Rose Bowl Day 2: A Taste of the Future

Reynolds has spearheaded secondary improvement

The Lawry's Beef Bowl and a Los Angeles Clippers game highlighted Thursday's Stanford Rose Bowl entertainment, but plenty of football business took center stage, too. The Cardinal defense is using this January 1 test to gear for next season. Derek Mason credits the program's mentality for repeated success.

"We didn't come here to get a hat or a t-shirt," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said Thursday. "We came here to win."

Stanford's intentions for their January 1 game in Southern California are clear, even if Joshua Garnett may have weighed himself down before walking out of Lawry's The Prime Rib after the Beef Bowl. He devoured seven cuts of prime rib, at least two of which were estimated to weigh 24 ounces. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound monolith initially tapped out after four slabs, but rallied to down three more before all was said and done. That tied Willie Howard's 1999 team record.

Garnett later announced that he could have finished 10 pieces of prime rib had he not run out of time. Stanford hustled out of the Beverly Hills restaurant and back to downtown Los Angeles to catch the Celtics-Clippers NBA game at the Staples Center, which is just across the street from the team's JW Marriott hotel.

Wisconsin, a team that inhaled 823 pounds of prime rib to win last year's Beef Bowl against Oregon, is on deck at Lawry's tomorrow. It was imperative for Garnett to rack on insurance ahead of the Badgers, who will enjoy the "home-eating advantage" of going second.

Defensive Progress: 2013 Springboard
Regardless of the Beef Bowl's outcome, Stanford's focus remains on the New Year's Day main event. There's a common theme emanating from the Cardinal: The program sees this season's Rose Bowl Game as a potential springboard for an unprecedented 2013 run. Senior linebacker Chase Thomas said that he expects the Farm Boys to be in national championship contention next year because the unit will only "lose three of us," among other reasons.

That statement may hint at Shayne Skov's 2013 return, which has been rumored in a number of Stanford circles. Thomas, Terrence Stephens, and Alex Debniak represent the three Stanford defensive players whose eligibility will be exhausted after this season, and it's entirely possible Thomas was referring to that trio -- and not Skov.

"I love Stanford," Skov said. "So I have to take in all the information and make a decision [after the Rose Bowl]."

Reloading Power Mentality
Regardless, the Cardinal will return the majority of a defense that has set school records and led in the nation in sacks (56) and tackles for loss (120) entering the Rose Bowl. Perhaps more significantly than the team's performance in the front seven, Stanford's secondary -- a longtime area of weakness -- has closed the gap in 2012. The Farm Boys finally matched Oregon's speed on the back end. All of the team's defensive backs will return in 2013.

"Practices get long and hard," Mason said of his unit's remarkable progression, an improvement that managed to effectively conceal the graduation of Andrew Luck. "You're supposed to lock and reload. Right now, we feel we're in that mode."

Solid true freshman in-season production (Alex Carter, Zach Hoffpauir) and a successful slate of Stanford bowl practices corroborate Mason's claim. David Shaw has praised freshman defensive tackle Ikenna Nwafor for his development, while Mason has asserted that fellow newbie Blake Martinez is "ready to compete with Skov" for time at the inside linebacker position next season. Defensive end Jordan Watkins has also received positive mention, adding credence to the notion that Stanford's defensive excellence is here to stay.

Continued blue-collar practice mentality is the key to sustained success, and that hasn't been an issue this December. Stanford has actually had to govern physicality in these late season practices because the hard-hitting mentality has become so ingrained in its defense.

"They'll go after one another if you let them," Mason said. "That's the mentality we've created."

Turnaround
Thomas elaborated more on Stanford's midseason reversal, which saw the Cardinal rip off seven consecutive victories to close the pre-bowl season following a devastating loss at Notre Dame. Reports have indicated that the Farm Boys' first post-Irish practice was lacking in quality, and that Thomas convened a meeting to put his team mentally back on track.

"We also made a personnel change with the quarterback and some other things that also helped our team in terms of production," he said. "So a combination of those two things definitely helped to lead us to those victories down the stretch."

Following the Notre Dame loss, Stanford's defense held Cal to negative rushing yards, sacked Washington State 10 times, and limited Colorado to 76 total yards before the offense finally got aboard behind new starter Kevin Hogan. The rest was history: Oregon State, Oregon, and UCLA went down to end the season.

A Defining Challenge
If Stanford intends to enjoy national championship-caliber success in 2013, successfully dealing with one of college football's all-time great running backs on the first day of the year will be a good start. Montee Ball, who has scored an NCAA record 76 touchdowns in his career, is complemented by fellow Wisconsin studs James White and Melvin Gordon to create what Mason calls a "three-headed monster."

Wisconsin's run-first attack amassed 539 yards on the ground against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game while passing only ten times, but quarterback Curt Phillips can execute the play-action in key spots. He's been intercepted only once. The Badgers will also have former starting quarterback Joel Stave at their disposal. He's been cleared to play after missing much of the season because of a broken collarbone and is considered a greater downfield passing threat than Phillips.

All told, Stanford will be challenged by a massive Wisconsin unit that is capable of demonstrating creativity.

"We have to get off blocks. We can't let them recreate the line of scrimmage," Thomas said. "We have to knock them back and get underneath their pads. What's going to be big for us is lining up to all their formations, and all those big minor formations they do on balance sets. We have to make sure we're lined up in the correct gap."

Up Next
Stanford holds its only open Rose Bowl practice tomorrow from 1:15-3:05 p.m. at The Home Depot Center in Carson.


David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.


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