“A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted.” — “To Kill a Mockingbird”
As the players slumped off the field, sod rotting, the stands long emptied, I could tell something was different about this loss. Stanford had lost its mojo, its confidence and its most essential traits. The discipline of the team, the knowledge of the game that past students like Ty Montgomery demonstrated in the NFL and the swagger with which Christian McCaffrey electrified a nation last year were noticeably absent. The essence of Stanford football, the team I have grown to know and love, had vanished.
This was not merely a fluke. This was an offense that has scored but one touchdown in the past three weeks, a special teams unit that has an affinity only for hitting the metal of the field goal posts, and a defense that becomes more malleable than mercury as the game progresses. Up and down all aspects of the game, Stanford was dominated, just as it had been in the previous week.
Offensive Line: Guilty.
Passing Defense: Guilty.
Guilty, guilty, guilty.
Indeed, by the fourth quarter, David Shaw resembled Jem Finch from the fictional Alabama Courtroom:
“His hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each ‘guilty’ was a separate stab between them.”
For all the genius that we have credited David Shaw with over the years, for all of the brilliance and meticulous organization and the hard-fought wins, it is difficult to imagine that the team that waltzed off the field in Pasadena last January is even a caricature of the one that took the field Saturday. This team resembles the one that was embarassed by Northwestern much more than the one that manhandled USC.
And while Stanford dropped out of the AP Poll this week, it still received enough votes to be considered 32nd in the nation. Flashes of greatness repeatedly appeared in this game and this season: Michael Rector’s reception as time expired before halftime, Ryan Burns’ last-minute touchdown against UCLA and Christian McCaffrey’s explosiveness against USC. But Stanford was stagnant and proasic much more than it was entertaining or effective. The few votes of confidence we received bely the grave situation that faces the football program.
Yes, Stanford is 3-2. The team could go on to win every game and return to the Rose Bowl (the CFP is definitely out of the question). But there is not the slightest indication that this fantasy will come to fruition, even with the lavish talent that the football team does have. This is scariest not because our season might be over, or because of this loss specifically, but because Stanford is the exception. Stanford is the one school in the college football world that could be both the best academic institution in the nation and also sport the best team on the field. Despite the incredibly rigorous academics, Stanford athletes still are able to defy the laws of physics to both practice and perform at a world-class level while thriving in classes.
This is the school where, at halftime, the University can march a dozen Olympians onto the field and celebrate their gold medals and world records. Where the toughest decisions for student-athletes are whether to train for the Olympics or accept a coveted summer internship. And where I know that at the end of the day, all of these amazing students and student-athletes return to the same dorms, dining halls and classes, at the most unique and diverse campus in the nation.
So no, Stanford football, or Stanford athletics, is not doomed. We are the holders of the Capital One Cup and have won a national championship in some Division I sport for 40 consecutive years. But we must be weary, and we must never become complacent.
The central motif of Harper Lee’s novel was the notion of killing a mockingbird — the destruction of innocence, uniqueness and the very thing that makes someone or something who they are. Stanford football must never forget who they are: the home of “intellectual brutality.” And likewise, students and the fanbase can never take the athletic program’s success for granted. Stanford is the exception, not the norm. It will always be this way. And with the good times and the bad, we must always protect Nerd Nation.
Contact Michael Spelfogel at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.