Kimble, Jeremy Stewart and Chris Owusu. Howell and/or Stewart are usually the deep men, and they do a pretty admirable job — they average 26.2 and 23.4 yards a return, respectively. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
• As mentioned above, we can end whatever was left of the Andrew Luck speculation for the year. If Harbaugh was willing to use two quarterbacks before him on Saturday, then he has committed to the redshirt. Unless Stanford racks up some serious injuries at quarterback, Luck will remain on the sideline.
• At 4-3, the Cardinal can start seriously thinking about a bowl. The next two opponents, UCLA and Washington State, are among the Pac-10 bottom feeders. They should win at least one, but probably both of those games. If they do, they'll have the requisite six wins needed to be bowl eligible. However, if they don't sweep the next two, then the road to a bowl gets much harder: Stanford finishes their regular season with road games against Oregon and Cal, and a home matchup against USC.
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Sophomore Wyndam Makowsky covers Stanford football for the Stanford Daily. Contact him at makowsky at stanford.edu.
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