WHEN DAVID SHAW approached Wake Forest coaches to learn about the Demon Deacons' successful "slow mesh" offense, he received a cryptic response.
We can't tell you our secrets, they said, but we can offer you some advice: Watch film.
Shaw did so, and in Stanford's Pac-12 opener against USC, the Cardinal unveiled its version of the slow mesh, the run-pass option system that calls for the quarterback to make post-snap reads of the defense while in the motion of handing off. Rather than make a quick decision while holding the ball against the running back's chest, the quarterback allows the play to unfold more slowly before deciding whether to run or pass.
Four turnovers, including two in the shadow of the goal-line, prevented a more representative performance for the Stanford offense in a 41-28 loss to the Trojans. But Stanford rushed for 221 yards, the most in its past 35 games, since going for 244 against Oregon State on Nov. 10, 2018.
Stanford also picked up 33 first downs, the most in more than two decades.
"That style of RPO really puts a lot of pressure on the defense," said Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "They have to make a decision, and we're buying some time for the quarterback to make his decision.
"We have a quarterback (Tanner McKee) who can see over everybody, and he's a great decision-maker. He's got a quick release so he can pull it and, without a lot of windup, he can still throw the ball down the field.
"I'm excited about it. More importantly, our quarterback has a great feel for it. I thought we did well and we can do even better."
Tanner McKee runs the 'slow mesh.' Photo by John P. Lozano/ISIphotos.com.
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AN EARLY BYE week has put Stanford (1-1 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) in a position where it must play the remaining 10 games without a break. That stretch begins at No. 18 Washington (3-0) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with games to follow at Oregon, at home against Oregon State, and at Notre Dame in the next four weeks.
"We're hungry," said fifth-year receiver Michael Wilson. "This is a critical game for our program, for ourselves. Guys know what's at stake with this 'W.' If we can go into Washington, in a hostile environment, against a ranked opponent, and come out with a victory, it's not only going to give us confidence, it's going to set us in the right direction and help build momentum."
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THE CARDINAL WILL be without leading rusher E.J. Smith (206 yards on 30 carries) because of injury. Casey Filkins, who rushed for 77 yards on 16 carries against USC and had three catches for 28 yards, will get the start at running back.
Shaw said he hopes Smith will be ready for Oregon on Oct. 1.
Casey Filkins. Photo by Dave Bernal/ISIphotos.com.
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TWO DAYS AFTER the USC game, senior Branson Bragg announced his retirement. Bragg, a two-year starter, mostly at right offensive guard, was set to start at right guard this season. Levi Rogers has stepped in at right guard.
Bragg sent this message of explanation to Stanford fans on social media:
"I'm heartbroken to announce that I've decided to retire from football," he wrote. "This was the hardest decision I've ever had to make. With long-term lingering and intense symptoms stemming from a severe concussion I sustained in training camp, along with other mental health factors, I'm confident that stepping away is the best decision for me."
Said Shaw: "I couldn't be more proud of him. He's earned so much respect from his teammates, from the coaching staff, from everyone in our program. He's smart, he's got a great personality, he's a musician, a renaissance man. Football was just part of that for him. This young man has a bright future outside of football."
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FORTY YEARS AGO, Stanford beat a Washington team that was ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll and No. 2 by the Associated Press in perhaps the Cardinal's greatest victory in a series that began in 1893.
On Oct. 30, 1982, John Elway engineered Stanford's 43-31 upset on a rainy day at Stanford Stadium.
Elway completed 20 of 30 passes for 265 yards and threw two touchdown passes. Tight end Chris Dressel had six catches for 106 yards, with plenty of room down the middle, partly because Elway was so good at looking off the linebackers.
The Cardinal fought back from an early 17-7 deficit with 30 unanswered points. Vincent White cemented the victory with a 76-yard punt return that left Elway grinning and raising his arms in triumph as the Stanford band played and played, even as Stanford Stadium long had emptied. The sounds of "White Punks on Dope" echoed across the wooden bleachers.
Stanford discovered it didn't have to rely on Elway's superhuman talents to beat a team like Washington. And playing a part in Stanford's huge triumph, rather than dominating it, was the ideal send-off to Elway's Stanford career.
"Today," said coach Paul Wiggin, "we were a team."
John Elway and Paul Wiggin, after beating Washington in 1982. Photo by David Madison.
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HUSKY STADIUM IS expected to be loud, forcing the Cardinal to focus on non-verbal communication.
"I told the entire team, it's composure and communication," Shaw said. "We can't panic. I don't anticipate Tanner really having an issue with it. It's really guys being able to focus and listen with intention to any verbal communication, and to make sure we have not just one signal, but multiple hand signals for various things."
Senior inside linebacker Levani Damuni is looking forward to the challenge.
"I've always loved the road games," Damuni said. "Like Coach Shaw always talks about, when you're on the road, it's all about us. It's really us focusing on ourselves, and us against the world. I love that feeling. No matter what a team is ranked, it always feels like an upset when you win on the road."
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RECEIVER MICHAEL WILSON described his mindset during the week:
"Starting from the end of our last game, immediately my focus switches to our next game," he said. "Every rep in practice has got to be game speed. Every decision I make throughout the week is focused on, 'Is this going to help me perform better in the game? What decision am I going to make to give me the best opportunity, and put me in the best circumstance, to succeed.'"