By Mark Solatu
Stanford special teams coach Pete Alamar decided to shake up his kickoff return team in practice this week, inserting starting fullback Ryan Hewitt and other players to jump-start the unit.
The move paid off Saturday night, as Ty Montgomery carted the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and returned another 72 yards late in the third quarter to set up the winning score in the fifth-ranked Cardinal's gritty 31-28 win against 15th-ranked Washington at Stanford Stadium.
"We made a big emphasis on that this week," said Alamar. "We were trying to get better, trying to break one and get it to the house. We've been close a couple times, so it was neat to see an emphasis and the kids take it to heart and then go out and execute it at a high level. I'm really proud of our players."
On both kickoff returns, 5-foot-9, 190-pound reserve running back Jackson Cummings from Rocklin helped spring Montgomery with a key block.
"It's real exciting to get out there first play of the game," Cummings said. "It's just one of those things where if everybody does their job, we've got multiple guys back there that have the juice to go the distance. I just did my job and Ty did his job and scored a touchdown. It's a beautiful thing when it works out like that."
It takes a certain mentality and toughness to excel on special teams. In many cases, the only time you receive attention is when you make a mistake. But special teams players are appreciated by the coaching staff and their fellow teammates, and more often than not help determine the outcome of a game.
"We take tremendous pride in special teams," said Jackson. "You never know when one play, one block is going to be a deciding factor. We work real hard during the work. Everybody has a role."
Redshirt freshman Barry J. Sanders returned a first quarter punt 29 yards to the Washington 36. Although Stanford failed to capitalize, the play created great field position.
"I caught the ball, saw some open space and tried to make the most of it," Sanders said. "We stressed this week that there were a lot of opportunities to make big plays and we were glad to be able to take advantage of some of those."
Junior cornerback Ronnie Harris, senior inside linebacker Joe Hemschoot, fifth-year senior linebacker Jarek Lancaster and fifth-year nickel back Usua Amanam are just some of Stanford's special team aces.
"Those guys are gonna be there play after play in the kicking game and they're huge for us," said Alamar. "They're not only good at it, but they bring a mentality and an attitude. You go back to fall camp, just the hard work that the kids have put in and see it pay off. For those guys to play well and make big plays and make things happen was real cool."
When Amanam was shaken up, Alamar replaced him on the punt coverage team with true freshman Francis Owusu. A highly touted wide receiver and consensus four-star recruit from Oxnard, Owusu made two tackles.
"I was just doing my job," Owusu said. "As a gunner, you just have to get a release on the corner. Ben (Rhyne) just put it in a great place and I made a play. It feels good to finally contribute to the team."
As usual, Lancaster, Hemschoot and Harris were all over the field. Lancaster had four tackles, Hemschoot three and Harris two.
"The biggest thing is this week we challenged our kickoff team because it really hasn't been up to par the last couple games, so coach made a lot of changes on personnel and what kind of schemes we're running," said Lancaster. "As you could see tonight, it was successful, so we have to keep that momentum into the next game and keep doing what we did tonight."
Added Hemschoot, "Our focus every week is changing field position. Getting a score out of it was huge to get the momentum going. Overall, we have some things to clean up, but that touchdown was big to start the game."
Alamar isn't sure if Washington tried a pooch kickoff on Montgomery's second big return, but it worked out well for the Cardinal.
"I don't know that they necessarily wanted it to go to him," he said. "It was deep enough that he was able to get over to it and get on it. In that situation, it's Ty's call to make and he grabs it and Jackson is there and he jumps out in front of him. There were guys all over the place that were doing a good job. It's a team effort."
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Stanford players made the walk to the stadium wearing black uniforms and black helmets -- instead of sweats -- for the fifth time. They last wore them against UCLA last year in the Pac-12 Championship Game and are now 5-0 in black.
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Inside linebacker Shayne Skov recorded a game-high 14 tackles -- 10 solo -- and also had 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker A.J. Tarpley contributed nine tackles and an interception, while defensive end Trent Murphy had two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, and jumped high in the air to deflect a pass that Tarpley intercepted.
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Here's a look at how Stanford's upcoming opponents did this week: Oregon 57, Colorado 16; UCLA 34, Utah 27; Washington State 44, Cal 27; and Notre Dame 37, Arizona State 34.
EXTRA POINTS: Stanford is 10-1 at home against teams ranked in the AP or USA Today Coaches polls since 2009 . . . Kevin Hogan is now 10-0 as a starter, with six of those victories coming against ranked opponents . . . The Cardinal extended its streak of forcing a turnover to 29-consecutive games, the second-longest in the nation behind Missouri (35) . . . Stanford has now won 13-straight games, the second-best streak in the country behind Ohio State (18) . . . The Cardinal has registered at least one tackle for loss in 40-straight games and at least one sack in 24 of its last 25 contests . . . Washington ran 88 plays to Stanford's 61 and led in first downs, 30-14 . . . Former running back Glyn Milburn was the honorary game captain for Stanford. He was also honored at halftime with the 2013 Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame class that included Lauren Fleshman (track and field/cross country), Jeffrey Hammonds (baseball), Keith Jones (men's basketball), Anthony Mosse (men's swimming), Olympia Scott (women's basketball), Logan Tom (women's volleyball) and Brenda Villa (women's water polo).
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