Frustration. Second-guessing. Bewilderment. Torment.
Those are feelings that we, as Stanford fans, have become all too acquainted with over the last three seasons as the Cardinal have lost head-scratchers to Washington, Notre Dame, Utah, USC and Michigan State.
Those were all games that we could envision the Cardinal winning — and, we argued, games that we should have won as we stared at our screens and yelled and tweeted at David Shaw to “RUN THE BALL, DAMN IT” or “STOP RUNNING THE BALL, DAMN IT.”
But as I sat in Autzen Stadium’s press box and watched Shaw metaphorically throw in the towel by inserting Evan Crower halfway through the fourth quarter with the Cardinal down 45-16, there wasn’t any sense of those feelings in my head.
I was at peace with the state of Cardinal football. You know, Kevin Hogan played one of his best games at quarterback — even excusing the interception and fumble — and Devon Cajuste went off. Even Jordan Williamson was making kicks like his life depended on it. As George Chen is going to say in his column tomorrow, Stanford was just outmatched and the Ducks were the better team on the field. There’s no shame in being beaten by a better team.
Seriously, my Stanford football zen was at unprecedented heights as I methodically wrote up my recap. The Dalai Lama would have been proud of my inner peace. That is, until I hit the end of my recap and had to think to myself, “So…what happens from here?”
We thought at the start of the season that the upcoming stretch against Utah and Cal would be a cakewalk and offer a breather before a clash against UCLA, potentially with Pac-12 title implications. But improbably, we’re seeing Utah make a splash in the Pac-12 South and still staying very much in the thick of things. Meanwhile, Cal has rebounded better than even the most diehard of Cal fans could have predicted under the steadfast guidance of quarterback Jared Goff.
Slightly taken aback at that thought, I looked down at Stanford’s record. 5-4. I blinked and looked down again. Still 5-4.
Somehow, in the week-to-week grind of following and covering the season, I hadn’t looked at things in the big picture, but the realization suddenly crept upon me that Stanford — somehow — has a pretty good chance of missing out on not just a top-tier bowl, but missing out on a bowl altogether.
The Cardinal only need one more win to become bowl-eligible, sure, but none of their final three games are gimmes, and the way things are looking, it’s almost conceivable that Stanford could lose out and finish 5-7 — worse than even the most pessimistic of Cardinal fans could have predicted at the start of the season.
Against Utah, Stanford will go up against the nastiest defensive front in the conference, meaning that the running game will, again, be like trying to chisel through a brick wall with a plastic spoon. Meanwhile, Cal and Goff can and will make Stanford pay if it can’t pressure Goff up front — which can and will be an issue with the current state of Stanford’s defensive line. And UCLA, despite being the only team in the Pac-12 that has underachieved nearly as much as the Cardinal this season, still has Brett Hundley and monsters at the skill positions.
We pointed and laughed as Michigan spiraled into disaster, Florida imploded and USC collapsed (or I did, anyway) but, yes, I’ll admit that it’s significantly less funny when it’s happening to my team. And even though I’d hate to spend my winter break in New Mexico or El Paso for a lower-tier bowl game, I think that if Stanford happens to miss out on a bowl altogether this season, it’s one of the worst things that could possibly happen for the program’s momentum.
We’ve already heard accusations that Shaw is just not as good of a recruiter as Jim Harbaugh was, and those shouts would only get louder and lead to almost a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts as groups of top recruits would likely consider Stanford even less than they already do.
Meanwhile, the national respect that Stanford has garnered over the last several seasons would be much easier to dismiss as a flash in the pan and unsustainable — even when Stanford had won two in a row against Oregon, the national media continually respected the Oregon brand over the Stanford brand, after all. Stanford isn’t flashy, it isn’t sexy and it isn’t winning — so why pay attention to the football in Palo Alto?
And finally, among the many already-ambivalent students on Stanford’s campus, a losing season would crush any momentum that the program had accrued in drawing students and alumni to the games and ruin attendance numbers that are already paltry at best. We saw this against Oregon State — seats in the Red Zone were already being taken by members of the general community (on Homecoming, no less!). Especially when your program doesn’t have the natural alumni fan base of a Michigan or a Florida and filling the stands is challenging with a winning team, fielding a losing team would just be crippling.
In my mind, these last three games are the most important games for Stanford football in the David Shaw era, bar none. The stakes are higher than ever before — not in the sense that national implications hang in the balance, but in the sense that everything that this program has been trying to build toward hangs in the balance.
It takes thousands of men years to build a tower, but it just takes one well-aimed blow to make it come crashing down. Rebuilding takes time, and if we’re not careful, even if Stanford has another run of success in the coming years, the reputation and draw of the program will need to be remade from scratch.
Do-Hyoung Park really does not want to get started on The Daily’s next Stanford football book, “Rags to Roses…to Rags.” He already doesn’t get enough sleep. Console him at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.