Fully healed from a knee injury that interrupted his sophomore season, Matt Masifilo was all set to go when another obstacle came his way.
Stanford hired Vic Fangio as its new defensive coordinator in the offseason, giving the 24-year NFL coaching veteran complete reign over a Cardinal defense that allowed 26.8 points a game last season.
Masifilo, who missed five games after hurting his knee in the second game of last season at Wake Forest, bounced back and finished strong, including a career-high six tackles against Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl.
Primed for a breakout junior season, the 6-foot-3, 280-pound lineman has had to learn an entire new defense at a brand new position.
Stanford plays a 3-4 alignment up front under Fangio, with Masifilo starting at defensive end instead of at tackle, where he’d lined up the previous three years (including a redshirt season) in a 4-3 scheme.
The 2007 Campbell graduate made three tackles and had a sack as Stanford looked like a brand-new team in a 35-0 shutout of UCLA.
"The way we approach that game and every other game is we want to play every play like it’s a championship play," Masifilo said. "We go into tomorrow’s practice and play every play like a championship play and all we’re thinking about is the next play."
PROFILE: Matt Masifilo
Height: 6 feet 3. Weight: 280 pounds
It was the first road shutout by Stanford since a 17-0 victory at Oregon in 1974, more than 10 years before Masifilo was born.
The Cardinal are ranked No. 19 in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls heading into this week’s game at Wake Forest.
Stanford’s change in defensive philosophies has shown marked improvement on the scoreboard, even if Masifilo says it hasn’t been a big deal.
"Defense is defense," he said. "Our objective is to get the ball back to the offense regardless of where we’re lined up."
Stanford’s improved defense has made the Cardinal a trendy pick as a team to break through in a wide-open Pac-10.
With USC, which either won or shared seven straight conference titles before last year, ineligible for a postseason bowl, the Pac-10 title could go to any number of teams.
Through two weeks, the Cardinal look to be one of those teams that will stay in the thick of the race all the way through November.
"Our focus in the offseason and was raising the standard and getting after it and sacrificing more," Masifilo said. "As you get better, things don’t get easier, they get harder."
After nonconference games against the Demon Deacons and Notre Dame, Stanford will make its case in early October with back-to-back games at Oregon and at home hosting Southern Cal.
"We always look at the Pac-10 as being wide-open because from a players point of view, it’s never not open," Masifilo said. "There’s never any limitations on what we can do and we just look forward to every practice and every meeting and every game as an opportunity to better ourselves."