Stanford's vaunted defensive depth will be put to the test on Saturday when the Cardinal faces Arizona State. Several Stanford players sustained injuries last week. Starting defensive end Henry Anderson and reserve cornerback Barry Browning were hurt in the Army game, and backup linebacker Blake Martinez was injured in practice.
All three injured players were in Stanford's two deep, but Anderson is the only defensive starter and most prominent player who was forced out of action.
"I don't know exactly how long (Henry will be out)," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He'll be out for a few weeks, for sure. It wasn't a chop block, it was kind of weird... Sometime in the next couple of days. I'll have a better gauge about how long, but it will be a few weeks."
"It's not season ending. He should be back hopefully before the end of the year. When I have a better idea of how long I have no problem telling you guys. Whether it's going to be four weeks or six weeks or whatever, I'll let you know."
Stanford is better suited than some teams to handle the absence of a player of Anderson's caliber. Though he wasn't technically listed as a starter, redshirt senior defensive end Josh Mauro has been among the most productive players on the Cardinal's defense. Last week, Mauro was Stanford's co-leader in tackles with seven.
"As I've been saying from the beginning, Josh Mauro is a heck of a football player, and (he) was our defensive player of the game last week," Shaw said. "All of us coaches have been saying the same thing: This kid is going to play in the NFL. The fact that he quote unquote wasn't a starter as far as what these pieces of paper say is crap. Because he plays a lot and has played a lot and now quote unquote he gets to be out there on the first play of the game so now he's a starter has never meant anything to us and doesn't mean anything to the NFL guys either. Because as the NFL guys have rolled through, they keep saying, 'Wow, this guy flashes at you.'"
Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Trent Murphy has played alongside Mauro for several seasons. Murphy has witnessed significant growth in Mauro over the course of their careers.
"He's matured a ton," Murphy said. "We call him the 'Wild Horse Rider' because he's gung ho a lot of times one direction. He's found a way to kind of control his speed and power and be productive on the field and do his job within the scheme. He's been a great player. I thought he could have played a couple years ago for us if he was in that position and he's definitely in a great position to start for us now."
"We're all close enough and play enough together that whether you're actually listed as a starter or not you're still one of those key guys and we've seen him that way for a while."
In addition to Mauro, the versatility of the individual players along defensive line could help soften the blow of Anderson's injury.
"There are very few guys on our line that can't play all four places," Shaw said. "Josh Mauro was listed at one place, (but) Josh Mauro backs up everybody. He rotated in for (Ben Gardner), he rotated in for (Henry Anderson), he rotated in at nose. He can do it all. That's how we try to train our guys so that we never get stuck as far as not having a backup at one position. They all train at all positions."
Anderson's absence should also result in more opportunity for the team's younger defensive lineman. Sophomore Aziz Shittu saw the most extensive playing time of his Stanford career last week against Army.
"(We) started to see the quickness that he showed when he was in high school," Shaw said. "It's just getting used to playing college football. He's practiced really well all training camp and we still think he has a bright future ahead of him. It's just that transition between being able to play and being able to play and make an impact. And hopefully soon that's coming, because he's fast, he's explosive."
Stanford could also require contributions from its fifth and sixth defensive linemen, Ikenna Nwafor and Nate Lohn.
"We have some other guys that we're counting on to keep coming, Nate Lohn and Ikenna Nwafor in particular," Shaw said. "Those six guys (Lohn, Nwafor, Shittu, Parry, Gardner and Mauro) have to be ready to come in and help us out."
Sophomore linebacker Blake Martinez suffered an undisclosed injury in practice last week. He was replaced on the depth chart by redshirt junior Joe Hemschoot.
"Blake got hurt in practice," Shaw said. "Blake will be out I'd imagine at least for the next 3-4 weeks. He's not season ending either. His (injury) might be a little bit less (than Henry's). He's moving around decently. But he definitely won't play this week or next week."
Senior cornerback Barry Browning is "doubtful" to play on Saturday.
"There were a few different things that he was dealing with," Shaw said. "He fell extremely awkwardly and there were multiple body parts that had to get checked out. That's the part that sucks, that's been Barry's history between his shoulders and all kinds of stuff. I'd say Barry's doubtful this week and hopeful for the following week."
Hewitt update: After playing only a few snaps in Stanford's season opener, fullback Ryan Hewitt didn't play at all in the Cardinal's win over Army. Hewitt, who suffered a knee bruise in late August, did participate in practice on Tuesday, however, and is feeling better.
"Hewitt's going to practice most of the day today and then all day tomorrow," Shaw said. "And then we should know hopefully by Thursday on Hewitt. He says he feels great for the first time in a month, which is nice. We need Ryan Hewitt to be healthy."
Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan is eager for the return of his backfield mate.
"Thankfully we've had two fullbacks who have done a great job in Pat (Skov) and Lee (Ward), but Hewitt's a playmaker, great in the run game and then he can get out in the flat and catch passes and split out wide," Hogan said. "So he adds another dimension to the game. When he's ready to come back it will add something more to our offense."
An offensive rarity: In the day and age of the spread offense, Arizona State will face pro-style attacks in consecutive weeks. Last weekend, the Sun Devils topped Wisconsin 32-30. This week, they'll face Stanford, whose offense shares many similiarites with the Badgers'.
"I think it helps both (Arizona State and Stanford)," Shaw said. "I think it helps them as far as facing a team that will play with a tight end and a fullback on the field at the same time, which is kind of rare. But to stay in that same mode two weeks straight as far as game planning I think helps us because sometimes we have a hard time anticipating what people are going to do. We're watching film and we never see a tight end or fullback on the field and we don't know how people are going to play us. At the very least we see some instances of how they played Wisconsin. They'll make changes and they'll do extra things, but at least (we'll have) a basis of how they're going to line up periodically."
Trent Murphy agreed with his coach's assessment.
"It will definitely help," Murphy said. "I feel like we just played Wisconsin (in the Rose Bowl) the other day. It's a little while now, but we're familiar with that team and we played against a lot of their offensive line so we know how physical ASU is because we know how physical Wisconsin is. That will be helpful looking at the film for us."
Gearing up for "The Gauntlent": Stanford will begin its Pac-12 conference schedule on Saturday, and unlike some teams in other conferences, won't enjoy a cupcake opponent from this point forward.
"I've been talking about this for three years now, us going to a nine game (conference) schedule means you don't get a break," Shaw said. "You don't get to schedule late season byes. You don't get to schedule late season nonconference opponents that maybe aren't as good as you are. It's tough. Everybody in our conference has a run of five or six games in a row that you look at and say, 'Oh, here we go.' And that's to me what makes it hard. That's what makes it special. You can go on a run and win four or five straight in our conference without any breaks in there, I think it deserves attention."
"It's a gauntlet. That's the way we look at it. It's a gauntlet. And you have to be able to rise to the occasion every seven days from now until the end of the season with a Thursday game in there somewhere. But it's about realizing that every game is important, no one is bigger than the other one. You can't slight any opponent. You can't look past any opponent. You need to live in seven day existences. And once that game is over, no matter what happens positively or negatively."
The start of conference play will also bring an uptick in intensity level.
"The first two games, they were real games, but now we know this is our conference and there's no break," Kevin Hogan said. "The real season starts now, so we have to step it up."
Added Josh Mauro: "You always amp it up a little bit more for the Pac-12," Mauro said. "It's kind of nice to get the season started with the out of conference play and establish who you are as a team but when conference play starts, like Coach Shaw said, we have to take it up an extra notch across the board in all three units."
Emulating Sutton: Arizona State senior defensive lineman Will Sutton is widely regarded as one of the top players at his position in the nation. Last season Sutton registered 23.5 tackles for loss, and, perhaps unbeknownst to him, served as a teaching tool to Stanford's defensive linemen.
"I had our guys last year cut out Will Sutton and show them this is what a guy who changes games looks like," Shaw said. "(He's) relentless, great with his hands. He gets blocked initially and then gets unblocked. (He) pursues from the backside. He's great against the pass and against the run. That's been the standard on the defensive line for our conference and we're trying to get our guys to make sure they understand that and play to that level."
Flacco Fever: Midway through Stanford's win over Army, the chant "We Want Flacco" began to ring through Michie Stadium. The Army cadets weren't referring to NFL quarterback Joe Flacco, but instead, John Flacco, Joe's younger brother and a safety on the Stanford team.
"We had heard beforehand that the cadets are very spirited during the game," Shaw said. "It started during pregame. They read bios. They pick certain guys to say things to, to try to get their attetion. They were on Shayne (Skov) for a little bit. They transitioned to somebody else, they transitioned to somebody else. For some reason they got on Flacco and stayed on him. And John enjoyed it."
Flacco did more than enjoy the good-natured taunting. He embraced the cadets, and even led them in their traditional cheer. In turn, the cadets showered Flacco with affection; he's received more than 1,000 friend requests on Facebook from cadets and has become a popular topic on twitter.
"That guy is a legend right now," Murphy said. "That's the funniest thing. I'm having such a good time following that on Facebook and Twitter. John Flacco, they're going crazy over him. He'll probably be an honorary captain for the Army/Navy game or something.
"They were kind of heckling during the game a little bit. I think it started as heckling for Flacco but he kind of showed them love in return to their heckle and gave them like a fist pump or something. They were entertained by it and it spread like wildfire. I didn't really let myself notice it until like the last four or five minutes of the fourth quarter. He did their rocket chant and it was hard not to notice at that point."
Recent Series History: Last time Stanford played Arizona State, late in the 2010 season, this happened:
The Cardinal ended up defeating the Sun Devils on their way to an Orange Bowl victory. Arizona State has undergone a complete overhaul since the 2010 season. The Sun Devils have a new coaching staff, a different roster, and even temporarily adopted a new mascot.
Stanford is also a different program now than it was then.
"We're so different," Shaw said. "We went into that game at Arizona State with the best quarterback in the nation, three receivers that are playing in the NFL fight now, three tight ends that are playing in the NFL right now, (two) offensive linemen that are playing in the NFL right now. I think we're still getting back to where we were there. We were extremely explosive offensively. We're trying to get back to that (explosiveness). Defensively we were still finding ourselves that year. This year I think we have a more entrenched identity not to mention having all of the fourth and fifth year seniors that we do have on the defensive sides. I would say there are differences from my vantage point."