THE AXE IS BACK
By DENIS GRIFFIN, DESK EDITOR
After a jubilant postgame scene subsided following Stanford’s 20-13 Big Game victory over Cal — the program’s first such win since 2001 — the last players to leave the locker room were senior receivers Mark Bradford and Evan Moore and sophomore quarterback Tavita Pritchard. Perhaps no three players illustrate better where the Cardinal have been this season, and where the team is heading going forward.
Bradford and Moore may be the most notable of the Cardinal’s seniors who played out their final season with Stanford. The duo, who went out on a winning note against the Golden Bears, were part of a truly mystifying season for first year head coach Jim Harbaugh, winning games against then-No. 2 USC on the road and Cal at home, but being thoroughly dominated by the likes of UCLA and Washington. It all led to a confusing 4-8 finish, that somehow has led coaches, players and fans alike to believe that good things may be just around the corner for this Stanford team.
It is certainly undeniable that the positive effects of the win over the Bears were both immediate and profound.
“It’s so special,” Harbaugh said. “Just the great thrill of winning, the thrill of ultimate victory, getting that Axe back here at Stanford. [I’m] very pleased for our players, that’s the thing that gets me the most.”
And that’s an effect that should be carried forward into the 2008 season according to the Cardinal coach who is a rookie no more.
“No question, this definitely helps our program,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a statement on how far our program has come and that we know how to win and have what it takes to win.”
Aside from the loss of the steady receiving presences of Bradford and Moore, Stanford will certainly miss the contributions it received from the likes of center Tim Mattran, defensive end Udeme Udofia, cornerbacks Tim Sims and Nick Sanchez, quarterback T.C. Ostrander, punter Jay Ottovegio, defensive tackle Chris Horn, kicker Derek Belch and guard Mikal Brewer, among others. But it is undeniable that the Cardinal has plenty of key pieces to the puzzle returning for 2008.
Left tackle Allen Smith, who missed much of the 2007 season with an injury, should return to the team sometime this summer, and right guard Alex Fletcher has also decided to return for his senior season. Along with center Bert McBride, who filled in admirably for Mattran at times this year, and right tackle Chris Marinelli, who was the only Stanford lineman to start every game for the Cardinal this season, Harbaugh appears to have a solid and experienced offensive front returning to the Farm.
That front will be paving the way for a talented group of running backs, including Toby Gerhart, who will be a sophomore yet again for the Cardinal after suffering a season-ending injury against San Jose State early in the year. Stanford’s leading rusher, Anthony Kimble, will also return as a senior, while Stanford’s most dangerous vertical threat in the passing game — sophomore Richard Sherman — will be asked to shoulder more of the load as the offense’s primary receiver. And, of course, there is Pritchard, the star of the USC win, who will be a junior next year
Given the Cardinal’s most recent success, the prospect of moving forward is something Pritchard is very excited about.
“We’ll just use this as a springboard for those offseason workouts and the conditioning program and spring ball,” he said. “It’s huge getting people excited about this team and what we’re capable of, and it’s huge learning how to win a game like this. We’ve lost some big ones this year, won some big ones, and to win a game like this it’s big for us, learning how to win and carrying that over.”
Key playmakers will return for the defense as well, with the Cardinal’s most significant losses coming in the secondary, where the absence of Nick Sanchez and Tim Sims could pose a problem matching up with the dynamic receivers of the Pac-10.
Still, even those who have played their last down for the Cardinal seem to be excited about the future of the program following the crazy highs and lows of 2007.
“As far as the attitude, it’s 100 percent different,” senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander told the San Jose Mercury News. “We have a lot of talent coming back, and I’m expecting big things.”
— Junior guard Alex Fletcher, junior cornerback Wopamo Osaisai, and senior punter Jay Ottovegio were all awarded All Pac-10 Second Team Honors for their efforts in the 2007 season. Ottovegio finished his Stanford career with the all-time Cardinal record for punt yardage (not necessarily a good thing), while Fletcher paved the way for Stanford’s rushing attack in 11 games this year. Osaisai earned All Pac-10 honors for the second season in a row thanks to his strong special teams play.