By Dave Kiefer
Stanford Sports Information
Coach Jim Harbaugh learned something new about his Stanford football team on Sunday, one day before the Cardinal faces Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
The discovery didn't come during a last-minute check of game film, or a private conference with a player. Rather, it came during the final press conference of a busy bowl week.
The question: "Are young people motivated by history, specifically the chance to be Stanford's first top-five team since 1940?"
Harbaugh answered that, yes, the team has a sense of history.
"They know that the chairs that they're sitting in when they play in a game like the Orange Bowl, to be an Orange Bowl champion, that that puts you in a position to make college football history," Harbaugh said.
But what about the last part of the question? Has it really been that long -- 70 years since Stanford finished as a top-five team?
"I wasn't aware of that," he said. "That could be something good to talk to the team about."
Defining a special season
Indeed, Stanford has a chance to be great. But greatness may hinge on a victory Monday in the biggest non-Rose Bowl game in school history.
"We've really taken the approach that all that `special' talk really rests on this game," fullback Owen Marecic said earlier in the week. "This is a culmination of a body of work this season. How we perform in this game is really going to set the tone for how we look back on it."
Harbaugh is confident that the team is ready to make that possible, as it filters through the final moments of preparation.
"They're just getting our minds right for the game," Harbaugh said. "It's still more mental
preparations and physical preparations because we want our guys to get the proper rest, eat the right things, hydrate.
"I think our team will be strong and fresh for the ballgame. The plans have been good, they've executed it well, and there's just resting now. There's power in that. There's power in being fully rested and fresh and strong and ready to go."
The task at hand
Stanford is ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll and No. 4 in the BCS. If it defeats the Hokies, the Cardinal would be all but guaranteed its highest ranking since Clark Shaughnessy and his innovative T-formation offense, beat Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, 21-13, to finish the 1940 season at 10-0 and with a No. 2 AP ranking.
In 102 previous seasons since intercollegiate football was first played at Stanford in 1891, Stanford has only two top-five finishes, with the first coming after a 10-0-1 1926 season in which the team was declared national champion in some polls.
The task, though, is daunting against a Virginia Tech team (11-2) that won 11 consecutive games and an Atlantic Coast Conference championship after an 0-2 start.
"They've got a great football team," Harbaugh said. "I mean, they could blow us out. But we have a pretty darned good football team, too. We could win by that kind of margin. More likely it's going to be one heck of a close game. Both teams are very, very similar, try-hard teams, physical teams, tough teams. It's going to be one heck of a contest."
Harbaugh has been impressed with the tough, physical play of the Hokies, a team that, in his words, "out-toughs" its opponents.
"That's why they win the ACC Championship year in and year out," Harbaugh said. "That's going to be key in this football game, and our pad levels are going to have to be low. If we play high, we're going to get our butts kicked in this game, it's that simple. If we play low, we've got a chance."
After a week in Miami, the team was to get its first look at Sun Life Stadium, on Sunday afternoon. A team picture would be taken on the freshly-painted grass and the reality of the Cardinal's transformation from 1-11 in 2006 -- the year before Harbaugh took the Stanford job -- to 11-1 in 2010 would be cast in greater relief than ever.
"I didn't really know what (the biggest obstacle) would be when I took it," Harbaugh said. "All those things you really find out after you're on the job. Thankfully, I had a group of players that were tired of getting their butts kicked and wanted to work to get better and wanted to win."
Harbaugh was hired on Dec. 19, 2006, and had to scramble to assemble his first recruiting class. That class includes fullback-linebacker Owen Marecic, starting receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen, linebackers Chike Amajoyi and Thomas Keiser, tight end Coby Fleener, defensive end Matt Masifilo, safety Taylor Skaufel, and running back Jeremy Stewart. Those players comprise the heart of this year's team.
The truest rewards
Certainly, the reward of an Orange Bowl berth is enough to drive any college coach. But Harbaugh, the son of a college coach, has deeper feelings toward the reasons for being in the profession in the first place.
"I enjoy being out on the field and having your fingers right in the pie," he said. "I enjoy the games, enjoy the competition, enjoy the feeling that gives you. You feel like you're walking out on a ledge -- what the heck are we doing this to ourselves for?
"Then you get in that game and something great happens and you have the best six hours of your life following that ballgame. Or you don't play as well and you lose and you toss and turn all night and you can't sleep or eat and you're sick as can be in your stomach. And then the next day you wake up, and let's make damned sure that doesn't happen again.
"Or you feel the great thrill of victory and winning and contributing to the winning. Either way, it brings you back the next day reenergized and focused on the next opponent. It's a crazy mad dash, and I love every bit of it."
It's a crazy mad dash indeed. And, suddenly, Stanford is on the verge of history.
Stanford wrapped up its final practice of the season on New Year's Day with a 70-minute session at Barry University in preparation for Monday night's showdown.
"I feel like our guys have put in the work," Harbaugh said. "The big part of the plan now is to get them fresh."
That was the final message Harbaugh imparted Saturday.
"We're at the point where we want to get off our feet now and just get ready mentally for the game," cornerback Michael Thomas said. "We've done all the physical parts, so just keep preparing ourselves mentally up until game time."
Harbaugh relaxed his 11 p.m. New Year's Eve player curfew to 12:30 a.m. Many of the players and staff celebrated with family and friends at a private party put on by the Orange Bowl Committee in the team's hospitality room.
As for Harbaugh, he said he didn't get much sleep. The hotel was a prime destination for New Year's Eve revelers, with many spending $500 for a techno concert on a huge outdoor stage for the D.J. Tiesto that lasted until 3 a.m.
"Thumping, thumping, all night long," Harbaugh said. "I was trying to get some rest."
Designation must wait
This Stanford team rightly deserves to be considered as perhaps the greatest in school history, Marecic isn't quite ready to buy into the notion that this is a special team.
"We've really taken the approach that all that special talk really rests on this game," Marecic said. "This is a culmination of a body of work this season. How we perform in this game is really going to set the tone for how we look back on this season."
Not a one-man team
There is a perception that Stanford's success is due to Andrew Luck. Associate head coach Greg Roman addressed that this week.
"A player of his ability has a lot to do with it," Roman said. "But last year it was Toby Gerhart. He was the reason. This year it's Andrew. I think those guys are very good players, but there's a wealth of other really good players too. So, to look at our program's success, you've got to look deeper.
"Our offensive line has given up five sacks, and maybe seven the year before. For a dropback passing team, can you really find anybody who's ever done that?
"Our running game has been very productive. Our defense this year has been very productive. Special teams the past couple of years have been very solid. So, it goes beyond one player."
Sophomore defensive lineman Terrence Stephens, like many of Stanford's young reserves, is given additional chances to prove himself because of the extra practices over the past month.
"I think I've gotten better this month alone than I have all season," Stephens said. "With Sione Fua graduating, there's a lot of stress on me right now to step up to the plate, and this month has made me realize that that's exactly what needs to happen."
"I'm excited about what this month has given me confidence-wise, ability-wise, and just the opportunity to practice and further become a better athlete. This month has helped everybody."
When Stephens and most of the players headed out to the beach after Tuesday's practice -- a day after arrival in Miami - it marked the first time the Gaithersburg, Md., native had ever been to the ocean.
"I was just looking for something to do and dug a hole," he said. "Since I was a little kid, I always saw pictures of the beach and always wanted to get buried in a hole. I actually dug one deep enough to get buried in.
"I'm a big kid as they say. Sometimes you need to let go and that's exactly what I did at the beach that day. I was glad I was able to do that and enjoy myself. That's was great, quite an experience."