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Football: Grit on the gridiron

Redshirt senior tight end Coby Fleener, who finished with 41 receiving yards in Stanford's 48-7 rout of Colorado last Saturday, is just one of the Card's relentless offensive weapons. (NICK SALAZAR/The Stanford Daily)

Late in last Saturday’s game against Colorado, the Stanford football team led 27-7 and faced a fourth down on the Buffaloes’ 13-yard line.

Instead of kicking a field goal to extend the already-comfortable lead, head coach David Shaw called for the offense to stay on the field. After junior running back Stepfan Taylor rushed over the left guard for three yards to extend the drive, quarterback Andrew Luck tossed an easy touchdown pass to junior fullback Ryan Hewitt to make the lead 34-7.

The very next Cardinal drive, Stanford faced a fourth and goal at the one-yard line. Again, instead of taking the points, Shaw called for his running back to go over the left guard, and again, the Cardinal scored a touchdown.

After the game, Shaw insisted that the fourth down calls weren’t piling on the opponent, but they were indeed trying to send a message–to his own team.

“Attitude. That’s our attitude. If it’s close, with the line that we have, with the fullbacks that we have, with the tight ends we have, with the backs that we have, we should pick up anything that’s less than 4th and three,” Shaw said. “That’s the kind of mentality we need to have up front in order for us to play the games the way we want to play them.”

With those two calls, the first-year head coach appeared to answer one of the biggest questions that Stanford faced coming into the 2011 season: would the team’s tough attitude stay the same as it had been under former coach Jim Harbaugh? The answer is yes.

“[Coming into the season] this team, we were definitely trying to reinvent ourselves. Obviously coach Harbaugh’s gone, we’re under coach Shaw, everybody’s trying to see what type of team it’s going to be, and we still have that competitive edge, we still have that competitive attitude,” senior safety Michael Thomas said. “We wanted to reinvent ourselves like this is our brand of football, this isn’t just Jim Harbaugh’s brand of football, this is Stanford football.”

In other words, Harbaugh himself might be gone, but his favorite catchphrase–“We’re going to win with character but we’re also going to win with cruelty”–still resonates.

Shaw, whose coaching career includes stops with the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens–two teams known for their distinctive, tough attitudes–said that it was much more than just the coaching staff manufacturing an image.

“The two most important things to have are the expectations for how tough and physical you’re going to be–coach Harbaugh did that–and then you recruit guys that exemplify it,” Shaw said. “You can’t preach it as a coach if you don’t have guys that have it. You can’t just make it happen, you have to have guys on the team that make it happen.”“Guys that are tough-minded like Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, Michael Thomas, Chase Thomas, Delano Howell, those guys exemplify that every day, so now when you bring a young guy in, you hear it from the coaches but you also hear it from the older players, and that’s what the culture is,” he added.

Of course, that brash attitude can bring some backlash, like Harbaugh’s famous (or infamous) decision to go for two when leading by 27 points against USC back in 2009, or the pregame tension that flared into fisticuffs during last year’s game against Cal.

Despite the occasional distraction or penalty (the Cardinal was flagged for personal fouls three times last week), Thomas says the team is constantly emphasizing not to let its emotions get out of control.

“We say all the time, ‘Don’t get emotionally hijacked.’ We play off each others’ high energy but at the same time, we don’t want to put our teammates in a bad situation,” he said. “What happened at the Cal game last year was unfortunate, it’s a rivalry, it’s a big game, and it really did get the blood pumping, but we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize our teammates.”

Thomas also said that he and the defense had adopted a catchphrase of their own this season–“opportunity for greatness.”

“That is something that started last year with [former defensive coordinator Vic] Fangio and [defensive coordinator] Derek Mason, whenever we get a sudden change, it’s saying opportunity is knocking instead of ‘oh shoot, a momentum change,’” he said.

Despite one of his stars adopting the phrase, Shaw insists that it’s just unofficial, unlike the “cruelty with character” slogan.

“No, no, I loved that one, but we haven’t come up with any other mantras,” he said. “We’ve just been concentrating on the process on what it takes for us to be a good team.”

The Cardinal will get a chance to put its toughness on the line once again this weekend against Washington State in Pullman, Wash.