By Sam Fisher
When I left the field at Autzen Stadium after Stanford’s 17-14 win against Oregon just under 13 months ago, I didn’t think that any Cardinal victory could ever again make me feel as happy as I was at that moment.
Saturday night in Tempe, Kevin Hogan, Shayne Skov, Tyler Gaffney and everyone else in the Stanford locker room gave that magical night in Eugene a run for its money.
There was something so perfect about this win. From the moment I stepped off the plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and walked past the spot where I had encountered a crying Jordan Williamson almost two years earlier, this road trip felt like an exorcism.
Jordan Williamson’s Arizona demons are gone; the senior kicker was solid in every spot he was called upon. Stanford’s loss to USC is forgiven; looking back, going undefeated in this year’s Pac-12 would have been a nearly impossible task, so a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl berth are all we could really have asked for. Stanford’s offensive woes on the road, which had been annoyingly persistent for months, disappeared against one of the conference’s best defenses. And most importantly of all for the long-term health of this program, Stanford reminded the Pac-12 that it is still the best team on the West Coast.
If that last sentence is still a little hard to believe for those of you that suffered through decades of mediocrity (and even futility), you’re not alone. I had a similar moment Sunday morning when I saw a post-game tweet from former Cardinal center Sam Schwartzstein ’12 M.A. ’13.
“To be the man you’ve got to beat the man,” Schwartzstein’s tweet read.
Does that quote sound familiar? It’s what former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh preached to his team from the moment he arrived on campus in the wake of a 1-11 2006 season.
Seven years ago, Harbaugh was talking about USC, specifically about its head coach and Harbaugh’s future nemesis Pete Carroll. But now, as Schwartzstein beautifully stated, Stanford is the man, and Arizona State, along with the rest of the Pac-12, is destined for another 12 months of figuring out how to grab Pac-12 supremacy from the Cardinal.
Stanford’s 38-14 win against the Sun Devils on Saturday night was a prototypical Stanford win and, in my opinion, the best of its kind under David Shaw. As much fun as Stanford’s grueling wins against Oregon were during these past two years, they sell this era of Stanford football short. On Saturday, Stanford achieved what it had lacked for most of the past two years, even in those two key wins: balance.
Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium, the Cardinal was as close to perfect as you will see on a college football field. The offense was both physically brutal and remarkably creative. And the creativity came, as it did in 2010, mostly from little twists in formations, personnel and motions and not from fluky plays like double reverse passes.
The best example of this creativity was on the screen pass to sophomore wide receiver Michael Rector. The play itself wasn’t creative — it was the same tunnel screen that Stanford had run to junior Ty Montgomery with great success all season, including on a touchdown against Arizona State back on Sept. 21 — but the subtleties were brilliant.
All season, Stanford had run that play to Montgomery on the right side of the field, which allowed senior right tackle Cam Fleming to lead the way. Against Arizona State, Stanford ran that play to Rector on the left side behind sophomore left tackle Andrus Peat. There is no way that ASU had prepared for that version of the play, and it, along with most calls all night, worked beautifully.
And then on the defensive side of the ball, Stanford was both dominant and gritty. On some drives, the Cardinal stopped ASU instantly. On others, the Sun Devils moved the ball down the field with ease, only to be stopped with a fury when it neared the end zone. ASU could only score twice, and while those two long scores were definitely avoidable, no one could complain about holding the Sun Devils to only 14 points on their own turf.
So as the Cardinal celebrated in front of a small but raucous group of fans who had made the trip to Tempe, the players and coaches smiled wider than perhaps they ever had before. Shaw was still beaming when he walked into his press conference about 30 minutes later and about 50 Stanford fans on my flight Sunday night were too.
And who could blame them? For the second year in a row, they’ll be in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, this time facing a top-five opponent for the 100th Rose Bowl Game. This season has had its ups and downs; it was as stressful as an 11-win season could be and even looked lost after the loss at the Coliseum.
But it’s all right now.
Sam Fisher will be in Pasadena on Dec. 27 and is counting down the days already. Let him know when you’re headed down for The Granddaddy of Them All at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.