Even without Luck, Stanford a top-10 team again

David Shaw and his Stanford players spent the past nine months

telling anybody who would listen that the program had enough talent

and depth without Andrew Luck to be a national power for years to

come.

Now they have everybody’s attention.

While it’s only the third game of the season, Stanford’s 21-14

victory over Southern California on Saturday night showed life

without Luck might not be so bad after all. The Cardinal (3-0, 1-0

Pac-12) jumped from No. 21 to ninth in The Associated Press college

football poll Sunday.

The same formula that made Stanford an improbable football power

has stayed true: a stout running game, strong run defense and

timely plays from the tight ends.

”I have been saying it for years, even before I became head

coach: This game isn’t about who you play, it is about how you

play,” said Shaw, in his second year at the helm since Jim

Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers. ”For what we are trying

to accomplish here, we can’t be surprised by wins.”

Maybe nobody should anymore.

The Cardinal outgained the Trojans 417 to 280 in total yards and

held USC to only 26 yards rushing. Stanford’s relentless rush

sacked Matt Barkley four times and had the quarterback constantly

on the run or losing his poise in the pocket.

”We’ve got a talented bunch,” linebacker Shayne Skov said.

”When we play together like that, it’s so special.”

In a series between California’s two private Pac-12 schools that

dates to 1905, Stanford had never won four in a row against USC

until now. Barkley, the Heisman Trophy favorite and projected No. 1

overall pick entering the year, has beaten every team in the

conference but Stanford.

The only chance Barkley has now against Stanford is a rematch in

the Pac-12 championship game Nov. 30, which is suddenly looking

like a possibility if Oregon stumbles, given the Cardinal’s rapid

improvement since a season-opening 20-17 victory over San Jose

State.

”It’s a big win,” said new Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes,

who threw for 215 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

He also ran for a pair of game-changing first downs in the

fourth quarter before throwing the go-ahead 37-yard touchdown to

tight end Zach Ertz.

”They’re a really great program,” Nunes said. ”They have a

lot of talented players. It makes it even sweeter.”

Sustaining success this season seemed uncertain.

Stanford didn’t just lose Luck, the No. 1 overall pick by the

Indianapolis Colts who rewrote the school record books in only

three seasons. Three others – right guard David DeCastro, top tight

end Coby Fleener and left tackle Jonathan Martin – were drafted in

the first 42 picks. Starting safeties Delano Howell and Michael

Thomas, wide receivers Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu and cornerback

Johnson Bademosi are also on NFL 53-man rosters or practice

squads.

But as even Luck would often say, Stanford is a running

team.

Stepfan Taylor is perhaps the most unheralded back-to-back

1,000-yard rusher in the country and will likely become the

school’s career rushing leader by season’s end. He spent the past

two years in Luck’s shadow and Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby

Gerhart’s the season before. Now the senior might have launched his

own Heisman campaign against the Trojans, running for 153 yards,

catching five passes for 60 yards and scoring two touchdowns.

”Coach basically told us to trust this game,” Taylor said.

”That’s what we did: trust this game. We were going to go down the

stretch, going to get tired. We were just going to keep chugging at

it.”

If this was supposed to be a transition year, Stanford is

already ahead of schedule.

In February, Stanford’s recruiting class was ranked in the top

10 by several services – believed to be a first for the program –

and almost unanimously earned top billing for its offensive line

haul. Stanford also signed Barry J. Sanders, son of the Hall of

Fame running back, who shunned his father’s alma mater at Oklahoma

State to make his own mark on the Silicon Valley campus. He is

likely redshirting this season.

The Cardinal have a bye next week before playing at Washington

in the first of a difficult road schedule that also includes games

at No. 3 Oregon and No. 11 Notre Dame. With Stanford regaining the

rhythm that propelled the program to back-to-back BCS bowls, don’t

expect it to sneak up on anybody.

”We have talked about not being a flash in the pan,” Shaw

said. ”We don’t want to be that team known for one victory. We

want to be known for victory after victory. We want to be

consistent, stacking wins on top of wins.”

Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at:

www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP