Sports

Stanford football notebook: Cardinal preps for home opener

 
Bobby Okereke. Photo courtesy of Stanford Athletics.

After two tough road defeats, the Cardinal will play its much-anticipated home opener Saturday in a 7:30 p.m. contest against UCLA.

"Thank goodness," said Stanford coach David Shaw.


Eric Cotton
Fall classes start next week.

"It's tough around here early in the season," Shaw said. "But at the same time, I'm also kind of glad we waited this long because our students are back in town, where in years past, we've had big games against USC and others and our students aren't here, and it doesn't feel the same.

"That's the positive for me. With the students being back, first game at home, there should be some energy and excitement. I can't wait for the kickoff."

Neither can his players.

"It will feel real good," senior inside linebacker Bobby Okereke said. "Hopefully we can get comfortable, get in our groove again and start playing like us."

Shaw admitted the slow start has been difficult.

"Not what we wanted," he said. "I believe we've got good resolve with our veteran guys. I like to section the season off into quarters. Can't do anything about the first quarter, now it's time to attack the second quarter.

"Let's take those positives and negatives learned and move forward."

Shaw noted improved tackling and cited the individual performances of defensive linemen Harrison Phillips and Eric Cotton, and inside linebackers Okereke and Sean Barton.

Cotton, a converted tight end, collected a career-high seven tackles and a 15-yard sack in what Shaw called "the best game of his life."

Shaw also cited improvement with his revamped offensive line, which featured the first collegiate start of true freshman Walker Little at left tackle.

"Good, not great," Shaw said of the unit. "But positive. Walker Little is off to a good start and was impressive. Across the board, they all seemed comfortable."

Barton, who started the first three games and was becoming a force, left the San Diego State game with an injury in the second quarter and his status for the remainder of the season is uncertain. He ranks fourth on the squad in tackles with 14 and has excelled on special teams.

"He's just been such a tackling machine," said Shaw. "It's sad to see him get hurt because we love him. The season that he was having was shaping up to be pretty special. We look forward to getting him back whenever that is."

Fifth-year senior Kevin Palma and senior Joey Alfieri are expected to rotate in his absence.

The Stanford offense was limited to 64 passing yards against the Aztecs.

"First of all, credit goes to San Diego State," Shaw said. "They're a very underrated football team. Pass protection is very difficult, and they have a bunch of different blitz schemes and protection issues they create. When we did have time, we thought we had a couple guys open."

As for the sacks, Shaw said senior quarterback Keller Chryst continues to display good mobility and quickness in practice.

"It's hard when you're standing still and they're running full speed," said Shaw of the sacks.

Shaw's confidence in Chryst has not wavered.

"I believe we have a quarterback who can take advantage of the guys we have outside," he said. "We've got some speed, size and athleticism. We've got to give those guys opportunities to impact the game.

"He (Chryst) went back to work and looked great. I know the kid's mind is right where it needs to be. I think he's determined to come out and play a great game."

Fifth-year senior quarterback Ryan Burns saw limited action last week, often using his 6-5, 230-pound frame to deliver blocks. Shaw said that practice might continue periodically throughout the season.

"We could give him spots," he said. "He does a great job of whatever we ask him to do and is willing to do anything. He's not a little guy."

Shaw will continue to find more ways of using explosive running back Bryce Love in the offense, including the passing game.

"He's a special, special young man," Shaw said.

Love is still perfecting all aspects of his position, including pass blocking. A missed assignment on a cornerback blitz against San Diego State resulted in a sack and fumble.

"That's the hard part, and it's really emblematic of these last two games," said Shaw. "There were two sacks that were bad protection downs, but there were five outstanding pass protection downs, and on three of them he was blocking a defensive lineman."

Junior wide receiver Trenton Irwin and freshman Connor Wedington share the team-high in catches with 10. Both are looking for their first touchdown receptions.

"I think they (UCLA) are going to challenge us," Irwin said. "We haven't put great stuff on tape, but I think as a group, we can get the job done."

Asked if he prefers being called Trenton or Trent, Irwin doesn't care.

"I get that question a lot," he said. "I'm good with either."

Teammates call him "Shaggy" because of flowing hair and resemblance to the animated cartoon character on the television show Scooby-Doo.

"I love Scooby-Doo, so I'm going with it," said Irwin.

Although the Cardinal has downed UCLA nine straight times, the Bruins have a high-octane passing game triggered by junior quarterback Josh Rosen. He leads the nation in passing yards (1,283) and touchdowns (13). Rosen has been intercepted only twice and boasts a 169.77 quarterback rating.

"It's hard to come up with new words (to describe Rosen)," said Shaw. "Since the first time I saw him throw the ball as a junior in high school ... It's beautiful. It's how you're supposed to throw a football. Quick-release, and the ball always has the perfect trajectory. He pulls out the howitzer only when he needs it. He's a problem we have to deal with."

Added Okereke, "It will be a lot on the defensive backs and us to cover. Caleb Wilson is real elusive. It will be a challenge."

Six Bruins have at least one touchdown catch, topped by Darren Andrews with six. He has grabbed a squad-high 26 passes for 409 yards.

At the end of the first half last Saturday night, both teams left the field through the same tunnel. As Stanford players departed, chirping ensued from San Diego State players and Shaw became agitated.

However, he stressed it had nothing to do with the Aztec coaches.

"We did have a discussion," said Shaw. "But it was how to get this game back under control. Too much talking, too many guys in other guys faces. It's not college football. We're the adults; we're the coaches in charge of these young men to make sure they represent their universities and families the right way. Thankfully, it didn't rise in the second half."

Shaw said inside linebacker Mustafa Branch could return to practice this week, and that cornerback Terrance Alexander won't play, but is getting closer resuming workouts.

Shaw watched the highlights of former Stanford star Kevin Hogan throwing his first NFL touchdown pass last Sunday. It was a 23-yarder to Cleveland tight end David Njoku, the latter making a twisting catch in the end zone.

"He played well," Shaw said of Hogan. "Kevin looked like Kevin. He's not as sexy as some of the other quarterbacks coming out of college, but he's tough, athletic, smart and he's a gamer."

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