Last week, I began counting down my top Stanford football games of the past four seasons, the best moments of hair-raising drama, high-stakes victory, personal triumph and, in most cases, some combination of all three. Now, a la Matt Barkley in 2012, I’m back to take care of some unfinished business (and that game, by the way, narrowly missed the cut). As we move into games six through three, we arrive at the meat of a truly remarkable four-year stretch for the Cardinal, the games that shaped Stanford football into Stanford football. The top two games (and it’s probably no secret what they are at this point) deserve their own treatment and will be addressed next week. In the meantime, we transition to a series of big-time college football games that saw Stanford pull out victories that shaped the trajectory of not only a particular season but also our entire outlook on these last four years. With that in mind, let’s jump in.
- Stanford vs. Arizona, 2012
For us seniors, our time on campus has been defined as the age of Kevin Hogan — and rightfully so. But before No. 8 took the field and proceeded to win more games than any QB in Stanford history, there was the Josh Nunes era, which culminated in one of the most electrifying games I have ever seen.
I wrote about Stanford-Arizona in detail last October to mark the Wildcats’ first visit to Stanford Stadium since they left scorch marks in the ground four years prior. The occasion also gave me a chance to catch up with Nunes and his post-football career as an entrepreneur. Interestingly, this game is almost more intriguing four years after the fact.
Nunes, in one the last starts of his football career, played the game of his life and rallied the Cardinal from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime. With the gift of hindsight, we also know that this comeback kept the Rose Bowl dream viable. In a contest where the normally airtight 2012 defense gave up 48 points, vintage Zach Ertz, vintage Taylor and a supernatural form of Nunes made the difference. This matchup was also special for me on a personal level, as it was the first game I took in at Stanford Stadium. At the time, I remember thinking that it would all be downhill from here, but, as the next five games suggest, that assumption turned out to be quite wrong.
- Stanford vs. Iowa, 102nd Rose Bowl Game
While the majority of the games in this top six were nail-biters that the left the outcome in doubt until the last possible moments, there will always be this game. Throughout my time covering Stanford football, I always wondered what would happen if everything just meshed for an extended period of time. In the biggest game of the 2015-16 season, the sleeping beast that we all suspected existed awoke and thrashed poor Iowa, who just happened to be standing in the way. Hogan was on from the start, the party in the backfield arrived and never left, the secondary scored a touchdown, David Shaw called a freaking fake fumble and Christian McCaffrey did something unthinkable almost every time he laid hands on the leather. To see the Cardinal dominate in such unequivocal fashion was special, but to see so many members of the senior class cap off their careers in such fashion was truly unforgettable.
- Stanford at Arizona State, 2013 Pac-12 Championship
Continuing the trend of blowout victories in the top-five list, you can’t forget about this gem from the Cardinal back in 2013. Truth be told, I thought Stanford was going to lose this game against a red-hot ASU team. The 2013 Cardinal, while boasting a dominant offensive line, speedy playmakers and the best defense in school history, were prone to bouts of inconsistency. Now, they were about to enter the inferno that is Sun Devil Stadium with the cheerful greeting from Dante: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In a bit of a bind, the Cardinal managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat while pulling no punches when it came to the Sun Devils. Tyler Gaffney ran wild right from the opening possession, Shayne Skov timed a snap perfectly, Zach Hoffpauir contributed to a major fourth-down stop and old man Jordan Pratt put together arguably his most complete performance. It’s almost unfathomable to look back and remember that a loss in Tempe would have sent this insanely talented Stanford team to the Alamo Bowl — if not worse. Instead, the Cardinal silenced the lingering doubt with a performance worthy of the title Best in the West, and the authority with which they defended their Pac-12 crown will always stay in my mind.
3. Stanford vs. Notre Dame, 2015
As Al Pacino would say, football is a game of inches. That line has been quoted so often that it’s almost tautological at this point, managing to convey absolutely no meaning. In the last four years, though, Stanford and Notre Dame have taken that mantra to a new extreme, with three games in that span decided by a combined total of less than a foot. There was the “phantom whistle” game in 2012 and the Irish’s miraculous fourth-and-11 touchdown conversion in 2014.
Neither of those games, however, really top what would go down in 2015. This game wasn’t decided by just inches — it came down to pixels. If the official video review had not concluded that Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer had crossed the goal line for a touchdown, the Irish might have been able to run down the clock further and put the game completely out of reach. Instead, Hogan got the ball back with just enough time to work some magic against his favorite childhood team. After an Irish facemask penalty gave the Cardinal a new lease on life, Hogan delivered a perfect strike up the seam to Devon Cajuste, who also produced a career night. Moments later, Conrad Ukropina drilled the game-winning kick and triggered the last of many field-stormings I’ve been a part of at Stanford. The real cherry on top, though, was at the postgame press conference when The Daily football writers showed Conrad the highlight of his game-winning kick for the first time. That alone places this game in my top three.
As Vihan Lakshman continues down his sentimental descent towards post-Stanford life, The Stanford Daily is accepting donations to fund his search for a new hobby. Current ideas include opera lessons, tap dancing instruction and training in wrestling to pursue a potential career in the WWE. If interested, please contact Vihan at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.