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December 15, 2013

Farm Report: Bowl practices begin



It's no coincidence that this year's Stanford football team, which has been led by one of the strongest senior classes in school history, will conclude its season by playing in a Rose Bowl. The Cardinal is headlined by a group of talented upperclassmen, which includes the likes of Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner, Trent Murphy and Josh Mauro. Stanford's veteran players have been the catalyst behind the best stretch in program history, and were the guiding force behind the Cardinal's second sconsecutive Pac-12 title.

"Our seniors have led us here," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Our seniors are the one who have been the guys who have led us to bounce back from tough losses. (They've) led us not to get too big of a head on some big wins and to come back and keep working and keep fighting and keep striving to get ourselves in this position. (And they've led us) now to get down to Pasadena and get ready for one heck of a football game against another really good team, a good physical football team, a team that runs the ball, throws the ball and plays great defense."

Whether Stanford's 2009 recruiting class will go down as the single best in school history is still unclear. But group's on-field accomplishments are unparalleled on The Farm.

"You're talking about unprecedented things," Shaw said. "We're the only team four years straight to win 11 games, four straight BCS games, back-to-back Rose Bowls, losing one game at home in a long stretch. You're talking about some things that haven't been matched here. And there has not been a class like this in the history of the school. It's a testament to those guys to come in and have their minds set on doing something that people said that they couldn't do. Every time a challenge came up these guys never backed down from it. They ran straight at it. They locked arms and ran straight at it together. I think it's a testament to who those guys are, a testament to the coaches, including Coach Harbaugh, of course, that helped identify these guys and bring these guys in that were going to be who they are now."

No matter the result of the Rose Bowl, Stanford's seniors will leave the program as one of the most accomplished group in program history. Their legacy is secure.

"As I said before the championship game, you can only add to (their legacy), you can't take away from it," Shaw said. "It's all positive. If for some reason the game is cancelled, their legacy is not going to be tarnished. Those things that I just mentioned are awesome. They're legendary. I don't know if the class has a nickname yet or whatever, but at some point I'm sure they will. Because it's a phenomenal group. It's a group that, once again, has staked their claim as the best class in terms of winning, in terms of going to bowl games, in terms of going to BCS bowl games, in terms of being ranked nationally, in terms of beating ranked teams. It's unprecedented. We're all grateful for their contributions to Stanford football."

The sustained excellence hasn't come as a surprise to Stanford fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov, who made a verbal commitment to Stanford on Sept. 1, 2007, less than a year after the Cardinal concluded a 1-11 season. The Cardinal's 2009 recruiting class knew it would help change the direction of Stanford football before it even arrived on campus.

"I think we were in a really interesting group coming in as freshmen," Skov said. "We had been talking for a year-and-half at that point so we had a really close, tight-knit group of guys. From that aspect, we said we were going to turn things around, we were going to go to a BCS game. And so we did that. I don't think that any of us were aware the degree of success that we would have ultimately. But there was a confidence within the group of guys that we had looking at the guys that were ahead of us that there was no reason moving forward we couldn't continue a series of successful years. We had the talent I think in that first class, the guys ahead of us, and it built upon itself. I think it was a matter of getting the ball rolling and we knew what this place could become if we were successful."

All the while, throughout the school's BCS bowl seasons, Stanford's upperclassmen managed to maintain the level of drive and intensity that fueled the program's turnaround from doormat to contender in the first place.

"I remember kind of being integrated in the recruiting process and then getting here and going to a bowl game for the first time and then just being ecstatic," Skov said. "Guys (were) just being happy to be bowl-eligible and go to a bowl game. And I think that the key thing is we've maintained that same hunger. Nobody on this team takes anything for granted. So I think we have that same desire. I think that to a degree instead of becoming complacent we've become hungrier. The standard for ourselves has become higher and higher. I think at the point when we lost and we were kind of on the outside looking in for the opportunity to play in the Pac-12 championship game, guys were genuinely hurt and incredibly disappointed in ourselves. To see how important it is to us to be dominant and win the Pac-12, I think that might be a change to a degree that it's no longer just something that we're happy about. It's an expectation and there's a genuine sense of being upset if we don't reach those goals."

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Perhaps the defining play of Stanford's Pac-12 title win over Arizona State was when Shayne Skov lept over the Arizona State offensive line to stone Sun Devil quarterback Michael Eubank on 3rd and Goal from inside the one-yard-line. It wasn't the first time Skov had masterfully timed the snap count, either. He's done so several times over the course of his career, including once in Stanford's win over Notre Dame in the 2010 season.

"You get a feel for certain situations whether it's the play clock, how much time is left on the play clock, a quarterback's physical presence, whether he's anticipating the snap, (as well as) motions," Skov said. "So there are different things you kind of take into account. And then at the end of the day it's somewhat of an educated guess. I don't know what the snap count is. I can give you a nice estimation of what I assume it's going to be. But (the play against Arizona State on) third down is what I call relatively no-risk, high reward. A penalty is what, four inches closer to the goal line? We don't have anything to lose at that point. So just kind of felt that he was ready to take the snap. I read his lips as the snap was coming and went for it. Other than looking like an idiot for tackling a guy who doesn't have the ball, I don't think there's pretty much anything else to lose."

Shaw said Skov's snap-timing ability is a natural gift.

"You can't teach instincts," Shaw said. "You just identify them. You can coach guys and tell guys what to do. When Shayne does that it's just all Shayne. That's instinct, that's preparation, that's anticipation. That's understanding the snap count and it's also taking a chance. And he could be wrong. They could go on two. It might not be a quarterback sneak, it might be a toss out to the weak side. But he's been able to guess right every single time he's done that over the last four-plus years. And it's uncanny. It really is. And he has a sense for it, he has a feel for it and he dives over the top and grabs the quarterback. He did it in the Rose Bowl last year, he did it against Oregon. He's done it against USC. He's done it against some teams and for whatever reason he hits it perfectly. I've never, ever been around a guy that's been able to do that once, let along four to five times."

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Though he attempted only 18 passes in the game, Kevin Hogan's 277-yard performance against Arizona State was one of the best of his Stanford career. Arizona State played an aggressive defense designed to limit Tyler Gaffney and Stanford's rushing attack. Hogan responded to the challenge.

"Arguably it's probably one of the top couple (performances)," Shaw said. "And they're all very similar… Where teams are really aggressive with us in trying to stop the run and the only recourse is to throw the ball not just short, but throw the ball down the field. And when you can hit those plays you break games wide open. That's what the Washington State game was. It was tough sledding early on and we started throwing the ball over their heads. In the Cal game this year Cal was selling out to stop the run. They did a great job stopping the run and they left Michael Rector and Ty Montgomery with the one-on-one coverage. And if your quarterback can't take advantage of that it becomes a long day. But if your quarterback can come back and hit those balls, hit those deep shots, it changes the game. It either makes the defense change what they're doing or we start to change the scoreboard. And I think in those three games in particular, that's what happened. We changed the scoreboard."

Shaw also lauded Hogan's adjustments along the line of scrimmage against the Sun Devils.

"That's one thing that I think you could see this game maybe more than any other," Shaw said. "Kevin at the line of scrimmage changing a play, taking the clock down to one or two seconds and snapping the ball and handing the ball off to Gaffney for a seven-yard gain. (That) happened multiple times during the game where Kevin saw the defense change the play and then the defense might have changed it again and he changed the play again and got the snap off before the clock ran out. Those are the things that help us win football games, really being able to see the defense and get to the right play."

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Stanford emerged from the Pac-12 Championship relatively healthy. Aside from senior defensive end Ben Gardner, who's out for the year with a torn pectoral muscle, and redshirt freshman Ikenna Nwafor, who's expected to miss at least the early part of bowl practices with a lower body injury, the Cardinal will be at full strength. Inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley did suffer a concussion when he collided with safety Ed Reynolds, but "it looks like there are no lingering issues," Shaw said last weekend.

Despite its overall health, Stanford will benefit from a week away from the practice fields. The rest will be welcomed by players like Tyler Gaffney, who carried the ball 306 times during the regular season, Ty Montgomery, who covered plenty of mileage on offense and in the return game, and some of Stanford's offensive and defensive linemen, who endured a grueling, physical season.

"For us, physically I think the break is awesome just because of what we ask our guys to do on a weekly basis," Shaw said.

Even early in the bowl practice period, which began on Saturday, Stanford's veterans will have limited reps. That will allow the Cardinal's younger players to receive a substantial number of meaningful plays.

"For me, (the guys who could turn a corner in their development and for whom the bowl practices will prove particularly beneficial) are not necessarily the guys that have been playing a role so far in the season, although we'll push those guys as well," Shaw said. "For me it's getting more practices for those younger guys, especially looking at our team with the number of linebackers and defensive linemen that we're going to be missing. Getting those reps for hopefully an Ikenna that can come back healthy... for our young linebackers, Peter Kalambayi, Mike Tyler, and all those guys to get more reps. Those guys are huge because now you're tacking on two more weeks of practice on top of spring football which gets them more ready to come back in training camp and compete for playing time. So those are the biggest guys for us that we want to try to get ready to play."


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