With just five weeks left in my undergraduate journey at Stanford and at The Daily, it’s become hard to avoid staring at the rearview mirror and taking it all in, especially when it comes to football. With three Pac-12 Championships, three Rose Bowl appearances and 44 wins in the past four years, there’s no doubt that we in the Class of 2016 had it pretty good. However, it will be the personalities around the program and the mind-boggling number of mesmerizing games we got to witness that will always be the most memorable. Coach Shaw likes to talk about “tangible evidence of a job well done,” but it will almost certainly be the intangible moments that stay with me. With that in mind, over the course of the next two columns, I’d like to count down my own version of the top 10 Stanford football games of the last four seasons, from 2012 to 2015.
I should note as a disclaimer that my criteria were extremely subjective, based purely on the importance of the game and how it resonated in my memory. I could easily envision someone coming up with an entirely different ranking, perhaps much better than my own. There are certainly a number of other games that deserve consideration, and my goal is simply to start the conversation.
- 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game (Stanford vs. UCLA)
There haven’t been too many times in my life where I thought that watching football would legitimately damage my health, but this was one of those moments. I had pulled an all-nighter trying (not very successfully) to find my way out of the maze that is Kant for a philosophy paper before joining several friends from my freshman dorm in painting our chests for the game on an unusually cold and rainy night.
I watched the game in a semi-conscious haze, and the events on the field made the experience even more surreal. UCLA was running wild on the legendary 2012 Cardinal defense and — for more than a split second — it looked like Stanford’s long journey climbing out of the football gutter to smell the roses again would be thwarted. But Kevin Hogan, the game’s MVP, was spectacular, leading the Cardinal to two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to reclaim their lead and their destiny. When the Bruins missed what would have been the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, the real fun began with another all-out field storming celebration that brought the Stanford community together in a moment of bliss that no one could have seen coming six years prior. The Cardinal were heading back to Pasadena and claimed their first Pac-12 title in a game that will live on in lore.
- Stanford at UCLA, 2014
There are three things you can count on in life: death, taxes and Stanford beating UCLA. In addition to the three conferences championships and two Rose Bowl victories we have witnessed in the last four years, there’s this other dictum that’s emerged in the David Shaw era. Simply put, Stanford has owned UCLA. In his four years as a starter, Kevin Hogan defeated the Bruins five times, the most of any FBS quarterback against a single opponent in history. When you’ve had this kind of stretch of dominance over an in-state rival, it’s hard to single out one game, but I have a feeling Hogan would choose this victory over the boys from Westwood as the most special. In the midst of a disappointing 2014 season, Stanford, for all practical purposes, had nothing to play for, while UCLA, one win away from the conference championship game, had everything. But it was Hogan who came out on a mission, going 16-19 for 234 yards while Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Remound Wright and another elite Stanford defense put the finishing touches on the Bruins’ hopes and dreams. It was the last game Hogan would play before his father passed away, and the quarterback’s steely calmness in the face of adversity came to define him on not only that day but also in the season to come. It was a game, in many respects, that changed the dynamic of the team and paved the way for a return to elite status the next season, all while decimating UCLA from start to finish in the process.
- 2013 Rose Bowl Game (Stanford vs. Wisconsin)
This game was vintage 2012-14 Stanford, and by almost any fan estimation, that translates to “boring.” To be sure, the second half of Stanford’s first Rose Bowl game in over a decade could be described as “risk-averse” at best and “uneventful” at worst. As dull as the game might have been to those watching, imagine what it must have been like to follow the action on ESPN gamecast at 3 a.m. on the other side of the planet. I seriously thought the computer was broken. Nevertheless, this game was special, not only because it was Stanford’s first trip to Pasadena in a while but also for the slew of trickery at the outset of the game, including a terrific Wildcat-reverse bomb downfield from Drew Terrell to Jamal-Rashad Patterson that we still talk about today. Then, Usua Amanam, a Stanford warrior if there ever was one, sealed the deal with an interception to give the Cardinal their first Rose Bowl win in over 40 years. It was a special game indeed.
- 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game (Stanford vs. USC)
Over its long history, Stanford has been blessed with a number of spectacular offensive talents. Luck, Elway, Plunkett, Nelson and Gerhart — to name just a few — all suited up in the cardinal and white and earned deserved national recognition. But no one in this group (or for that matter anyone who ever lived) managed to produce a season like the one Christian McCaffrey put together in his 2015 campaign. No. 5 tallied masterful performances as if they were common occurrences, and the Pac-12 Championship stood out as his Ninth Symphony, his “Starry Night,” his “Hamlet.” In a matchup against a hot USC team in a decidedly partisan “neutral” site of Levi’s Stadium, McCaffrey silenced the Trojan faithful with a career-high 461 all-purpose yards to set the NCAA single-season record and leave half of Troy’s coaching staff unemployed. In helping to punch Stanford’s return ticket to Pasadena, the WildCaff saved his best performance in 2015 for last and it was quite a moment to witness firsthand. From this game, I’ll also remember Ronnie Harris and Blake Martinez fighting through injury to anchor the defense and Solomon Thomas scooping and scoring to write the first chapter of what looks to be a storied career. This game also marked Stanford’s third conference title in four years, the ultimate reminder of just how lucky we’ve been to witness this stretch of excellence.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu if you would like a signed photo of Vihan himself riding off into the sunset of post-Stanford life on his trusty steed, Do-Hyoung Park. Currently 100 copies from a print run of 100 still available.