Every Monday, after Stanford football finishes watching the film from its game two days earlier, quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford collects his game plans, notes and play diagrams from the previous week and files them away, literally closing the books on the Cardinal’s last opponent.
That moment couldn’t come too soon this week, as Stanford tried to shake off a stunning loss to unranked Utah in Salt Lake City that severely dampened — if not completely ended — the Cardinal’s national title aspirations.
Few losses in recent memory have changed the outside rhetoric surrounding Stanford football so drastically. The Cardinal, ranked as high as No. 2 in the preseason by some publications, fell out of the top 10 entirely, having seemingly strayed from its identity at the worst possible time: just as it entered a daunting home stretch that includes conference contenders No. 9 UCLA and No. 2 Oregon.
Though Stanford’s coaches preach mental toughness, it’s hard for the players to move on immediately. Moreover, the Cardinal’s last four losses have all come on the road or in a bowl game, so the team’s veterans have experienced several tough plane flights over their careers.
“Usually, on the flight home you’re still feeling real bad,” said senior left guard David Yankey. “The game literally just happened … After a loss, you usually don’t get much sleep.”
The players have access to game film on their team-issued iPads by the time they board their flight, though Yankey admits that he doesn’t like to watch it right away after a loss. He says that the emotional healing really begins when the physical healing does, as players come in to stretch, lift and work out any soreness the day after the game.
The mental step usually comes on Monday, when the players sit down in front of a projector screen with their coaches for the first time.
“The closure happens after we watch that full film with the players, make all the corrections,” Sanford said. “And that’s win or lose. Because sometimes you’re still on the euphoria of a victory, and you have to move on from that.”
But even after the team has supposedly turned the page, the previous weekend’s emotions sometimes spill over into practice. Head coach David Shaw noted Tuesday that some of the players — namely, Yankey and his fellow captains — had an “edge” to them in practice, adding that he’d expect nothing less after a loss.
“These first two days [of practice], I don’t know if I’ve seen our team — since I’ve been playing — so focused and ready to go,” said junior quarterback Kevin Hogan. “We know we can’t sulk; we can’t waste a minute reflecting on last week. We’ve moved on completely.”
The Cardinal is hoping the loss becomes a turning point, much like its overtime defeat at No. 7 Notre Dame did last season.
After that loss, the team’s three captains had called a players’ meeting — a regular occurrence during the early years of the program’s rise, but the first of its kind during Shaw’s tenure — and challenged the team to keep fighting despite the 4-2 start. That’s exactly what Stanford did, finishing the season with an eight-game winning streak that included wins against both the Ducks and the Bruins.
“The work ethic looks exactly similar to after we suffered that defeat to Notre Dame,” said sophomore wide receiver Kodi Whitfield. “Guys are just ready to work. They’re hungry again.”
So, despite outside perception, it’s not quite panic time for the No. 13 Cardinal, which still enters this weekend’s homecoming showdown against No. 9 UCLA as a six-point favorite.
“We have a process that we really trust in and believe in, and this process has led to a lot of wins,” Yankey said. “Every now and then, when you don’t get the job done, it’s really tough and you want to blame things. But you just go back to the details, look at what you did wrong, you see all the correctable mistakes and we’ve got to take care of that. And we will.”
“Sometimes,” Whitfield noted, “you need to taste your own blood a bit to get back to work.”
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sam Fisher at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu.