The Stanford football team has been steadily improving since Coach Jim Harbaugh took over in 2007. After struggling with 4-8 and 5-7 records in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Stanford earned its first winning season, 8-4 overall, and bowl appearance since 2001. The team owes its success in large part to its dynamic offense led by Heisman runner-up senior running back Toby Gerhart and redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck. Toby Gerhart finished with 1736 yards rushing and a nation leading 26 rushing touchdowns. Andrew Luck ended the year with 2575 yards through the air, 13 passing touchdowns, and a very good 143.47 passer rating. Together they led a balanced attack that was hard for opponents to shut down once they got rolling.
The Stanford Cardinal started off the season strong, winning four of their first five games and completely blowing out the likes of Washington State, San Jose State, and Washington. A single hiccup came on the road against Wake Forest, a game in which Stanford led 17-3 at half time but simply could not finish because of offensive woes and turnovers in the second half. Still, Stanford looked dominant on both sides of the ball with an offense averaging 31.2 points a game and a defense holding opponents to 16.8 points a game. 3-0 in the PAC-10 and dangerous on special teams with Chris Owusu returning kickoffs for touchdowns, Stanford looked to be able to make a run at the Rose Bowl.
Despite their early success, Stanford ran into some trouble on the road. The team lost back-to-back games away from Stanford Stadium against Oregon State and Arizona. At Oregon State, Stanford struggled in the first half, being outscored 7-31. Though they managed to close the gap to 28-38 by the end, it simply was not enough. The Stanford offense was not consistent and was only 1 of 9 on third down. By contrast, in Arizona, Stanford led for all of the first three quarters against the Wildcatsand had a 38-29 lead going into the fourth. Luck put up over 400 yards passing but it was not enough as 415 yards passing from the opposing quarterback and back to back touchdowns on 40+ yard runs in the fourth quarter gave Arizona the win. Like at Wake Forest, the Cardinal struggled in this game to put the other team away after being up by two scores.
Stanford bounced back the week after with a dominant performance at home against Arizona State, winning 33-14. The two losses, however, put Stanford in poor position to make a run at the conference title, especially with their toughest stretch of games coming up against Oregon and the University of Southern California, both then ranked in the top ten nationwide.
Oregon came into Stanford Stadium extremely poised, especially after a complete beat down of USC at home the week before. Stanford was not worried and pounced early on the Ducks, starting off the game with a 10-0 advantage and leading 31-14 at the half. The second half basically became a slug fest for both teams, as both offenses gained over 500 yards. Gerhart put in an amazing 223 yard and 3 touchdown performance to match Oregon score for score. Stanford went on to win 51-42 in a huge upset..
With another tough matchup against USC in the Coliseum the following week, Stanford once again came out strong. They started the game with a two touchdown lead and kept a 21-7 lead going into the half. Though USC managed to close the gap to only a touchdown by the end of the third quarter, Stanford’s offense exploded in the last fifteen minutes while USC’s crumbled. The Cardinal lit up USC with 27 unanswered points to completely shut the door on a Trojan come back. Stanford’s defense had a great performance, forcing a fumble and three interceptions, including an interception return from senior Richard Sherman for a touchdown. Gerhart put in another great outing with 178 yards and 3 touchdowns, running all over a supposedly dominant USC defense.
Stanford had great momentum going into Big Game against the University of California, Berkeley. The Cardinal jumped ahead of Cal on back to back scoring touchdowns from Gerhart, including a 61 yard run. Stanford’s offense slowed down, however, and let the Golden Bears back into the game, leading them only by a 14-10 margin after their early lead. Cal then took hold of the game, scoring a pair of touchdowns and giving them the lead. Gerhart was not finished and scored on another run to keep the game within a field goal. Cal scored again but Gerhart once again came up with another touchdown to keep the game within reach. After a Golden Bear field goal, Stanford had a chance to win, trailing by only 6 with two and a half minutes left in the game. The Cardinal got in the red zone but an interception ended the drive and prevented a last minute victory. Gerhart had another good performance, scoring all of Stanford’s points and grinding out 136 yards on the ground.
The week after, Stanford still had to have a good game against an especially desperate Notre Dame team and their prolific offense. The game was tight from the start, with Notre Dame scoring easily on some big plays from Golden Tate and Jimmy Clausen. Stanford was down at half time 24-20, with both offenses encountering little resistance. Clausen continued to gash the Stanford defense in the second half but Gerhart kept churning out the yards and scores to keep the game close. In the fourth quarter, Stanford found itself down 38-30 in a must score situation. On a crucial fourth down conversion, a gutsy call from Harbaugh had Gerhart throw an 18 yard touchdown to Whalen. After a two point conversion, the game was tied. A defensive stop gave Stanford a chance to win the game. The ball was given to Gerhart, who completely trucked several Notre Dame defenders and set up another rushing touchdown for himself. Despite Clausen’s five touchdown passes, Gerhart ran for 209 yards, had three rushing touchdowns, and even threw a touchdown to give Stanford a 45-38 win over Notre Dame.
With that win, Stanford earned a trip to the Sun Bowl in El Paso to play against the Oklahoma Sooners. Unfortunately, Stanford would be without their starting quarterback as Luck injured his finger in the Notre Dame game. Harbaugh gave senior Tavita Pritchard the nod instead.
Oklahoma struck first after a turnover but Stanford’s senior safety Bo McNally had a crucial interception and return to set up a one yard touchdown run from senior Owen Maricic. Both teams moved the ball easy, with Gerhart scoring a pair of touchdowns in the half. Stanford’s defense stepped up and managed to get some stops on the Sooners. On a punt attempt, Sherman came in untouched and blocked the punt to set up a field goal. After a half, Stanford was up 24-17.
The second half, however, was a different story. Oklahoma came out on its first possession with a big scoring drive to tie the game. Stanford was unable to get going again as the Sooners stacked their defense against the run and forced Stanford to pass. After Oklahoma scored a go ahead touchdown, Stanford could not get back into the end zone. A goal line stand in the fourth quarter held the Cardinal to a field goal. Time ran out and Oklahoma came away with a 31-27 win after holding Stanford to three points in the second half.
The absence of Luck hurt Stanford in the bowl game as Pritchard was unable to take advantage of Oklahoma’s gearing up against the run. Stanford still had an overall successful year but missed several opportunities to win big. With a young roster, Stanford still looks to get better in coming years. With a more consistent production on both sides of the field, they should be considred serious contenders for the PAC-10 title next year.