While one era ends, another gets under way | January 6, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - January 6, 2012

While one era ends, another gets under way

Cardinal moves on from Fiesta Bowl loss and looks to a future without Luck

by Rick Eymer

OK, the Fiesta Bowl trophy resides in Stillwater, Oklahoma instead of, say, the lobby of the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, or the Hall of Fame room off to the left. That much is fact. How it got there is open to speculation, of which there is plenty.

The simple answer, of course, is that a bunch of Cowboys got together in the open desert (Glendale, Ariz. used to be nothing but open desert) and outplayed a bunch of Cardinal (formerly known as the Indians) in a classic Tug of War.

Neither side budged in what became a 41-38 overtime victory for No. 3 Oklahoma State over No. 4 Stanford (11-2) on Monday night in a fiercely-contested Fiesta Bowl in front of 69,927 fans.

In the hours and days that followed, it became popular to blame just about anyone on the Cardinal side for the loss, including sniper hits on coach David Shaw, future NFL quarterback Andrew Luck and kicker Jordan Williamson, who was overcome with grief at missing a couple of field goals.

Is it possible that the five Oklahoma State AP All-Americans had something to do with it? Wide receiver Justin Blackmon was, deservedly so, named the game's MVP. Safety Markelle Martin and corner Broderick Brown made some huge plays down the stretch. Center Grant Garner was pivotal at protecting quarterback Brandon Weeden and everybody knows what Quinn Sharp did.

David DeCastro, Stanford's only first team AP All-American, and fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin certainly did plenty to help Stanford win. They've both declared their intention to become available for the NFL draft, joining Luck in giving up their final year of eligibility.

Senior tight end Coby Fleener, a third team AP All-American pick, was not on the field late in the contest for the Cardinal after leaving with an injury.

Perhaps the question should be how the heck did Stanford come so close to beating, arguably, the best team in the nation? Coincidentally, Oklahoma State was left out of the national championship game because of an overtime loss.

The Cardinal suffered two losses this year, both to BCS bowl champions. Stanford deserves to be in the conversation as one of the top teams in the country the past two years. Luck, DeCastro, Martin, Fleener and Shaw are at the top of list for recognition that belongs to hundreds of Stanford athletes, coaches, support staff and administrators for the raised level of play, and with it, the higher expectations, of the football program.

This year was different than last year and next year will take on its own personality with the likes of Brett Nottingham at quarterback and a revamped offensive line three returning starters in Cameron Fleming, Sam Schwartzstein and David Yankey) taking over for the Cardinal. No more Fleener, Chris Owusu, Tyler Mabry, Griff Whalen, David Green, Andrew Fowler or Jeremy Stewart either.

Stanford's defense, which excelled at stopping the run this year, will also have a different look without Michael Thomas, Delano Howell, Johnson Bademosi, Max Bergen, Corey Gatewood and Matt Masifilo.

"We're going to be back," Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner said. "We're going to be just fine. We're going to be back next year with a vengeance and we're going to be a strong program for years to come."

Of coursed there's reason to be optimistic. Jim Harbaugh and Shaw, both hired by Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby, have set a high standard, not jut in play but in recruiting as well. And there's plenty of leftover talent available as well.

You can bet Shaw has moved on, despite hearing from disgruntled fans. The man is a professional. He made split-second decisions all year that brought the Cardinal to the brink of a Fiesta Bowl victory. The blame game can only go so far before it losses momentum.

"If you dwell on the loss, you never get better," said defensive lineman Terrence Stephens, who will be remembered for causing the fumble that secured the overtime win at USC. "If you keep dwelling on what went wrong, you'll never be able to focus on what to do right."

Luck, who received the game's Sportsmanship Award, produced yet another remarkable performance, as did junior running back Stepfan Taylor and freshman receiver Ty Montgomery.

"A lot has been written about the seniors and the senior class and regardless of which guys stay and which guys leave, there are really good football players here," Luck said. "Obviously, you want to improve every year. But I think a very solid foundation has been laid with coach Shaw at the helm. I see a very bright future for the program."

Luck and his Stanford teammates didn't much care for the way the season ended, nor for the folks moving on with their lives whether it includes the NFL or otherwise. Then again, let's remember the seven straight losing years between Tyrone Willingham and Harbaugh, the longest such streak in Stanford history.

Things could be worse. Or they could have been just a little bit better. After the disappointment of Monday's loss completes its journey from denial to acceptance, the football program will look a whole lot better.

The most anticipated postseason game outside of the BCS championship, the Fiesta Bowl was an impressive offensive show, two of the nation's best teams trading big plays and scores.

Oklahoma State (12-1) came up with the last one on Sharp's 22-yard field goal in overtime to win its first BCS bowl game. Stanford had led the entire game until that final kick.

After getting the ball back with 2:35 left in the fourth quarter and the score tied, Luck drove the Cardinal within field-goal range with 52 seconds to play. Stanford, however, ran two running plays and put the game on the shoulder of Williamson, who hooked a 35-yard field goal wide left as time expired. He also missed from 43 yards in overtime. Williamson was in tears in front of his locker after the game and didn't speak with reporters.

Luck hit 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns in his final game before heading to the NFL. Taylor ran for a career-high 177 yards and a pair of scores, and the Cardinal recorded 590 yards but couldn't pull out their second straight BCS bowl victory.

Luck finished his career with a school-record 82 touchdown passes, 22 interceptions, 9,430 passing yards and a 31-7 career record as the starter.

Manhandling Oklahoma State's defense up front, the Cardinal had 225 yards by early in the second quarter and led 14-0 after Luck hit Montgomery on a 53-yard touchdown pass and Jeremy Stewart ran for a 24-yard score.

Montgomery caught seven passes for 137 yards, his first career 100-yard plus receiving game.

The Cardinal held Oklahoma State to 15 yards rushing on 13 carries and didn't give up the lead until the final play.

It still wasn't enough, the Cardinal's hopes sailing wide left off the right foot of Williamson, a redshirt freshman who missed three field goals after missing three all season.

The Stanford coaches (Shaw, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton), however, failed to put the ball on the left hash mark for Williamson on all his misses, failing to give the right-footed, soccer-style kicker the best opportunity for success.

"There's an old saying that adversity reveals character, and that's not just for him, that's for all of us," Shaw said.

Taylor scored on a 4-yard run and the Cowboys answered, tying it 21-all at halftime on Weeden's first career rushing touchdown.

Luck hit Zach Ertz on a 6-yard touchdown pass to open the third quarter and, after the teams traded field goals, Weeden found Blackmon for a third time, on a 17-yard crossing pass that tied the game at 31.

Taylor put Stanford up 38-31 with 4 1/2 minutes left, ducking behind Stanford's massive offensive line for a 1-yard touchdown. Oklahoma State answered quickly, moving 67 yards in less than two minutes to tie it on Joseph Randle's 4-yard touchdown run.

The Cowboys left too much time for Luck, but Stanford's luck ran out when Williamson couldn't come through in regulation and again in overtime.

When it comes to losing, there's always more questions than answers. There were a few Stanford offensive plays, for example, that went bust. Tyler Gaffney lined up as the quarterback twice and got nothing.

The defense didn't make every play either, nor did special teams make all the plays. In a game so close, there's always a handful of turning points.

Perhaps it's better to understand what it took to get to the verge of a BCS bowl championship, especially with a first-year coach and expectations that seemed preposterously high.

It took a lot more than just Luck, who leaves the program even more decorated than past quarterback greats like John Elway, Jim Plunkett, John Brodie and Frankie Albert.

It may be over for Luck but it's just beginning for Shaw.


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