STANFORD, Calif. — Way back in the summer, when assessments were laid out, the expectations for Stanford were … well, there weren’t many.
Andrew Luck, the sublimely gifted quarterback, was gone to the NFL, and so were two of his linemen and the tight end who was his favorite target, all of them among the top 42 picks in the draft.
Back then, USC was the consensus top team in the country, Oregon was not far behind, and there were intriguing new coaches in the Pac-12 in Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez. Stanford, which had lost Luck and the year before that coach Jim Harbaugh, was supposed to slowly drift back toward irrelevance.
But by late Friday night, the Cardinal were heading in a decidedly different direction — to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 13 years after grinding out a 27-24, rain-soaked, come-from-behind victory over UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
“That’s all we heard all offseason: Oh, Andrew’s gone — we’re a six-win team, a seven-win team,” said linebacker Chase Thomas, a plump red rose dangling from his fingertips. “They don’t get it. They don’t understand what kind of football we play at Stanford. They just don’t get it — the kind of players we have. We didn’t worry about anything. We knew we would play our style of football and if we did, we could be right here.”
Stanford was outplayed for most of the night, UCLA’s freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and senior tailback Johnathan Franklin carving up the defense, and the Stanford passing game sputtering.
But the Cardinal stayed true to character, wearing down UCLA and playing with slightly more poise down the stretch. Stanford drew even on a 26-yard touchdown pass to Drew Terrell from the Cardinal’s own freshman quarterback, Kevin Hogan, and seized the lead on Jordan Williamson’s 36-yard field goal with 6:49 left.
But the Cardinal could not exhale until UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 52-yard field goal attempt was short with 34 seconds left.
“Our guys hung in there,” Stanford coach David Shaw said after rightly praising the Bruins, whom his team had trounced last week in Pasadena. “We knew it was going to come down to the end. Were we going to have the resolve? Were we going to have the toughness? Were we going to be smart enough at the end to make just enough plays to win? Our guys did that.”
There were hardly any misgivings afterward for Stanford, whose players gathered around Pac-12 Championship trophy in the locker room, and shook the walls with chants of “Rose Bowl.”
But if the Cardinal had exhibited their now standard resolve, toughness and smarts earlier in the season — or perhaps turned to Hogan earlier — they might not have blown late leads to Washington and Notre Dame. That might well have placed them in an even bigger game than the Rose Bowl — the national title game.
Nevertheless, the trip to Pasadena is particularly satisfying, said Shaw, whose team was expected to contend for a national title last season but was routed by Oregon on its home field last November.
“Our mantra throughout the year was to be loose, to be focused and play with a chip on our shoulders, and our guys have done that,” Shaw said. “Part of that chip on our shoulder was to prove that we’re not a one-man organization here. We’re a team. And we’ll have more great players leave this year, and we expect to be good next year again. We plan on being in this position hopefully more than once.”
For the uninitiated, or those who may have been unsure about the identity of Stanford football, it became apparent throughout the night when Stanford would shuttle in two extra offensive linemen and a fullback. This left the Cardinal in a no-receiver formation that was stacked tightly enough to squeeze into a phone booth.
It is the formula — eggheads playing meathead football — that Harbaugh instilled and that Shaw, a former receiver here under Bill Walsh, has further ingrained. The Cardinal have mashed their way to three consecutive 10-win seasons.
But this may not be as good as it gets at Stanford. It is the only Pac-12 team that could stand up to the SEC’s best on the line of scrimmage. But there were signs Friday night — and at critical times during the season — that the Cardinal look like they are transitioning from a team that not only outhits you, but can out run you.
Backup safety Devon Carrington made the signature play in the upset of Oregon two weeks ago when he ran down quarterback Marcus Mariota to prevent a touchdown. The game-turning play Friday was turned in by the starter, Ed Reynolds, who with UCLA ahead 14-7 and threatening, intercepted Hundley’s pass and wove his way 79 yards before being stopped, officials ruled, inches shy of the goal line.
Then, after Stanford had taken the lead in the fourth quarter, strong safety Jordan Richards roamed from sideline to sideline making two of his team-leading 11 tackles on back-to-back plays. Freshman Alex Carter, perhaps the fastest Cardinal, starts at cornerback.
“We know we need speed to run with USC. We need speed to run with Oregon. We need speed to run with Cal,” Shaw said. “We were fortunate enough the last couple of years to find guys with high GPAs with high test scores that can run, because they’re not always out there. It’s a miniscule pool. When we find those guys, we’ve got to get them.”
Next season, a similar infusion of speed will take place on the other side of the ball. Stepfan Taylor, the Cardinal’s all-time leading rusher, is graduating, but freshman Kelsey Young, who scampered 23 yards on a sweep — the longest run of the night for Stanford — to set up Williamson’s winning kick will get more opportunities. As will Barry Sanders Jr. — yes, the son of that Barry Sanders — a freshman running back who is redshirting, along with three talented, speedy freshmen receivers.
Only four seniors started for Stanford on Friday night, two on each side of the ball. If they’re just as tough, just as resilient and even faster, the Cardinal may — as Shaw suggested — be able to make a habit of this.