Fischer: Stanford feels at home atop the Pac-12
STANFORD, Calif. - As he waddled through a throng of Cardinal fans, senior running back Stepfan Taylor seemed a bit lost in the moment. He was smiling, shaking hands with every fan - from toddlers to grandmothers-- and posing for pictures as he made his way to the locker room.
One of the kindest, soft-spoken leaders of the Stanford team that had topped UCLA, 27-24, in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game, Taylor was trying to soak in the experience of winning the league title and securing the program's first Rose Bowl berth since he was in diapers.
[Highlights: Stanford takes Pac-12 title, earns Rose Bowl berth]
But it wasn't until he was steps away from ducking into the tunnel that the magnitude of the moment for the long-suffering Stanford fan base hit him.
"I want my son to grow up just like you!" a woman shouted, little one standing next to her, while placing her hands on Taylor's shoulder pads.
"Thank you," the tailback responded, taking a pause from moving forward while flashing his biggest grin. "Thank you."
The Cardinal weren't supposed to be here. They were not supposed to be hoisting the championship trophy or biting down on rose stems.
Six years ago Stanford went 1-11. This season they're Pac-12 champions and headed to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1999.
"I'm very proud of my guys. These guys played extremely hard. We talked about how this thing wasn't going to be easy," coach David Shaw said. "We knew it was going to come down to the end. Were we going to have the resolve? Were we going to have the toughness? Were we going to be smart enough at the end to make just enough plays to win?
"Our guys did that."
A program once considered among the worst in the country has flourished with an emphasis on a strong running game, turnover-free quarterback play and suffocating defense. Many expected to the departures of former coach Jim Harbaugh and star quarterback Andrew Luck to the NFL to cause the Cardinal to take a step back. Instead, they've taken a step forward.
"We play with a chip on our shoulder," added Shaw, a former player on The Farm. "We're not a one-man organization here. We're a team. We'll have great players leave this year and we expect to be good again next year. We recruit tough, smart kids that play well. They make plays."
Beating UCLA for the second time in six days set off a celebration among the small but passionate fan base at Stanford Stadium on Friday. But the Cardinal's season was officially special when they conquered recent conference heavyweight Oregon two weekends ago in Eugene. In redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan's first road start, the Cardinal toppled the then No. 1 team in the country in overtime.
Whenever this 2012 team has faced adversity during their seven-game winning streak, they simply seem to come back with the right play at the right time.
"We were a loss to Oregon away - twice - from getting in this game and getting a chance to go to the Rose Bowl," said Shaw. "That game (two weeks ago) was a signature game for us because that was a team that had been keeping us from our goal."
UCLA nearly did that on its second shot with Stanford. The Bruins looked as though they were going to wrestle away control of the game early, threatening to go up two scores before Ed Reynolds undercut a Brett Hundley pass and picked it off before zigzagging all the way to the one-yard line. Taylor punched it in a play later to swing momentum right back to the home sideline.
The Bruins threatened again when they took the lead late in the fourth quarter on a touchdown from Johnathan Franklin, who exploded against the top-ranked rushing defense in the country to the tune of 194 yards and two scores. Hogan stepped up when needed once again for the team, however, dropping in a beautiful 26-yard touchdown pass over a defender to Drew Terrell. Hogan's efforts earned him the honor of championship game MVP.
[Related Kevin Hogan postgame interview]
In many ways, Friday night's championship game was a tug-of-war, and the final heave helped Stanford win the battle.
"That's an outstanding football team. I thought that was a tremendous game tonight against two quality opponents," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "I thought kids on both sides just fought their tails off. We're very disappointed that we came up short. I still think we have a lot to be proud of this year."
Indeed, not many picked the Bruins to be the team from Los Angeles that represented the South. Yet they battled through a tough Pac-12 schedule to finish 9-4 in Mora's first season as a college coach. With pieces like Hundley and a number players on both sides of the ball coming back, it's easy to see why the future is bright in Westwood once they move on from Friday's loss.
"We need to mourn a little bit. We need to get over this one. We poured it out there," Mora continued. "We'll eventually move on but this one's going to sting for a while. You don't get this close and lose and not have it hurt."
For Stanford, the victory could not be sweeter. Years in the making, the team is built for sustaining success, and that starts with the revelation the staff found in former third-stringer Hogan. In keeping his record as a starter a perfect 4-0, the signal caller merely managed to accomplish something guys by the name of Luck and John Elway couldn't.
"You know, especially for me, just being able to play, it's been fun," Hogan said. "The guys around me make it a lot easier than it looks. I'm very fortunate to have such great teammates around me."
"You're a freshman?" said linebacker Chase Thomas, sly smile on his face. "I don't know, he sure doesn't play like one. The type of leadership he has in the huddle, the way he commands the huddle, it's tremendous for a redshirt freshman like him."
There were, no doubt, a few young, aspiring quarterbacks looking on at his performance Friday night and thinking that maybe down the road they'll be able to fill his shoes at Stanford. The same is certainly true of his friend in the backfield, Taylor.
Who would have thought six years ago that kids would aspire to be Stanford football players? Following their Pac-12 championship, the answer clearly lies in the Cardinal locker room as they sit atop the conference of champions.