The Saturday after Thanksgiving, the fourth and fifth year seniors of the Stanford football team will be playing in their final regular season home game. The seniors on this Cardinal team cannot be lauded enough. Players like Andrew Luck, Jonathan Martin, David DeCastro, Chase Thomas, Matthew Masifilo, Chris Owusu, Griff Whalen, Coby Fleener, Michael Thomas, and Delano Howell have formed a strong core of players. Just a few years ago, coach Jim Harbaugh brought in a wealth of talent and turned Stanford into a top ten team. Coach David Shaw is currently continuing that work to establish a perennial winner in Palo Alto.
I was originally intending to write a full preview versus Notre Dame but I feel it would be more appropriate to reflect on the accomplishments of this program within the past few years. Success has a strange effect on memory. It sometimes makes us forget where we were before we got to the top.
In 2006, the Cardinal went 1-11. Stanford then hired the University of San Diego’s Jim Harbaugh to come and coach their football players. Harbaugh began the work of rebuilding a program from the ground up. He wanted to change the culture of the team. This team was going to play defense and run the ball. Harbaugh does not want to win through gimmicks or through finesse. He prefers to pound the rock and to out perform opponents through sheer physical strength.
In 2007, Harbaugh’s first season, Stanford defeated then #1 USC 24-23 at USC. Quarterback Tavita Pritchard (who has gained both fame and notoriety over the course of his career) threw a touchdown pass in the final minute to win the game. Stanford was a 55 point underdog. At the time, it was just a fluke. Maybe the greatest fluke in NCAA history but still just a fluke.
After a couple years trying to establish a new identity, Harbaugh eventually had his core of players to build around. The 2009 offense consisted of stalwart running back Toby Gerhart and a young gun quarterback named Andrew Luck. Gerhart and Luck formed a dynamic offense that led Stanford to a 8-5 season and the Cardinal’s first bowl appearance since 2001. The Cardinal proved they were a legitimate team through back to back victories over Oregon and USC, both then ranked in the top ten.
In 2010, many people had questions about if this team could succeed without Gerhart. Analysts also (rightly) criticized what had been a extremely vulnerable defense. The Cardinal managed to silence their critics with wins. The 3-4 defense, book ended by Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas, showed that it could harass quarterbacks and stifle offenses into submission. Also, don’t forget about how linebacker/fullback Owen Marecic managed to score touchdowns within seconds of one another in last year’s game against Notre Dame. Owen’s brilliant blonde mane has become the stuff of Stanford folklore.
Recent Stanford grads like Sione Fua, Jim Dray, Chase Beeler, Ryan Whalen, Richard Sherman, Toby Gerhart, Thomas Keiser, and Doug Baldwin have all collected paychecks at the NFL level. Baldwin is already having a breakout season. He leads the Seattle Seahawks in receiving yards. A great amount of talent has been gathered at Stanford and the fact that they have had success in the NFL shows just how good these players were when they were here.
We, as fans, have been spoiled by their success. Last year, the team went 12-1 and scored a dominating victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. This year, the team has been in legitimate contention for the NCAA National Championship Game and has been ranked in the top ten for the entire season. Most people are complaining as if a trip to a BCS bowl game would be a disappointment. The real question is, compared to what?
It is through the efforts of the players and the coaches that these things have been made possible. They have put in a great deal of work so that the university could win. Also, do not forget about all those other players who do not necessarily get all the accolades or the playing time but are nonetheless essential to the success of the team. From the bottom of the roster up, this squad of Stanford players has brought an unprecedented amount of success to the university. You have to go back to the late 70’s to find three consecutive winning seasons for the Cardinal. Even then, they were not rattling off one loss seasons.
So please, as you watch the game, take a moment to appreciate what you see. I do not know what the team will look like next year but I know that this year the Stanford football team is nothing short of spectacular.