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Stanford preview: Underdog no more

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Five keys to Stanford's season:

1. Tavita shall lead them

After leading the second-best upset of the college football season a year ago, winning a three-way battle to be the No. 1 quarterback must have seemed relatively easy for Tavita Pritchard. The senior, who made his first career start in a 24-23 road upset of second-ranked Southern Cal, threw for 1,114 yards and five touchdowns with nine interceptions in nine games (seven starts) a year ago. He has the bloodlines — his uncle is the “Throwin’ Samoan,” ex-NFL QB Jack Thompson. How he handles the pressure of being the clear-cut No. 1 QB and reversing his TD-to-interception numbers will be the biggest key to the Cardinal’s success.

2. Year 2

The losing ways from the Walt Harris regime quickly disappeared in Jim Harbaugh’s first year on the Farm, which ended with a 4-8 mark that included two impressive victories (USC, Cal). Now, the expectations are to take the next step and contend for a bowl bid. Typically, players in the second year of a new system tend to step up because they are reacting to situations instead of thinking about what they are supposed to do. Harbaugh has certainly related well to his players, which has them buying into the system more. With having lost just six starters from last year, the Cardinal have plenty of experience to make a run at a postseason bid. However, the schedule doesn’t do them any favors.

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3. Outstanding O-line

It is a bit of a cliche to say a team will only go as far as its offensive line. After all, if the line is porous, the quarterback will be on his back more often than not and the running backs won’t have holes to get through. That won’t be a problem for Stanford, which can consider its O-line its greatest strength. While starting center Tim Mattran has graduated, four of five starting spots will be occupied by seniors who have combined for 58 starts. Outland Trophy and Rimington Award candidate Alex Fletcher leads the way and will move from guard to center. Chris Marinelli (right) and Ben Muth (left) return at the tackles, where the status of senior Allen Smith (torn patella tendon) could further strengthen the unit. The guards are the only question with senior Gustav Rydstedt moving over from defense and junior Andrew Phillips seeing action in just four games last year.

4. Two-headed monster

On paper, the Cardinal had a pretty talented running back tandem last year. Unfortunately, Anthony Kimble and Toby Gerhart and combined to miss 16 of 24 games due to injuries. Kimble, a senior, provides the lightning, while Gerhart — a junior who also stars on the baseball team — lays down the thunder. Gerhart missed all but the opener against San Jose State, against whom he rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown. Kimble had team highs of 509 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.

5. Hard-hitting linebackers

Just like the running backs, the linebacking corps is stacked. Only these guys have stayed healthy. Seniors Clinton Snyder and Pat Maynor and sophomore Chike Amajoyi anchor a defense that ranked fifth nationally in tackles for a loss and  11th in sacks. Snyder and Maynor, on preseason watch lists at their position, will man the outside ’backer spots, while Amajoyi will move to the middle after posting 47 tackles (nine for a loss), four sacks and three fumble recoveries as a true freshman.

IMPACT PLAYERS

Pannel Egboh

The stalwart of the defensive line, the left end has made 24 consecutive starts and is has 21½ tackles for a loss in his career, 13½ of which came last year (fifth-best in the Pac-10 Conference). Egboh went through a strenuous offseason conditioning program and came into camp at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, slightly trimmer and definitely more ripped. Could be in for a big year.

Richard Sherman

Despite the presence of talent, Stanford receivers have seemed to underproduce in recent years for one reason or another. Sherman is the leader of an inexperienced group that will have to take charge for the offense to reach its potential. Last year as a sophomore, Sherman had 39 catches for a team-best 651 yards and four touchdowns. The leadership role seems to fit as Sherman has been praised throughout camp.

Wopamo Osaisai

The Pac-10’s 100-meter champ in track was voted the most improved player in spring football practice, not bad for a starting cornerback. The senior from Pinole Valley High School joins safety Bo McNally as the team’s most experienced players in the secondary with 13 starts. He has only two career interceptions, so forcing turnovers will be a major factor in how the defense performs. He will also have to tutor whoever wins the other cornerback job.

Aaron Zagory

It’s hard for an incumbent kicker to lose his job in the offseason to a disgruntled upperclassman, but that is what happened to Zagory, who was displaced by Derek Belch after the SoCal native told coaches he was going to leave school before being told the job was up for grabs. Now, Zagory is back as the No. 1 kicker. He needs to improve upon his 8-of-13 showing as a sophomore.

Will Powers

The former All-American from Serra High School is the backup strongside linebacker behind Chris Snyder. Powers hasn’t had the impact many Bay Area fans thought he would, having made just four starts and playing in 23 games in his three seasons (he didn’t play at all as a freshman). He seems hungry for playing time, having bulked up by 20 pounds through extensive weightlifting.

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GAME TO WATCH

Probably the most embarrassing loss by the Cardinal last year came at the hands of once-proud Notre Dame 21-14 at home, surrendering the go-ahead score with 6:06 left to play. So this year, Stanford heads to South Bend, Ind., to face SoCal product Jimmy Claussen and the Irish on Oct. 4. Hitting the road for a nonconference game in the middle of the season will show just what type of team Stanford is — a contender who takes care of business or a team still finding itself.

PREDICTION

Opening up with two Pac-10 Conference games and four of their first six on the road isn’t exactly what the Cardinal would draw up in an ideal schedule, but those are the facts. Plus, something tells us that Southern Cal and the folks in Berkeley won’t forget what Stanford did to them last year. Sure, progress will be made, but a bowl bid might be asking for a little too much. Expect a 5-7 finish.



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