Out of the Tunnel: Stanford, Pac-12 continue to look ahead

Just outside the wild celebration in the Stanford locker room at Autzen Stadium last Saturday night, I asked a former Cardinal football player who was soaking up the atmosphere where the 17-14 overtime win over No. 1 (AP) Oregon ranked in the program's lore.

He paused for a moment before replying that it was among the most meaningful wins in Stanford history, even if it wasn't the biggest.

It certainly wasn't as famous as 'The Play.' It wasn't as thrilling as last year's 56-48 triple overtime thriller over USC nor as big of an upset as when the 41-point underdogs upset the Trojans in 2007. It wasn't as impactful a win as 'The Game' in 1999 that clinched the team's first Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl berth in 28 years.

David Shaw had the same pause and slight smile on his face when I asked him the same question. As someone who had been on The Farm for a long time as a fan, former player and coach, he knew the program's history as well as anybody's. In another typical, measured response, the Cardinal coach didn't take much time to reflect on what the win meant.

“It’s up there,” Shaw said. “As I told our guys though, we don’t get a trophy for this game. There’s no tangible evidence for this game, all we did was put ourselves in position to go play a really good UCLA team next week.”

After back-to-back BCS berths, just about everybody outside of the most optimistic Stanford fan expected this year's team to take a step back. Jim Harbaugh was two years removed from the remarkable turnaround and far closer to a Super Bowl than Palo Alto. One of the best quarterbacks in a generation, Andrew Luck, was wowing folks in Indianapolis.

Shaw understands that none of that matters to the current football team. Under the sharp young coach, now 20-4, it's full steam ahead. Yes, the past plays a role, but for Stanford, this season is about constantly striving to be the best and pushing boundaries. One of the few things left for the program to accomplish was to beat the one thorn in their side despite all of the success over the past few years: Oregon.

Earlier in the week leading up to the game, Shaw had remarked that his team, and the conference, had an "Oregon problem." In 34 conference games under Chip Kelly the Ducks had suffered only two losses. The Cardinal were on the losing end nine of the last 10 meetings and facing a team that was dropping offensive records left and right while ranked No. 1 in the country. Most thought last Saturday was going to be yet another game in which Oregon rolled in the second half.

And yet they didn't.

Stanford pushed back, suffocated the Ducks offense and took home a remarkable victory that shook up the Pac-12 and BCS title races. In doing so, they not only showed that going against the grain - a physical brand of football based on running the ball and playing defense in a league full of spread offenses - could work against anybody, but that the league was as deep as it has been in years.

Six teams were in the BCS top 25 come Sunday and eight programs are headed to the postseason this year. Beyond that, as Shaw would be excited to talk about, the future is bright all around the conference.

Stanford loses only a handful of starters to graduation and has found its quarterback of the future in Kevin Hogan after a near season-long tryout for the position. Oregon signal caller Marcus Mariota was a Heisman dark horse prior to last Saturday and UCLA's Brett Hundley ripped the title of best quarterback in Los Angeles away from Matt Barkley. USC won't worry too much about next season with lots - maybe too much looking back - of young talent getting experience this year, plus star wide receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor returning. The two Arizona programs appear to be well ahead of schedule and Washington is an Apple Cup win away from eight wins.

There are deep issues at Colorado and Washington State. Cal is starting over after letting go of Jeff Tedford Tuesday morning. Utah has at least found the answer at quarterback in Travis Wilson despite a bowl-less season.

But for the most part, with two BCS berths all but assured and a tough week-in and week-out grind readily apparent to the rest of the country, there's plenty to be excited about in the Pac-12 as the season winds down. For Stanford, looking forward is the only thing that matters either way.

Stat Pack

- Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan has picked up a first down on 48 percent of his non-sack rushes this season. A win at No. 15 (AP) UCLA will not only give Stanford the Pac-12 North Division but a win over three straight ranked teams for the first time in program history.

- For the first time in a decade, Utah will not be bowl eligible. Amazingly, John White will attempt to become the first player in Utes history to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

- Fun fact: The Territorial Cup is the oldest trophy for a rivalry game in America.

- In the 17-14 loss to Stanford, the Ducks had their FBS record streak of scoring 30 or more points in a game snapped at 23 games.

- USC is 6-2 when ESPN’s Game Day visits the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, as it will when Notre Dame rolls into town this week.

- Last Saturday was only the third time in the history of the AP Poll that No. 1 and No. 2 both lost on the same day.

Tweet of the week

Fischer's Top 10

1. Notre Dame

2. Alabama

3. Ohio State

4. Florida State

5. Georgia

6. Florida

7. Texas A&M

8. Kansas State

9. Stanford

10. LSU

Looking forward to...

… possible BCS chaos. This is a fantastic week of rivalry games and the fact that Ohio State/Michigan, Oregon/Oregon State, Florida/Florida State and USC/Notre Dame are all on at different times is a boon to college football fans everywhere. It also could cause a cascade of chaos if Florida and Notre Dame in particular were to lose - plenty of folks would be trotting out advanced stats and PR releases describing why they deserve to be in the BCS title game before the end of the night.

They said it

"You are going to win this game for us!" - Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein late in the game against Oregon.


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