Stanford seniors to cap career in 4th BCS bowl
When Shayne Skov committed to Stanford in the fall of 2007, just making a bowl game would be considered a successful career by most fans.
The Cardinal were coming off a 1-11 season. They finished 4-8 and 5-7 in Jim Harbaugh's first two years before going 8-5 in Skov's freshman season in 2009, including a loss to Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl.
''I just remember being ecstatic that we were bowl eligible and able to go to a bowl game,'' Skov said. ''I think that the key thing is we've maintained that same hunger. Nobody on this team takes anything for granted. I think we have that same desire. Instead of becoming complacent, we've become hungrier. The standard for ourselves has become higher and higher.''
Nobody has set the standard higher than the Cardinal's current seniors.
No. 5 Stanford (11-2) is the only program to make a BCS bowl the last four years. The twice-reigning Pac-12 champions, who also are the only team to win at least 11 games in each of those years, will go for a second straight Rose Bowl victory when they face No. 4 Michigan State (12-1) on Jan. 1.
The remarkable run has been led by nine fifth-year seniors - Skov and fellow linebackers Trent Murphy and Jarek Lancaster, defensive ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro, fullback Ryan Hewitt, right guard Kevin Danser, center Khalil Wilkes and running back Tyler Gaffney- who will forever be among those credited with turning the program into a powerhouse.
''There has not been a class like this in the history of the school,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ''It's a testament to those guys, to come in and have their mind set on doing something that people said they couldn't do. And every time a challenge came up, these guys wouldn't back down. They ran straight at it. They locked arms and ran straight at it together.''
The group came to Stanford because it believed in the foundation Harbaugh built. It has been raised to even greater heights in Shaw's first three seasons. The players have enjoyed big highs, overcome setbacks - such as Skov's season-ending left knee injury in 2011 - and withstood a coach and quarterback change.
''The best family you could ask for in a football team,'' said Gaffney, who has rushed for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns after playing minor league baseball last year.
Stanford finished the 2010 season with a 12-1 record, including an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. The Cardinal started Shaw's tenure off strong the following year by going to the Fiesta Bowl, where they lost to Oklahoma State in an overtime thriller.
Afterward, Andrew Luck left to become the NFL's No. 1 overall pick, but success didn't leave The Farm. Stanford won the Pac-12 title before holding off Wisconsin to win the Rose Bowl for the first time in 41 years last season.
''We had said we were going to turn things around. We were going to go to a BCS game. We did that,'' Skov said. ''I don't think that any of us were aware of the degree of success we would have ultimately. But there was a confidence within the group of guys that we had.''
The only blemish on the seniors is that Stanford is the only team to play in four consecutive BCS bowls without cracking the championship game.
Stanford was perhaps one win from playing for the national title each of the last four seasons. This year, road losses at Utah and Southern California kept the Cardinal out of the BCS championship game.
But the ability to rebound, players said, might define the class more than anything. Stanford has not lost consecutive games since October 2009.
''When we lost to Utah or a loss to USC, it's one of those tough deals where you're like, `I wanted to go undefeated as a senior. This is our legacy,''' said Murphy, who leads the nation with 13 sacks. ''But we've always focused on going 1-0 each week, and that's what has carried us as a team.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP