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When Mike Montgomery told me last December about Teyo Johnson heading to the NFL, I was initially stunned. But later, as I drove home, I figured that his loss wouldn't be that detrimental to Stanford Football's hopes in 2003.
Then a few weeks later, I found out about Kwame Harris' decision to defect to the pros. And that's when I started freaking out.
When Kwame bolted, that left Kirk Chambers as the only offensive lineman with any negotiable game experience. And, as every good football fan knows, a well-schooled offensive line is the key to everything. Without it, running backs can't find holes, and quarterbacks can't find room to breathe. If the offensive line doesn't do its job, everything else suffers.
So while I was discouraged with the offensive line's performance throughout most of the first few weeks of the season, I also wasn't surprised. It's unfair to expect one senior leader and a bunch of kids to turn into the Hogs overnight. And you can bet I feared the worst when I saw Brian Head crumpled on the Coliseum turf with a knee injury.
But the Card have responded by finding a mini-groove, first by battering the Bruins, then by blowing away the Sun Devils. And while the Chris Lewises and J.R. Lemons and Evan Moores of the Stanford squad deserve their share of the credit, it's the guys up front who have shown the most improvement over the past few weeks.
So, I dedicate this column to the young men who have largely made Stanford's mini-renaissance on offense possible. The next time you come across Kirk Chambers, Ismail Simpson, Drew Caylor, Jeff Edwards, Mike Sullivan, or Josiah Vinson (who relieved Edwards after he left with a knee injury), shake their hands and pat them on the back for jobs well done.
I've always been intrigued by the mystique that seems to surround offensive linemen. They're like the Secret Service. Nothing must get between them and the ballcarrier. It's the most thankless, anonymous position on the field, and whenever one of those guys actually gets singled out, it's usually because he just got caught holding somebody or just allowed his quarterback to get creamed. And on top of that, there's the physical toll that these guys pay for each game, each drive-block, each collision.
Yet, because of the anonymity and the sacrifice, they play the most respectable and honorable position on the field. And they also have to function as a full-fledged five-man unit, one teammate's actions directly correlated with another. Maybe because of this, offensive linemen tend to be the most thoughtful and insightful set of guys to talk to. And when offensive linemen speak, everyone, from teammates to the media, tends to listen.
No other unit pays as big a physical and mental price as those guys do, so perhaps that's why they are more able to put it all in perspective. Is it any wonder that perhaps the Raiders' biggest voice of reason of late has been, of all people, Barret Robbins?
Offensive linemen get plenty of blame when things fail, but relatively little credit when things are going well. That has certainly been the case with Stanford this year. A couple weeks ago, we were all lamenting the Card line's poor offensive showing against a pedestrian-at-best Oregon defense. Those guys seriously struggled, with highlighter-yellow jerseys in Chris Lewis' face all day and the Cardinal running game a distant memory.
Of course, the most damning sequence occurred during the colossal goal-line failure that began that game's fourth quarter. Of the now-infamous seven-play sequence, the line got absolutely no push on four of the doomed plays, a bobbled snap killed a quarterback snack attempt, and the Ducks broke through for two sacks. Brutal.
Yet this was the same offensive line that handled UCLA's devastating blitz beautifully the very next week. Erased the Bruins like they weren't even there. Lewis had time to pass, and Tolon had lanes to run through and pick up tough yardage.
This was also the same offensive line that played its most complete game against Arizona State. There are no official statistics for linemen to accumulate, but the following sets of numbers are still excellent indicators of what the Stanford's line was able to accomplish: 179 yards rushing from the running backs (with J.R. Lemon responsible for 151 of those yards), two sacks allowed, and only two penalties.
Considering that one of those penalties was a holding call that was declined, and the other was a rare helping-the-runner call, Stanford played virtually a perfect game in the penalty category.
This resurgence is obviously a work in progress, and they'll obviously have a huge test this weekend in Corvallis. Every time I think of that town, I think back to the horror that was the 1996 meeting between the Cardinal and the Beavers. In what had to be Jerry Pettibone's finest hour, Chad Hutchinson was sacked an incredible 11 times - 10 times in the second half alone.
With the ghosts of that game still lingering with me, I'm hoping that history doesn't repeat itself this time around. But the way these guys have been playing of late, I feel good that the Stanford offensive line will do what it takes to keep the Card in a bowl hunt.
RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS
Stanford's total offensive yardage in the first half vs. Arizona State: 295. Stanford's total offensive yardage for the entire game vs. UCLA: 206…
Attendance at last week's game was announced at 26,950. That's it. That's sad…
For those that didn't see the game either in person or on TV, don't be fooled by the final score or the final stats. Andrew Walter did virtually nothing while the game was in doubt, and the only thing that stopped Stanford was the Cardinal themselves. Take away Lewis' interception, a dumb personal foul on Evan Moore, and a couple of instances where Stanford may have tried to get a bit too cute, and it would have been a complete rout by halftime…
In my mind, the biggest play of the game came late in the first quarter with Arizona State facing a third-and-two at their own 40. Randy Hill took the handoff, headed right, and ran smack into great penetration from Amon Gordon. Oshiomogho Atogwe and Brian Gaffney helped clean up. The Sun Devils didn't recover from that play until garbage time….
Who is the bigger Pac-10 bust this year: Arizona State or Washington?
OK, I expected Washington to struggle against Arizona. But I didn't expect them to lose! I feel badly for those kids who play for the Huskies (and I feel badly for myself too… since I picked those guys to go to the Rose Bowl), but I can't help but feel great for those kids on the Wildcats squad. After all they've been through the past couple of years, they deserved to experience something like that…
Has any Pac-10 team perfected the tough loss like the cal Bears have?
Is anyone surprised that UCLA can't find a way to win a ball game anymore? I didn't think so…
Some folks questioned Matt Kegel's intellect and leadership before this season began. I don't know if those critics still feel that way, but I guarantee you no one is challenging that young man's courage and toughness…
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… what's up with all these sports people guaranteeing wins? First Simeon Rice, then former Beaver Chad Johnson (have you seen some of the catches he's been making this year?), and now Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice. You think Joe Namath ever thinks to himself, "what monster have I created?"
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… Kellen Winslow II should not have gone on his post-game locker room tirade while the cameras were on. But the only two reasons why this has been such a "big" story is because of who Winslow plays for and who his father is. He's a 20-year-old kid. He'll learn…
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… Denver Bronco fullback Mike Anderson gets suspended four games for a positive marijuana test. Judging from the final three minutes of their last game against the Patriots, the man they really needed to test was former cal star Deltha O'Neal. How else to explain not trying to field the ball on a free kick?
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… big props to Jimmy V's for hooking the press box up with some fantastic potato soup last Saturday. Not a bad way to warm up during a cold football day…
How stupid was I for picking UCLA to beat the Cougs at Wazzu last week?
Stanford @ Oregon State. As mentioned, I like what Stanford's offensive line has been able to do the past couple of weeks. But when I visualize this game, I see the Stanford defense banging heads with Steven Jackson. I see Jackson struggling to gain consistent yardage. But I also see Jackson breaking two big, game-changing runs. Those two runs could be the difference. I like Oregon State by 9.
Washington @ cal. The Huskies are in absolute turmoil. The Bears are a disappointed team. They also might be without a completely healthy Adimchinobe Echemandu. That will be troublesome, but right now I can't pick the Huskies to win until they show me something. Keith Gilbertson loses at Memorial Stadium, just like old times. I like cal by 6.
Oregon @ UCLA. I picked the wrong week to pick UCLA to run through somebody. I like UCLA by 12.
Arizona State @ Washington State. The good news for the Sun Devils is that last week's wintry conditions at Stanford Stadium might have been good preparation for Pullman in mid-November. The bad news for the Sun Devils is that they seem to have already packed it in for the year. I like Washington State by 16.
U$C @ Arizona. Back to reality, Arizona. I like U$C by 25.
Last week (straight up): 1-3, (ATS): 2-2.
This year (straight up): 18-11, (ATS): 10-17-1.
Got a thought on this column or on Stanford sports? E-mail me at email@example.com! The ones I like best will end up in next week's E-Mailbag…
Troy Clardy is a reporter for the Stanford Cardinal Farm Report, which airs Saturday mornings at 8:30 on Fox Sports Bay Area.
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