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