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Big plays drop WSU

COUGARS

We’re done for the evening. We’ve got the unedited version of our game story on the jump. We also have added a couple of notebook items. That’s it. Read on.

••••••••••

• Here’s the raw version of my main story …

PULLMAN – A 63-yard touchdown pass on a quick out. An 85-yard kickoff return. A 39-yard fourth-down scoring run.

When they needed a big play Saturday, the Stanford Cardinal made them.

That was the difference in their 39-13 Pac-10 and 2009 season-opening win over Washington State before a sparse Labor Day-weekend crowd of 22,386 at Martin Stadium.

“We didn’t make enough big plays,” WSU’s second-year coach Paul Wulff lamented. “They made more than we did. Ultimately I think that was really the deciding factor.”

The Cardinal, under third year coach Jim Harbaugh, have professed a desire to become a physical, grind-it-out team. Give the ball to 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior running back Toby Gerhart and pound the opposition into the turf.

Gerhart got his yards – 121 on 23 carries – but for the most part they came in manageable chunks – until the 39-yard, fourth-and-2 burst with 5 minutes left that closed out the scoring and the Cougars.

But it was sophomore wideout Chris Owusu who supplied the big blows.

With Stanford leading just 8-3 early in the second quarter after Gerhart’s first score, a 1-yard run, Owusu caught a short pass from Andrew Luck, making his college debut, and turned it into a 63-yard touchdown.

Owusu made just enough of a move to cause cornerback Brandon Jones to slip. That allowed the 6-2 speedster to get to the sideline. Safety LeAndre Daniels, like Luck a redshirt freshman, took a bad angle and Owusu was gone.

“Just got juked,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said of the play. “We’ve got to make that play. That was the whole deal this game, we just gave up too many big plays.”

The biggest, however, didn’t come against the defense.

The Cougars had taken the second half kickoff and marched 80 yards, 39 of them on a Kevin Lopina toss to Jared Karstetter (above) on a go route reminiscent of their late Apple Cup hookup last year.

“They’ve been sitting on the outs, not really respecting anything deep,” said Karstetter, who got past receiver-turned-corner Richard Sherman for the catch. “So we took a shot downfield.”

Two plays later Lopina, who was 10 of 16 for 122 yards while splitting time with Marshall Lobbestael, found Karstetter again matched up with Sherman.

“If I see (Karstetter) out there,” Lopina said, “I’ll just put the ball on him and I know he’ll go up and get it.”

The former high school basketball star did, out-wrestling Sherman for the ball and giving Lopina his first college touchdown pass. The catch cut Stanford’s lead to 22-10.

Then Owusu touched the ball again. He took the ensuing kickoff near the left sideline at the 15, cut back to the middle, burst through a gap and was gone. The 85-yard return as the third-longest in Stanford history.

“We told the players on the kickoff team, ‘hey they are going to bring the return back to the field,’ and that’s exactly what they did,” Wulff said. “We just got cut off, sunk to far into the hash and they brought it back on us.”

And cut the Cougars deep.

“It’s devastating when something like that happens,” said running back James Montgomery, who had 39 yards rushing and 26 more receiving in his Cougar debut.

“Ya that’s deflating,” said Wulff, who also saw something positive in the way his team handled it.

“Those are the things we talk about as a team, about handling adversity right away and attacking it. Actually embrace the fact ‘hey they just made a big play, alright.’ How quickly can we adjust to that?”

The defense made sure the adjustment was made, stopping Stanford on its next possession, with safety Eric Block leveling Owusu on a third-and-24, knocking the ball loose and Owusu from the game.

WSU got on the board on its next drive with a Nico Grasu 35-yard field goal – his second of the night – pulling it within 29-13. But the offense would stall after that.

It moved in fits and starts most of the game, though on the first drive it looked dominating. The Cougars pounded Stanford on the ground, with Dwight Tardy (a team-high 58 yards on 13 carries) and Montgomery gashing the Cardinal eight times, ultimately getting to the 1-yard line.

“Last year, we didn’t run the ball, this year we’re going to run it no matter what anybody says,” center Kenny Alfred said.

But the drive died when the Cougars misfired on three tries inside the 5 and Grasu missed a 21-yard field goal.

“We should have scored on that first drive,” Lopina said lamenting the missed opportunity.

After Montgomery broke off a 23-yard run on the next possession, the Cougars had 78 yards rushing – in one quarter. But they had just 24 the rest of the way.

Lobbestael was 8 of 13 for 78 yards in his time but the longest pass of the night came from former high school quarterback Jeffrey Solomon, who took a wide receiver reverse and hit Karstetter on a 47-yard pass.

But the defense, which yielded 481 yards of total offense, couldn’t wrest the ball from Stanford.

“We’ve got to make some plays,” Ball said of the defense. “We’ve got to knock a ball down, pick one off, get on the fumble. Those are things we’ve got to start preaching tomorrow – again.

“If we can get some turnovers, cut out the big plays and make some plays, we’ve got a chance. Because we’re tough.”

But Stanford was better. And for the second consecutive year, WSU opened with a 39-13 defeat.

Though Wulff doesn’t feel the same as he did after the Oklahoma State loss last season.

“100 times better,” he said when asked how he felt. “It’s a big difference on attitude, a big difference on physicality.”

“It’s a loss. You can’t treat it like we won,” senior linebacker Andy Mattingly said. “But people know we’re real close, just a play here, a play there, we’re real close to being a good ball club.”

•••

• And here are a couple of items from our notebook …

The Cougars’ defense had just two players start in the same position they played last year – end Kevin Kooyman and free safety Xavier Hicks. And a couple of the switches came in the last week of practice.

Still, considering all the juggling, co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball was satisfied.

“We knew there were going to be some mistakes made from lack of experience,” Ball said, “but off the top of my head I thought they did well, better than I thought (they would) actually.

“I thought we would have a lot more blown assignments. But they played really well.”

The late switches included moving Louis Bland, who started at the Will or weakside linebacker at the end of last season, to the middle, a place he said he hadn’t played since Pop Warner.

“Middle was fun,” the sophomore said. “I think it fits me pretty good. It’s easy for me to read lineman. There are not as many rules as the Sam and the Will. You just kind of read your keys and go.”

Bland’s best example of “just going” came in the third quarter when the 5-foot-10, 202-pound Bland met the 6-1, 235-pound Toby Gerhart in a hole and rocked the runner back for a 2-yard loss.

Bland led the Cougars with 10 tackles, eight solo.

Junior strong safety Chima Nwachukwu moved back to his freshman position, cornerback, this week and earned Ball’s praise.

“He played really well,” Ball said. “He give us more strength out there on the edge.”

“Corner was a nice transistion,” Nwachukwu said. “It was a game-planning thing this week. We’ll see if I stay there.”

With Nwachukwu at corner, sophomore LeAndre Daniels made his first start at strong safety.

•••

Sophomore safety Eric Block, playing in the Cougars’ nickel package – a scheme they did not use last year – came up with the game’s biggest hit. And knocked two players out of the game in the process.

On a third-and-24 late in the third quarter, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck tried to connect with big-play wide receiver Chris Owusu over the middle. But Block, playing center field, lowered his right shoulder and caught Owusu, who was looking back for the ball, in the chest just after the ball arrived.

Owusu didn’t make the catch. In fact, it took him awhile to get up. When he did, he was helped to the sidelines and did not return. He was being evaluated for signs of a concussion.

But Block didn’t return either. He suffered a stinger in his shoulder and will be reevaluated today.

Stanford also lost right tackle Matt Kopa, who left Martin Stadium on crutches.

WSU’s Brandon Jones turned the ankle he hurt last week while on punt coverage, but did not leave the game and Daniels missed a play after cramping up.

•••

Redshirt freshman Luck made his collegiate debut memorable, completing 11 of 23 passes for 193 yards and a 63-yard strike to Owusu.

“They made some good grabs and he made some good throws,” Ball said of Luck’s performance. “He was putting that ball in a good spot.”

“He didn’t look rattled one bit,” Gerhart said.

Maybe that’s because Luck benefited from good protection much of the game, sacked just once – by Kevin Kooyman – and rarely hurried. When the pocket did break down, he took off, gaining 53 yards on six carries.

“He did very well,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He ran the team and had exceptional poise out there.”

•••

True freshmen Travis Long and Gino Simone made their college debuts, both as starters, though Simone didn’t get on the field until late as the Cougars went with two tight ends early.

Long played most of the game at right defensive end and finished with one tackle. It came on a play in which it looked like he would get his first sack, but Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck wiggled out beyond the line of scrimmage.

Simone caught one pass for 5 yards in limited time.

“It’s fast,” Simone said of college football, “real fast. It’s fun though. There’s a different level of intensity than high school ball.”

•••

Senior tight end Tony Thompson, wearing his dad Jack’s (retired) number, 14, this season, was the quarterbacks’ best friend, making two spectacular catches.

The first was on a seam route early in the second quarter. Kevin Lopina’s pass was too long, but Thompson was able to snare it with a dive.

On the Cougars next possession, Thompson again went down the middle. This time Marshall Lobbestael’s pass was too long. Thompson went up with one hand, jumped, caught the ball and pulled it in while falling to the turf.

Lobbestael admitted he didn’t see the catch, having been knocked to the turf.

It was one of three times the Cardinal hurried WSU quarterbacks to go with three sacks of Lobbestael.

•••

There were three plays reviewed, two initiated by the booth and one requested by Paul Wulff. The first came near the goal line on the Cougars’ first possession, when it appeared that Dwight Tardy had fumbled. The replays seemed to show he had, but the replay official wouldn’t overturn the call that Tardy was down.

A fumble would have actually been better for WSU, as Nico Grasu missed a short field goal and, instead of recovering the fumble on the 1, Stanford got the ball at the 20.

The next review was on a pass Daniel Blackledge, who led WSU with six catches, caught at the same time as Stanford defensive back Bo McNally. Officials ruled Blackledge had possession of the bouncing ball and the replay official concurred.

The final look was on a pass from Luck to Owusu, who seemed to be bobbling the ball and never really got control before dropping it out of bounds. Wulff challenged the completion call, the officials looked for more than 2 minutes and wouldn’t overturn it. Four plays later Owusu was knocked out of the game.

•••

• That’s it for tonight. We’ll be back in the morning. Until then …


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