The Stanford Cardinal are headed to the Rose Bowl as Pac-12 champions, and they stayed true to their credo. They played tough, smart, and finish what they started.
"You've got to be tough. You've got to be smart. You've got to finish what you start."
That philosophy started with Jim Harbaugh. It didn't happen overnight. It was impossible for a turnaround to come quickly. The Cardinal were gutted, weak, overmatched and unprepared. Stanford had no chance to really compete anytime soon. It was a long-term project that Harbaugh had committed himself to, and it would take years for the results to bear fruit.
But Harbaugh had them believe. His unshakable confidence had Stanford ready to go, and it started that first season with one of the most stunning upsets in college football history, upsetting 41-point favorite USC in the Coliseum.
Although Stanford would only win a few more games that season, it set the trend: We will play you hard, we will play you tough, and we will give it our all. Eventually the wins will come.
And they did, year by year. It took six long years. In 2006 Stanford won one game. In 2007 they won four. In 2008 they won five. And then they started winning, almost non-stop, against everyone. Still, after seeming to miss their golden opportunities with Harbaugh at the helm and Andrew Luck under center, it looked like the window had closed.
But David Shaw kept the message. The philosophy never changed. Stay tough. Stay smart. Finish what we started.
Stanford rebounded without Luck, without Harbaugh and did things they couldn't accomplish with either of those legends: Win the Pac-12, and earn the Rose Bowl.
Indeed, Stanford has proven they can adapt to play and beat anyone. They have taken their style of football and beaten USC's prized recruits with their physical nature, beating the Trojans an incredible four years running. They have outdone Cal's skill players, Arizona's spread (whether pass or run), Oregon State's dual-threat ability, and UCLA's talent on almost every occasion.
With a scheme dedicated toward one goal (winning the line of scrimmage on both sides), Stanford proved they could win just by being more physical and nastier than everyone else. And that edge has given them the confidence to do something that few other great teams enjoy: The ability to win games late.
The Cardinal have become the master of the fourth quarter comeback, and they only seemed to grow more confident with each game this season. While other teams seemed uncertain of what to do when things grew tight, Stanford came back stronger and more assured. They didn't make mistakes, they moved the football, and they delivered in almost every instant. Only a few mistakes and one questionable call keep them from being undefeated.
Stanford has played nine games that were decided by a touchdown, winning seven of them. Stanford was tied with San Jose State in the fourth quarter and pulled it out. They trailed USC 14-7 in the second quarter and rallied with two scores. They came back from two touchdowns against Arizona in the fourth quarter and won in overtime. They put up another two touchdown rally against Oregon State, then came back in Autzen with a fourth quarter drive for the ages.
And of course, what better way to win the Pac-12 Championship with another fourth quarter rally, scoring ten points on UCLA?
Everything could've gone awry. Johnathan Franklin had the game of his life, averaging a first down a carry. Brett Hundley moved the football and kept UCLA moving the football, not for once succumbing to the Stanford defensive pressure. Sadly, the one mistake he made (the pick-six in all but name) ended up being the deciding point.
With the Stanford defense struggling and the run game getting clamped, it was up to young Kevin Hogan, and he made the difference. It was Hogan who would pick up a crucial touchdown on a zone-read and bleed the clock later on with a similar play. It was Hogan who hit Drew Terrell for two crucial conversions on the game-winning touchdown drive. It was Hogan who kept a Stanford offense afloat, getting Stepfan Taylor yards through the air and connecting with Terrell when Stanford finally needed a wide receiver to step up.
It was the unsung heroes too. Ed Reynolds made the biggest play of the game with his 80 yard interception return, a play that probably swung the outcome 7-10 points. The linebacking crew of Skov, Thomas and Tarpley combined for 26 tackles and two sacks. Kelsey Young stepped in with a Wildcat jet sweep that picked up 23 yards and set up the game-winning field goal. Speaking of which, Jordan Williamson nailed another two kicks, further vanquishing the ghosts of the past with yet another game-winner in 2012.
There aren't any clutch stats for football, but it's hard to describe Stanford as anything but that. They didn't need a great quarterback or even a great coach, but just a philosophy that has defined the best football teams from beginning to end. Tough, smart, clutch football play. Nothing spectacular, nothing brilliant, just great execution on both sides of the ball. If someone makes a mistake, someone else picks up the slack. It's all about the team.
That team is now headed for Pasadena. Job finished.