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Card battling through injuries ahead of critical contest against Sun Devils

Junior running back Barry Sanders (left) is coming off a very strong performance against Washington State. Sanders notched 68 yards on seven carries, good for a very impressive 9.7 yards per carry.

At Tuesday’s press conference, head coach David Shaw echoed his sentiments from Friday after the Washington State win that the team “was better this past week, offensively in particular” and that they “played much better with the offensive line, our quarterback played better, the defense — typical — played really, really well.” He praised the special teams, but conceded that there was room for growth in terms of field goal accuracy.

Junior running back Barry Sanders (left) is coming off a very strong performance against Washington State. Sanders notched 68 yards on seven carries, good for a very impressive 9.7 yards per carry.
Junior running back Barry Sanders (left) is coming off a very strong performance against Washington State. Sanders notched 68 yards on seven carries, good for a very impressive 9.7 yards per carry. (TRI NGUYEN/THE STANFORD DAILY)

As is the case after most Pac-12 games, the strength of the conference was made evident after last weekend, especially with Washington’s 31-7 rout at Cal. Visiting teams are 14-4 in conference games this season, bringing in to question whether home field advantage really is an advantage any more.

“We start the year saying all of these road places are hard to play at, but it’s been crazy. This conference is tough, it’s hard, it’s even. You can’t really say that anyone is better than anybody else on a given day.”

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In terms of injuries, Shaw reported that senior quarterback Kevin Hogan is “fine.” However, senior wide receiver Devon Cajuste will more than likely sit out against Arizona State; nevertheless, Shaw also stated that he “would be surprised if it was for more than one game.”

On the other hand, junior wide receiver Michael Rector will almost certainly play on Saturday, and senior outside linebacker James Vaughters received negative results from x-rays taken this week, and will most likely return to practice on Wednesday. In the event that Rector is unable to play, senior Jordan Pratt would fill Rector and Cajuste’s place.

Sophomore tight end Austin Hooper and senior cornerback Ra’Chard Pippens are questionable, with the chance of both players returning in time for Saturday’s contest as 50/50.

Shaw did express that not having Cajuste will impact the game, since the offense has come to rely on the senior “who’s been outstanding in the opportunities he’s had.” In the absence of Cajuste, the tight ends — sophomores Greg Taboada and Eric Cotton — along with sophomore wide receiver Francis Owusu and Pratt will be “worked back into the game plan.”

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In last Friday’s win over WSU, junior Barry Sanders and senior Remound Wright proved the benefits of having a tailback by-committee, recently criticized mostly for its inability to produce a true work horse like the Stepfan Taylor’s and Tyler Gaffney’s of the past.

Shaw explained that the ball carrier is chosen depending on set plays and runs that are going to be most effective against the defense. A fair number of runs are crafted for each player, with the starter determined based on what runs are scripted to work best against the opponent’s defense. Shaw does not give much weight to who is out on the field for the first play of the game.

Decisions of who will get touches is based on what runs are needed and the game plan; after that, Shaw said you “plug guys in for their runs.” Senior Kelsey Young did not get many touches on Saturday because only one of his runs was considered to be effective against WSU. For Shaw, it all comes down to “specific runs and who does those runs.”

At the start of the game against WSU, it happened to be Sanders’ plays that were scripted, but later on, Wright’s runs were called upon.

“Whenever I get a chance I’ll make the best of it and it just happened that those first couple runs were very successful and just when I’m in there I try to make the play,” said Sanders.

“Barry played hard, had great vision, broke a couple tackles and as the game wore on we were using the runs that Remound was prepared for and he ran hard and he broke tackles,” said Shaw.

In addition, Shaw noted that “it’s easier for [the players] to say ‘OK I have my four or five runs and I know all the adjustments and I’m ready to go,’ as opposed to having 12 runs and knowing all of the adjustments and reads and kills and potential play changes, etc… So from a knowledge standpoint it’s actually a lot easier. What I just don’t know is at the end of the game who is going to have the most carries.”

“Every run play has another play so if we run the same play with the same running back and if they change the defense, we change the play,” said Shaw.

***

The power of the Stanford defense has carried the Card through much of its season thus far, with one defensive player, in particular, standing out against the Cougars. Junior free safety Zach Hoffpauir recorded 15 tackles as part of his strong game. Shaw pointed to his physicality and his ability to cover and “bring his entire body into every hit” as reasons for why he is not hesitant in sending a safety into the nickel position.

Although overlooked by some schools for his size, Hoffapuir adopted a “hope that you don’t play me if you don’t recruit me” mentality, and plays with the intention to outwork everybody.

In the press conference, Hoffpauir, who has switched off this season playing at the nickel corner and free safety, said that he loves playing defense because “you don’t have to have the ball to make a play or have a play made for you” and that it is more fun to “knock somebody out and get a pick than get a touchdown pass.”

Junior inside linebacker Blake Marinez said that aggression on defense is what helps teams succeed when playing on the road, while also emphasizing the influence that the defense and hard hits can have in silencing a crowd, and in setting a physical tone for the game.

“You have to send that dominant front seven and then get coverage on the back end and once you can set that, everything starts coming easier,” said Martinez.

***

In looking ahead to ASU, Sanders implied that the Card have had a target on their backs ever since beating the Sun Devils in Tempe in the Pac-12 championship game last season. However, both Martinez and Shaw pointed out that with so much personnel turnover, this year’s contest will be an entirely new matchup.

While it remains unclear whether ASU’s starting quarterback Taylor Kelly will return to action from injury on Saturday, or if Mike Bercovici will continue to fill in for Kelly, Shaw is not concerned with ASU’s quarterback situation. He praised the backup quarterback Bercovici, who actually hosted Hoffpauir on his official visit to ASU, for his “moxie” and for being a “tough sucker” in and out of the pocket.

One player of note for the Sun Devils mentioned by Shaw was Jalen Strong, namely for his ability to cover a lot of ground. Shaw said of the wide receiver: “If the ball gets anywhere around [him] he’s going to grab it.” The Cardinal defense will play a role in forcing him to run away from his desired routes.

Alternatively, Sanders stated that the Cardinal offense will try to avoid just that, and get to the outside “and find some open grass” as it did against WSU.

Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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