By Chris Mahr
No. 21 Stanford’s win over second-ranked USC on Saturday was its fourth straight over the Trojans. The college football cognoscenti expected the Cardinal to regress this season following the departure of QB Andrew Luck, just as they expected it after coach Jim Harbaugh took the 49ers job in 2011.
Yet the 3–0 Cardinal are back in the BCS bowl discussion, ranked No. 9 in the most recent AP Top 25 Poll released early Monday morning.
Harbaugh may be gone, but the hard-nosed style of play he instilled during his four seasons in Pal Alto is alive and well under successor (and Stanford alum) David Shaw. In all of college football, there might not be a greater contrast between team and university than what’s continuing to grow on “The Farm.”
It was to be expected that recaps of Stanford’s 21–14 victory on Saturday would run with headlines such as “Revenge of the Nerds IV.” The school counts 30 living billionaires among its graduates, and only Harvard can claim more graduates on the current U.S. congressional roster.
Bullies are expected to rush for 202 yards and hold their opponents to 26. They’re expected to harass the opposing, Heisman frontrunner of a quarterback into a 49% completion percentage and two interceptions. And Revenge of the Nerd-esque Cinderella stories aside, they’re expected to win year after year.
Since Harbaugh took over the program in 2007, Stanford’s M.O. has been a straightforward one: We will be tougher and more physical than you.
The cerebral Luck was college football’s Golden Boy the previous two seasons, but Cardinal football has been best encapsulated by Toby Gerhart’s punishing runs, the stout play of standout O-linemen such as Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro and throwback, two-way fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic.
It’s not just Stanford’s academic reputation that its football team’s style of play runs counter to. The annals of Stanford football are the domain of passers like Luck, John Elway and Jim Plunkett and the father of the West Coast Offense, Bill Walsh. The Cardinal’s air attack used to dictate if and when they were successful. The running game and the defense were afterthoughts.
Stanford can still win shootouts, as evidenced by their triple-OT thriller at USC in 2011. But victory isn’t dependent on their ability to do so like it was in years past. What it comes down to is an old-fashioned, blue-collar toughness that Harbaugh’s coach at Michigan, Bo Schembechler, would have loved.
And speaking of the Wolverines, doesn’t it feel like the Cardinal would fit in much more in the grind-it-out Big Ten than they would in the flash-and-dash Pac-12? Leave the magazine covers, crazy uniforms, track-star athletes and point-a-minute offenses to the likes of USC and Oregon, they seem to say. Ironic considering that it was Walsh’s innovations that gave the conference (formerly the Pac-8 and Pac-10) its offensive identity back in the day.
That toughness will be tested over the next two months. Six of Stanford’s remaining nine games are on the road, including trips to Notre Dame, Oregon (which has dealt the Cardinal its only two regular-season losses in the past two years) and UCLA.
But make no mistake. The Cardinal will be preaching from the same “bully pulpit” that has keyed their gridiron revival and has them in the BCS discussion once again.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.