The preseason pick by the media for the first time in school history to win the Pac-12 Conference championship, Stanford started the season strong, lost three of four, then closed with five straight victories.
It was a bumpy road at times, testing the resiliency of coaches and players.
In the end, Stanford finished 9-3 overall and 7-3 in Pac-12 play and can produce a 10-win campaign for the sixth time in the past seven years with a bowl triumph next month. The Cardinal climbed to 17th in the AP rankings on Sunday.
"One thing I love about this place is that we have a great locker room," said fifth-year senior defensive lineman Jordan Watkins. "We all care about each other, and the coaches care about us. That's one of the big reasons this program has been so successful."
Junior Solomon Thomas agreed.
"It shows the maturity and attitude of our team," he said. "How we have that grit. Everyone kept their head up and kept fighting. It's an honor to be on this team and be around these seniors."
With a purpose
For the second straight year, junior running back Christian McCaffrey finished the regular season as the FBS leader in all-purpose yards by averaging 211.55 per game, more than 16 yards ahead of No. 2 Joe Mixon of Oklahoma.
In 11 games, McCaffrey rushed for 1,603 yards, seventh nationally, and his 145.7 yards per game average ranks fourth.
He is the first player in Stanford history to rush for more than 1,500 yards in consecutive seasons.
Shaw said if he had a vote for the Heisman Trophy, he would "absolutely" give it to McCaffrey. "But I would have voted for him last year, too," said Shaw.
The top three finalists will be announced on Dec. 5.
Saturday's game marked the regular-season finale for 24 fourth- and fifth-year seniors. All were recognized prior to the contest.
Not all of the fourth-year players that are eligible to do so have determined whether they will use a fifth year.
The fifth-year seniors are Johnny Caspers, Noor Davis, Chris Harrell, Zach Hoffpauir, Craig Jones, Luke Kaumatule, Dallas Lloyd, Michael Rector, Conrad Ukropina, and Watkins. Wide receiver Francis Owusu completed his fourth season.
Other seniors include David Bright, Ryan Burns, Calvin Chandler, Eric Cotton, Treyvion Foster, Ryan Gaertner, Lucas Hinds, Peter Kalambayi, Pat McFadden, Kevin Palma, Alex Robinson, Greg Taboada and Taijuan Thomas.
"It's not a big number, but it's an impactful number," said Shaw. "You've got Johnny Caspers, a three-year starter, Michael Rector, over 100 catches in his career and over 16 yards per catch. Francis (Owusu), who's made some explosive and phenomenal plays. Dallas Lloyd, quarterback turned safety turned senior captain. Peter Kalambayi, Zach Hoffpauir, one of our most exciting and energetic players. Some are not household names, but they've been playing football in a lot of big games. It's a really good group that we're definitely going to miss."
The fourth-year seniors have now won 40 games and fifth-year seniors have captured 52.
Lloyd, the lone married player on the squad, savored his last home game.
"Five years just came and it went," he said. "It's been such an honor to be a part of this program. To be out there to play in front of our fans and families tonight is something I will always remember."
Added Bright, "I'm pumped for our older guys like Johnny (Caspers). It's a special moment and the last time I'll get to play next to him in the regular season. I soaked it in because it changes every year."
Ukropina is proud to have contributed to the team's success.
"I'm really happy," he said. "I love to win. I really think we've made a permanent impact and I'm excited to see where the program goes."
Unlike last year's home finale, when Ukropina drilled a 45-yard field goal on the last play to beat Notre Dame, 38-36, there was no drama Saturday night.
Not that he didn't feel emotion.
"Walking off the field was definitely bittersweet," said Ukropina. "I think I'm going to wake up tomorrow and I don't have to go in for meetings for the first time in 11 weeks. That's when it's probably going to hit me."
On to bowling
Stanford will play in a postseason game for a school-record eighth consecutive year. For perspective, from 1970 through 2000, the Cardinal appeared in 10 bowl contests.
"We're driven to be the best we can be at everything," said Bright. "No one's going to settle for mediocrity. We're you're around a group of individuals with a mindset that wants to win and is going to fight for each other, it's infectious."
Bowl games will be announced next Sunday.
Running with Keller
Junior quarterback Keller Chryst improved to 5-0 as a starter. His 62-yard first quarter scoring scamper got Stanford rolling against Rice. Chryst tight-roped the sideline in front of the Cardinal bench and thought about running out of bounds.
"I was trying to avoid a hit," he said. "But I saw that the receivers were blocking downfield and I was like, 'I can make a play with this.' So I decided to take off and luckily guys kept blocking."
Chryst believed his longest scoring run at Palo Alto High School was 20 yards.
"Nothing like this," said Chryst.
He played different positions growing up, which he credits helping his running and blocking. So has playing with McCaffrey, his roommate.
"I'd say years of watching him has definitely helped some things out with my running game," Chryst said.
Bryce Love ran for 111 yards on just seven carries against Rice. He turned on the after burners for a 50-yard touchdown run on a reverse in the third quarter.
"I've said it before," said Shaw. "Bryce Love is an every down running back."
Owusu missed three games due to injury but had a memorable last home game by catching a 45-yard touchdown pass from Chryst. It was his first of the season, and was witnessed on the sideline by his brother Chris, a former standout wide receiver and kickoff returner.
"It's been a while since I've had one, so it was just a great feeling," Owusu said. "Keller threw a great ball and I was able to make a play on it and celebrate with my teammates."
Owusu isn't surprised by Chryst's steady progress.
"We knew he could handle the reins," he said. "He's gotten better every single game."