Regardless of what happened last week in Corvallis, today's game at Stanford Stadium against USC remains the most anticipated of the year. It is the mystique of the Trojans, with their string of Pac-10 championships and national championship games. It is the memory of the game between these two teams two years ago at Stanford that brought a national audience to the edge of their seat, with USC narrowly avoiding a monumental upset. It is also the two weeks we have waited since the last time the Cardinal took the field, with a bye week to build the anticipation.
Stanford today may be in possession of the greatest wide receiver health and depth since they opened the season in Eugene. Fifth-year senior Marcus McCutcheon returned after tearing his MCL and has seen the field the last two games. Redshirt junior Evan Moore finally saw the field in Tempe after a stress reaction held him out for more than a month.
With those two veterans returning to the fold, plus a pair of walk-ons in redshirt sophomore Kelton Lynn and redshirt junior Mike Miller, Stanford has some options. However, the Cardinal will start a pair of true freshman at wide receiver in today's titanic test against USC. Richard Sherman and Austin Yancy are slated to be split out wide when the Cardinal take the field this afternoon on offense, which is something of a surprise. Though fans at Stanford Stadium, as well as a national television audience, will marvel at the fact, the freshmen duo do not see it the same way.
"We don't really deal with it like that," says Sherman. "It's just pretty much going out and having fun. Another day on the field, having a lot of fun playing football. It's not all about the hype or the TVs. It's about playing football and getting your job done."
On paper, two true freshmen at wide receiver for any team playing USC is alarming. It is less so for this Stanford team. Yancy has started four of the last five games, and Sherman started against Navy before being passed by Lynn at his position.
But the juxtaposition of talent and experience on the field today is worth noting. Sherman has a total of 175 receiving yards and one touchdown in his college career. Yancy has amassed 152 yards with no scores. USC's Steve Smith came back from an injury last week at Oregon State and hauled in 258 yards and two touchdowns in one game.
Stanford senior Mark Bradford is the player who could ostensibly stack up with Smith, but Bradford is done for the year after ligament damage and a fractured bone in his foot suffered in early September. Moore could make a big splash if healthy and productive, but he is still working toward the former and struggling with the latter. The 6'7" fourth-year wideout caught one pass in his return at Arizona State, an eight-yarder in the fourth quarter, while dropping two passes. Rounding into his former form is not as easy as one might think, a source of greater frustration for Moore than that of any coaches or fans.
"I think some of Evan's frustration is trying to get healthy and realizing that he has been out a long time," offers head coach Walt Harris. "It's not that easy to get back in there. I don't mean necessarily playing. I mean getting back in there executing, doing the details of releases, route reads, adjustments, etc. I think he is so excited being back and so focused on being back that I think he has slowed himself down because he hasn't focused on the details."
More than unexpected, it seems unnatural for Evan Moore to not line up as a starter for Stanford in this most challenging game of the season. He is the "big gun" in the Cardinal's belt, but he will remain in the holster - at least initially - when toe meets leather today at Stanford Stadium. The good news is that Moore worked with Harris and wide receivers coach Tucker Waugh these past two weeks and made measured progress. Harris in particular points to a much-improved practice on Wednesday.
"I saw a big improvement," Harris shares. "He really made an effort at trying to do all the little things and being respectful of all the things that go into his play. He actually played pretty well."
But the primary load and responsibility today falls upon Yancy and Sherman. The latter has been a player of particular fan interest this season because of his demonstrated talent in high school, unprecedented summer training at Stanford and then his rollercoaster ride of success and setbacks this fall. Sherman was called into action just a few plays after Bradford was injured in the first quarter at San Jose State, and he responded with six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. He started the next week versus Navy but played poorly and moved to the sideline. He has not started since, and initially responded with some incidents of immaturity in practice.
"I think at the beginning, I wasn't reacting very well," the freshman admits. "Now I think I've stepped up to the challenge. There is going to be competition everywhere you go, so I just have to realize that and step up to the challenge. Start working hard and go back to my high school ways because in high school, I had to work and had to get the job done."
"I have mentally matured some because I realized what I have to do," Sherman says. "I had to start practicing better and make practice like a game. Like Coach Waugh says: 'Stop being 18 and start playing football again.'"
"They've been really supportive," he says of the Cardinal coaches. "They actually supported me through all of it and always told me to keep working hard. When I was making mistakes, they told me what I was doing wrong and exactly how to fix it. They pretty much motivated me."
Redshirt junior T.C. Ostrander will be under center today for his second start of the year, and he marvels at the responsibility and experiences that Sherman and Yancy have faced.
"The younger guys improve the quickest," the quarterback comments. "Looking back at my true freshman year, I can't imagine coming in and playing. It would be overwhelming. I think they've done an admirable job in a tough situation, and they're getting better week to week."
"They know what they are doing a lot better now," Ostrander adds. "They have improved physically, as well. I think that they are more used to playing, so they don't get so excited. Everybody gets excited, but they stay more focused and their approach is a lot better."
"It gets easier week-by-week once you get used to what's going on. Once you have a foundation of the offense, you can build on that. It gets a lot easier," Yancy says. "It's knowing the reasons behind what we're doing instead of just knowing what to do. Knowing why you would run this route in this situation and be able to recognize the coverages... I think I'm more comfortable doing that than I was before."
For Yancy, a relatively unheralded recruit who came to Stanford from League City (Tex.), there is yet more on the line today. The 6'3.5" athlete is slated to be a game captain for the Cardinal. Yancy is not just the first true freshman to be named a captain this year. He is also the first true frosh to receive that honor in Walt Harris' head coaching career.
"It's a big honor, especially for a game like USC," the freshman reflects. "That adds more responsibility to the game and to you individually, but it's a team game and they're behind me."
"He's grown in many areas," friend and fellow frosh Sherman shares. "Catching. Route running. His cuts coming out of routes have gotten a lot better since camp - everybody has noticed it. And his hands. He snags pretty much every ball out of the air. It's pretty cool to watch."
The frosh duo are sharing some rather unique experiences through this season. They always run off the practice field together, often laughing and jousting. They room together in hotels on the road. They take repetitions in practice together, and today they will for the first time start together.
Though one hails from a town of 45,000 halfway between Houston and Texas City, and the other is from Long Beach (Calif.), they started their kinship during the summer. While Sherman was on campus attending summer school at Stanford, the two talked on the phone about his experiences.
"I think it's been really good to have somebody that's going though the same thing that you're going through. We are getting to do a lot of same stuff together," Yancy says. "It's really comforting, like a support system where we can depend upon each other."
Yancy also cites the upperclassmen for making a difference in the growth of the freshmen. Bradford, Moore and McCutcheon have been mostly on crutches this fall, but they have added constant coaching and support for the youngsters.
"I feel like everybody is behind me. If I have troubles or I'm having problems understanding something, Evan or some of the older guys will come and help me out and make sure I'm moving in the right direction," the Texan tells us. "They're always around, whether they're hurt or not. They're still on the practice field with us and still in our meetings with us. They can show us things on film that we wouldn't see ourselves. I feel like they're helping me, and I'm not just out there by myself."
Support. Improvement. Confidence. Those things sound nice, but the pressure to perform will be great for the freshmen, and for that matter the entire offense, this afternoon. Last year against USC, Stanford turned the ball over four times and trailed 37-0 in the first 22 minutes. This year's Stanford offense is more anemic, and despite the lack of bulletproof performances from the Trojans, the challenges expected against the USC defense are severe.
"I think the difference between them and most of the teams we have played is that they close on the ball like no team I have seen this year," Harris says. "They have great speed and pursuit. #58 [Ray Maualuga] and #55 [Keith Rivers] - those guys chase the ball and make things happen. They are really fast and quick, as well as quite a few other guys."
"We need to start fast, play well, play smart, take care of the ball," the coach continues. "We need to do all of the above to get our confidence up and competing with the idea of believing."
Stanford has struggled all year to find offensive success out of the gate. Notre Dame was the only counterexample, and that ended with a field goal. Can the Cardinal realistically expect to come out of the blocks firing with freshmen at the starting wide receiver positions? The oddsmakers in Las Vegas think not. The one hope to which the Cardinal can cling is the extra week of practice and preparation. Their gameplan should be tighter than normal, and players have been beaming with confidence since Sunday, when they enjoyed what was regarded as one of the best practices of the year. Workouts the remainder of the week were rousing successes as well.
"The chemistry of the team is coming together. Everybody is catching onto plays. Everybody pretty much has a grasp of what they have to do," Sherman says. "Every play, someone has made a mistake. Make a mistake here, make a mistake there. A dropped pass here. A fumble there. Now everybody is catching their assignments, catching the ball, blocking their man, holding onto the ball. Everything is looking a lot better."
"I'm looking forward to what we can do in this game and make some big plays because I feel that we worked hard these past two weeks, including the bye week. As a team, we're looking really good. Everybody is really motivated. It's going to be a good game," the freshman forecasts.
The fresh optimism of these wide-eyed wideouts is a stark contrast to Stanford's 0-8 season. There has not been a "good game" to date. The odds are against today's tilt against USC being the first, but don't tell that to Yancy and Sherman. They're anxious to take on all comers, regardless of the record.
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