Beyda: Stanford’s Rose Bowl run has all the intangibles

Here’s a little recipe for success for future Stanford coaches: If you want to make it to the Rose Bowl, throw conventional wisdom out the window.

Stanford fans have been pining for a Rose Bowl since 1999, and we’re now just one win away from finally booking those tickets to Pasadena. At the same time, Cardinal receivers have been dropping passes since day one and Kevin Hogan’s 25-for-36 performance against Oregon was the first time all year a Stanford starter completed more than 65 percent of his throws in a game. The Cardinal hasn’t broken 425 yards on a single Saturday since Big Game on Oct. 20, five games back; just a season ago Andrew Luck’s squad did so 11 times and couldn’t win its division.

The Cardinal’s total offense has dropped an astounding 108 yards per game since 2011, the second-highest single-offseason plummet by a Stanford team since 1950. But know this: The third-highest such decrease–a 98-yard drop before the 1970 season–led the Cardinal straight to the Rose Bowl and added two more wins to Stanford’s record.

That 1970 squad’s numbers fly in the face of everything we know about football. How can a team with such offensive struggles be quarterbacked by the only Heisman winner in school history? How did it manage to improve from seven wins in 1969 to nine wins in 1970 while its average margin over opponents decreased from 19.7 to 11.4 points per game? (This last offseason has also seen that advantage cut in half, from 21.2 to 11.7.)

It takes a boatload of intangibles to overcome those kinds of statistical dilemmas. And what team in college football can rival the Cardinal’s intangibles right now?

Its dominant front seven has an emotional leader in Shayne Skov, who is determined to return to the explosive form he exhibited last year before losing his season to injury.

Its shut-down secondary (I can’t believe I just typed those words) has a chip on its shoulder after years of poor pass defense on the Farm.

Its kicker, Jordan Williamson, just overcame a year of scrutiny and pent-up nerves to clinch the most important win by a Cardinal team this century.

Its offensive workhorse, Stepfan Taylor, is about to become the most storied back in school history but keeps sharing time with Anthony Wilkerson, Ricky Seale, Remound Wright and Kelsey Young, who have averaged a combined 4.9 yards-per-carry (exactly Taylor’s production).

Its coach is a proud alum who wants to get the team back to the Rose Bowl more than anyone.

Even its displaced quarterback, Josh Nunes, has gracefully mentored and supported his replacement, Kevin Hogan, after a midseason switch that reflected bluntly on their relative abilities. (Just watch their embrace after the Oregon win.)

Maybe I’m biased because I know Stanford better than any other team, but having all that stuff, all on one team, is uncommon.

The Cardinal will have a pair of defeats if it makes it to Pasadena, and strangely enough that’s actually better than average for a Cardinal conference champion. You have to go all the way back to 1951 to find a two-loss Stanford team in the Rose Bowl; in 1970, 1971 and 1999 the Cardinal was 8-3 when it won the conference.

By comparison, during USC’s six-year stint as the Pac-10’s Rose Bowl or National Championship representative it benefited from the services of three future NFL quarterbacks and averaged just one loss per regular season. Yet that type of overpowering talent is not what got Stanford to the Rose Bowl in the past, and it won’t be this year.

Case in point: the Cardinal hasn’t exactly fallen in line during a 2012 college football season chock-full of electric offensive performances. Pac-12 fans saw Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey have the best rushing game in conference history, and single-game conference receiving records were set in three separate leagues (Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC). Quarterbacks in those three conferences broke single-game records: Pac-12 completions and attempts, by Arizona’s Matt Scott; Big 12 passing touchdowns and total offense, by West Virginia’s Geno Smith; and SEC total offense, by Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

Taylor’s best rushing game (188 yards) was half as good as Carey’s (366), Hogan’s best passing game (254 yards) was half as good as Manziel’s (557) and only two Cardinal wide receivers have caught more passes all season than Marquise Lee did in one game (16). But look who’s ranked highest.

Look who’s just a game away from the Rose Bowl.

 

Joseph Beyda thinks he might be able to average 4.9 yards per carry if David Shaw told him to put the team on his back, doe. Email him creative TD dances at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter at @DailyJBeyda.

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the executive editor of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a junior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.