An Elite Rivalry
With its gritty win at Oregon State, Stanford has earned positioning on the inside track to at least the January 1 Rose Bowl. Now, as the Cardinal lick their wounds during a mini-bye week, they're turning their attention to a pursuit of greater glory: Oregon is coming to town. The prize fight is here, and a win on November 7 can keep the Farm Boys alive in their quest for a national championship. They can also retain bragging rights in the Pac-12's fiercest on-field feud.
Stanford put on one of the most dazzling defensive displays in college football history while silencing the Ducks 17-14 at Autzen Stadium last year. The Cardinal held Oregon over 40 points under their regular season scoring average in that game and continued the rivalry's unforgiving trend: This game has cost the loser a shot at the national championship in three consecutive seasons. There's a chance that the 2013 edition will be no different.
Ben Gardner: A Diamond in The Rough
Stanford will confront the looming pressure cooker without defensive end Ben Gardner, whose college career ended Saturday when he tore his pectoral muscle while trying to corral Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion. Though David Shaw said Gardner's injury was unrelated to the recurring arm ailment he had battled throughout October, it came in a nearby location on the left side of his chest. No. 49 will undergo surgery on Thursday. He faces a daunting recovery that will require at least several months, though the NFL is still a possibility afterward.
"From two stars to a guy that NFL teams are talking about," Shaw said. "He'll have a chance at the next level to get into camp and try to make a team."
Gardner's only scholarship offer from a BCS school came after in-state power Wisconsin passed on him for a player who soon transferred out of the Badgers' program. It was from Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, whose father Jack -- a Wisconsin resident -- had noticed Gardner in high school and recommended that his son offer the Mequon native a scholarship. The younger Harbaugh followed through on his dad's advice, and that move ended up netting an integral piece of the Cardinal's resurgence: Gardner finished his career with 34 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks, and a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, the program that snubbed him. His fourth down goal line stop against the Badgers ended up being Stanford's winning difference in Pasadena.
"People have doubted me for my entire career and they will continue to do so," Gardner said. "But I trust that my experiences at Stanford have put me in a position where I cannot fail."
Gardner was regarded as one of the smartest defensive players in the Pac-12, and that intelligence was instrumental to his effectiveness in blocking quick kicks (he knocked down three of those during his career) and in helping derail Oregon's vaunted read-option attack. Gardner has already joked with Shaw about deserving a coaching stipend because of the post-injury leadership role that he has taken on in practice.
Relief Via Good Injury News
The loss has certainly been difficult for Gardner's teammates to swallow.
"Ben's one of my best friends on the team and in the world," fellow defensive end Josh Mauro said. "It still hasn't set in that I'm not going to play with him again at Stanford."
There is some good news: Stanford is simultaneously healing up on the defensive line. Defensive end Henry Anderson, who was also instrumental to victory in Eugene last season, looks to make his return from a game two knee injury next Thursday. Shaw would not confirm his availability, but a number of Stanford players have indicated that Anderson likely will play. He's participated, fully-padded, in drills this week and is scheduled for a light practice on Saturday before fully diving into the mix on Monday.
"I think thankfully, Henry Anderson will be back," Blake Lueders told me.
Lueders also added that defensive tackle David Parry, who has been dealing with a painful lower abdominal issue, is feeling much better now.
Meanwhile, Jordan Williamson (leg muscle strain) has resumed light kicking during practice and is on pace for a November 7 return to game action. Receiver Devon Cajuste (bone bruise) is hoping to return to practice by this weekend.
"He feels good about where he is and the trainers feel good about where he is," Shaw said. "I think just a couple more days of rest and we'll see if he's where we hope he is."
Much hinges on No. 89's availability versus Oregon: The Ducks feature the Pac-12's leading defense, and Cajuste has possibly been the Cardinal's best perimeter run blocker when not hauling in passes to take pressure off Ty Montgomery downfield.
"Hit Them in The Mouth"
The Bootleg has written extensively about Stanford's recent offensive struggles, and fullback Ryan Hewitt agrees that the team suffered from a departure of sorts from the power running game at Reser Stadium.
"Personally, I think we should just line up and do what we do, do what we excel at, and not try to out-fancy teams or confuse them," Hewitt said. "We should just line up and hit them in the mouth and do what we hang our hat on. In my opinion, obviously I'm biased because I like it when I'm on the field most, I feel like we have good success doing that. So I hope we do that and I think coach Shaw agrees and I think that's kind of the direction we'll go."
Hewitt is correct about the success Stanford has had running the football: Tyler Gaffney has racked up over 100 yards in each of his last three outings. Compared to his 36-carry performance against UCLA, though, he saw a significant reduction in opportunities (down to 22) during the Cardinal's game at Oregon State while quarterback Kevin Hogan (8-for-18, 88 yards) struggled for much of the evening.
"Kevin missed a couple throws, I called a couple bad plays, and we had a couple guys open and we didn't have time to throw it," Shaw explained. "That will kill you, absolutely kill you... So we've got to make sure that none of those three things happen again."
- The Butkus Award is given to the nation's most outstanding linebacker, and Shayne Skov made the 16-player semifinalist list. Trent Murphy, who's in the top 10 nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss, did not. "I would hope that it's temporary and an oversight," Shaw said. "So hopefully there will be some communication between us and them because that doesn't make any sense." Murphy did make the 16-player semifinalist list for the Bednarik Award, given to the most outstanding defensive player in the nation.
- Over thirty years after the end of his Stanford career, John Elway will finally see his collegiate No. 7 jersey retired at the Stanford-Oregon showdown. "It's unbelievably long overdue," Shaw said. The No. 7 jersey will no longer be worn by a Cardinal player after Ty Montgomery and Aziz Shittu finish their careers on The Farm. Shaw indicated that there's a possibility that Toby Gerhart, who wore the same number, will be honored like Elway in the future. Meanwhile, it's also possible that no one will wear Andrew Luck's No. 12 jersey again. "It was on fire for about three years and it's still warm," Shaw said. "I think it would burn somebody's skin if they put it on."
- Shaw is flying to Washington, D.C. on Thursday to see his former Stanford teammate Cory Booker sworn into office as a United States Senator.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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