Stanford hasn't forgotten its controversial overtime defeat to Notre Dame last year, but the Cardinal doesn't plan on using the game's ending for motivation this season. Stanford coach David Shaw said that his team quickly moved past questions about officiating and instead focused on execution.
"The stance we took last year was you take all the controversial plays and we set them aside," Shaw said. "Defensively we lost coverage more times in one game than I think we have in years. We lost leverage, we didn't play the ball a couple of times. We had a chance to sack the quarterback and we missed. We had a couple of chances for turnovers and we didn't get them.
"Offensively, last year there were two games that we dropped four passes: Notre Dame and Washington. At Notre Dame we had three third down drops, plays that would continue drives. You take away all the controversial plays and you look at the plays that we actually had something to do with.... we make the plays that we should make or could make, it never comes down to that last drive. I don't want to take Notre Dame out of the equation. They played really hard. We knocked the starting quarterback out and Tommy Rees came in and threw some lasers. He came in and was on fire. The tight end made some huge plays for him, great plays.
"In the end the opportunities that were there for us to make we didn't make. The opportunities that were there for Notre Dame to make they made. And besides that last play of the game, that was the real difference in the game. Those opportunistic plays on third down, catches that could have kept drives going, defensively doing what we typically don't do which was not play the structure on some key plays. You take away those things, we ran the ball well, I thought we made some nice plays, we played well on defense for the most part. But those critical plays that we didn't make and Notre Dame made was the real difference in the game in my opinion."
At 8-3, this year's Notre Dame squad doesn't have the record that last year's did, but the Irish are still dangerous. Notre Dame is the only team that has defeated Michigan State, and the Irish are coming off one of their best showings of the season in a victory over BYU.
"They're a very interesting team in that they've got some really good players, they play a physical style of football to where you can look at Coach Kelly as a quote unquote spread offensive coach, but then you watch them and they're physical," Shaw said. "And they're big up front and they're going to run three running backs at you at different times and different ways and they're going to keep attacking you. He's done a great job with the quarterback keeping him in rhythm."
On the other side of the ball, even though Notre Dame lost standout defensive lineman Louis Nix for the year with a knee injury, the Irish are a stout group. Notre Dame is ranked No. 35 nationally in points allowed, and have limited opponents to 3.5 yards per carry.
"They are big up front, they're physical up front, they get off blocks," Shaw said. "It's a good, physical football team that has a similar mentality as we do."
Though Saturday's contest will draw a sixth straight sellout crowd to Stanford Stadium and be televised nationally on Fox, the postseason implications for the Cardinal are actually rather limited. Stanford has already clinched the Pac-12 North and will play in the Pac-12 title game next weekend regardless of Saturday's outcome.
Stanford doesn't plan to let that interfere with its preparation, however.
"We talked about the Pac-12 championship game, what it is, how we're going to approach it when the time is right, but now we've put that away and now let's concentrate on Notre Dame because it's still a huge game," Shaw said. "It's an opportunity to get to 10 wins in the regular season for the fourth time in a row, which is in rare, rare company in the nation. So that's what our focus is."
Stanford left the Big Game relatively unscathed on the injury front. Henry Anderson "got banged up" but is expected to play this weekend, Shaw said.
Meanwhile, cornerback Alex Carter, who missed the Cal game with a concussion, was a full participant at Tuesday's practice and will play on Saturday. Cornerback Barry Browning was limited with a bruised shoulder, but he, too, is expected to be ready for Notre Dame.
Jordan Williamson kicked on Tuesday and is on track to handle field goals and PAT's for the entire Notre Dame game.
Wide receiver Devon Cajuste, who has played the last two weeks, is expected to play again on Saturday, but he might not be back to full health until Stanford's bowl game.
"I don't know that we'll get there to 100 percent before the bowl game," Shaw said. "But he's fighting through it. He still runs well. But I don't know if it will be 100 percent. He's doing actually really well. "
Shaw opened his weekly press conference by expressing excitement over the fact that Stanford earned its second straight American Football Coaches Association Academic Achievement Award. Stanford also announced a 100 percent graduation rate for the second consecutive year. Those are figures that play well on the recruiting trial, not just with parents, but with prospects as well.
"The kids appreciate it too because no matter where schools rank in their academics they all still push what their academic strengths are," Shaw said. "Every university does that, every recruiter does that. I think it's huge for us to say yes we're doing that, we have a phenomenal school and our kids aren't just playing football, but they're staying on track to graduate on time. That says a lot. And to put the numbers in front of them shows that we are doing what we say we're doing. We're not just putting lip service to it."
Shaw said that Stanford's graduation rate helps counter concerns recruits might have that the school is too academically rigorous to handle.
"Obviously it's not too hard because first and foremost we have an environment that's conducive to you being successful," Shaw said. "We understand how to manage your time so that you do well in school and you do well in football and you have a social life and you enjoy yourself here, that it is possible for all three of those. We graduate our guys, we play really good football and they come to visit and our guys love it here. That helps a lot."
Stanford's fourth-year draft eligible juniors will have the option of participating in Saturday's Senior Day festivities. Shaw is leaving the decision up to the individual players.
"We've had a couple of guys get introduced twice," Shaw said. "I just told them hey, if you want to go through it, if there's any doubt in your mind, go ahead and go through it. It's not a negative if you go through it and then you come back and you go through it again next year. It's not an official thing by any stretch of the imagination."
Shaw has yet to have discussions with his draft-eligible juniors about their futures; those will occur after the Pac-12 title game and before Stanford's bowl game.
Offensive lineman David Yankey is likely one of the players who'll sit down with Shaw next month to discuss his decision.
"We'll see which way he's leaning," Shaw said. "I wouldn't be surprised either way, to be honest."
After leading Stanford in receiving yards in the Oregon and USC game, redshirt freshman wide receiver Michael Rector notched the first 100-yard game of his career in the Cardinal's win over Cal. Rector's emergence has resulted from his improved blocking, which has allowed him to assume a greater role within the offense, Shaw said.
"To be honest, and it sounds crazy, he's become a better blocker," Shaw said. "It's something I said to him last spring, he probably doesn't even remember it. I said, 'When you become a better blocker you'll play more because otherwise you'll be a spot player. You'll come in to run a post route and leave. You'll come in to run a go route and then leave.' And then you become that guy that oh, as soon as he's in look at him because it's going to be a pass and it's going to be to him. He's worked extremely hard. He's more physical. He's sticking his face in there because like I told him, we're going to run the ball, and if you're not a good run blocker you're not going to be in there. Coach Bloomgren will come knocking on my door and say, 'Hey, we need our best blockers in there.' But he's done a great job so we can actually have him in there. He's actually rotating in there now so that you don't know if it's a run or a pass when he's in there... He's become a complete receiver."
While blocking has been an acquired skill for Rector, running precise routes came naturally.
"He's always been really good (at running routes)," Shaw said. "He's just so doggone fast. It's so inviting to send him deep a lot, but the route that he caught against USC is a route that not a lot of guys can run on this level or the next level. (It's) the slant, go, curl. The transition between running a slant, making it look like a slant and then breaking to the go route and then dropping your weight and coming back to the quarterback, it's a very, very difficult route and he does it with ease. Like I said though, I have to give him a lot of credit for emphasizing the run blocking and being physical because that's making him a good football player."
Stanford's lopsided Big Game victory allowed many of the Cardinal's young players an opportunity to see extended playing time. Several of them, including freshman receiver Francis Owusu, sophomore defensive end Aziz Shittu, sophomore defensive back Zach Hoffpauir, and redshirt sophomore quarterback Evan Crower, took advantage.
"Francis Owusu, I mean, wow. Wow," Shaw said. "Big, fast, strong, did a great job on special teams. He ran a go route on an incomplete pass, came back, and then covered the next punt and was the first guy down. That Owusu speed has carried over."
"I thought Aziz Shittu played his best football game… The bottom line is (that it was) his best complete game as far as getting off the ball, getting off blocks, playing with energy and passion and great technique. Very excited about what he did there."
"Zach Hoffpauir coming in and playing some nickel I think was awesome to show his versatility that he can play safety and play the nickel was huge."
"Evan Crower I thought came in and did a really good job of managing the running and handling the protections and throwing the ball well."
Though he's not an underclassman, redshirt junior tight end Davis Dudchock also drew praise from Shaw after his performance.
"I would say this too, the other guy I want to give some kudos to is not a young guy, but Davis Dudchock coming in and making a great catch early in the game and then coming in and doing well (was impressive)," Shaw said. "He didn't get any other balls thrown his way but ran some nice routes and it's been nice to see him start to get some playing time."
Though it's still in the playbook, Stanford hasn't used its read-option package featuring Dallas Lloyd since the Oregon State game, and there's no indication that will change in the immediate future.
"It's still part of (the playbook). I don't know that we'll see him this week," Shaw said. "It's been efficient at times and inefficient at times. Kevin does such a great job with it also and we've kind of gone back to letting Kevin do it because it's less of a red flag. But I don't think it's completely on the shelf."
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has extensive family ties to Notre Dame. Hogan's father and sister, along with between 10-20 cousins and 5-6 aunts and uncles, attended the school. Notre Dame did recruit Hogan, but declined to offer him a scholarship.
Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy attended Brophy Prep, which is located about 20 minutes from Sun Devil Stadium. If Arizona State beats Arizona this weekend, Murphy and Stanford will travel to Tempe to face the Sun Devils. While acknowledging that playing at home might be advantageous to some of his teammates, Murphy would not be opposed to travelling to playing so close to his home in Arizona.
"I've never played there so I wouldn't be upset if that's what happened," Murphy said.
Despite leading the nation in sacks, Murphy was not named a finalist for the Bednarik Award (top defensive player in the nation), or the Butkus Award (top linebacker) when those lists were released this week. Murphy took the news in stride.
"The biggest thing is that awards don't win football games," Murphy said. "As long as we're winning I'll be a happy camper here. I don't pay attention to it much. It's mostly kind of for family and friends to pay attention to. But until winning awards helps you pass rush, I'll be just fine where I am.
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