(AP) – Even after all the recent setbacks and the roadblocks that remain, David Shaw is still talking about what bowl Stanford could go to – not if his team will make a bowl.
Say this about the Cardinal coach’s confidence: it hasn’t wavered yet. It will, however, likely be tested again.
That’s just the kind of year it has been on The Farm.
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Stanford (5-4, 3-3) started the season coming off back-to-back Pac-12 championships and the only team in the country with four straight BCS bowl berths. Now the Cardinal are just trying to become bowl-eligible – and, despite Shaw’s self-assurance, even that’s no longer a sure thing.
Stanford hosts No. 25 Utah (6-3, 3-3) on Saturday before finishing the season at improved rival California and rejuvenated No. 14 UCLA. The Cardinal need to win one of those games to become bowl-eligible.
”We put ourselves in this position and who knows what bowl game we have a chance to go to?” Shaw said. ”It’s hard to go through the matrix because you have no idea what other people are going to do. Our conference is still extremely turbulent, so who knows where we could finish up as far as what bowl game that will put us in? For us, we have football to play and we’re still trying to play our best. And the challenge for us is still out there: to play our best complete game to date.”
Stanford lost 45-16 at Oregon before last week’s bye gave the Cardinal extra time to absorb their new reality.
Utah is also coming off a loss to the Ducks, giving up the game’s final 21 points in a 51-27 home defeat last Saturday.
"Proud of the way our guys came out and played," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "They were ready to play, there is no question about it. We unfortunately didn’t do some of the things we needed to do to win the game, primarily turn the ball over four times."
The Utes had been coming off a 19-16 loss to then-No. 15 Arizona State, and they’ve now dropped seven spots in the AP poll over the past two weeks.
While Utah has dropped out of the Pac-12 title chase, Stanford is trying to focus on saving its season and not worrying about where it ends. Saturday is Senior Day, after all, when many of those who have helped build the program into a national contender will be playing their last game at Stanford Stadium.
Fifth-year senior linebacker A.J. Tarpley said it’s always been about the competition. He said ”no matter what the record is, no matter if there’s people watching or not, I want to win.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who declined to discuss whether this week would be his final home game at Stanford, said the team is trying to rally around the outgoing seniors and ”play for each other.”
Center Graham Shuler said life at Stanford goes beyond football for most players at the prestigious university. But, he said, each team wants to leave a positive legacy, and this year is no different.
”I think this group’s excited about salvaging three games and winning three games and making a season that we can be proud of,” Shuler said.
Stanford has shown an ability to rebound during its recent run of success. The Cardinal are 10-0 after a loss under Shaw and haven’t dropped consecutive games since October 2009.
Stanford lost 27-21 at Utah last season, a setback that shattered an undefeated run and national-championship hopes. Shaw said that loss played no part in his message to players, and neither has his team’s record.
”I’ve told our guys, `Win, lose or draw, beginning of season, end of season, I’m not the motivator,”’ Shaw said. ”It’s their job to get motivated. I just play the guys that are motivated. We have a lot of motivated guys.”
Travis Wilson led last year’s win over a then-No. 5 Cardinal team, going 23 of 34 for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He threw for only 57 yards on 12-of-22 passing against the Sun Devils before throwing his first two interceptions of the season last week.
Devontae Booker was held to 65 yards rushing against the Ducks, breaking a string of five straight 100-yard games.
Booker and Wilson now face a Stanford defense which is the Pac-12’s best, holding opponents to 16.1 points and 281.1 total yards per game.
"What’s glaring with them is that they are playing exceptional defense," Whittingham said. "They are leading the league in just about every defensive category – total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, scoring defense – you name it, they are on top of the league."