Nov. 22, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - There is an individual who walks the Stanford campus each day wearing a Fiesta Bowl cap.
That game, played January 2nd of this year, will likely remain as one of the most painful losses in Stanford history, a 41-38 overtime tumble to Oklahoma State during which then-sophomore kicker Jordan Williamson missed three field goals in Andrew Luck's final game, including a potential winner in the final seconds, and a go-ahead kick in overtime.
Afterward, Williamson was inconsolable. Sobbing, he was shielded from the media as the team departed University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and kept a low profile for a time afterward.
That's why it may be surprising to know that the Stanford kid in the Fiesta Bowl hat is Williamson himself.
Williamson no longer hides from his failures. In fact, he has embraced them. That was apparent when he stepped onto the Autzen Stadium turf on Saturday - after he had missed an earlier kick - and confidently drilled the 37-yard overtime winner that allowed Stanford to beat Oregon, the nation's top-ranked team, 17-14.
"I pretty much wear the Fiesta Bowl hat everywhere I go," Williamson said. "It's something that reminds me of the time that I've been through and motivates me to work that much harder."
Williamson's holder, Daniel Zychlinski, said earlier this season that Williamson seemed hardened and steeled by the Fiesta failure. He has owned the moment, and that moment in turn has helped define him as the player and man that he is today.
"Before the Fiesta Bowl, I really had no idea what it was like to miss a do-or-die kick," Williamson said. "I really didn't understand the aftermath of it all until the situation happened."
As Williamson lined up for the pivotal try in Eugene, coach David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, began to pray. It wasn't long ago, after all, when Williamson cried on his shoulder.
"The prayer wasn't for the team, it was just for him," Shaw said, "that he would be able to relax and do his job to the best of his ability."
The snap and hold were perfect and the kick was smooth. Shaw knew it was going through.
"I don't think we can measure how important that was," Shaw said. "For our team, yes, but for him. It was big."
After the game, Shaw stepped swiftly through the locker room with a football aloft and handed it to his kicker as players chanted, "JOR-DAN, JOR-DAN, JOR-DAN," in contrast to the silence of the Glendale locker room months ago.
"The Fiesta Bowl is something I'll never forget," Williamson said. "It's not something I'm trying to hide. Obviously, it happened and people know it happened. It's something I've used to help motivate me to get better."
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Another example of how Williamson has grown from the experience: He was heartened by the support he received in the wake of his national-profile failure, not only from other kickers, but from those in the business world who grew stronger from their own struggles. Now, he tries to offer the same type of encouragement to other kickers who have suffered the same fate.
One example was University of Pittsburgh's Kevin Harper, who made four field goals against Notre Dame on Nov. 3, but missed a 33-yard try in the second overtime that would have won a game the Panthers eventually lost against the nation's current No. 1-ranked team.
Williamson reached out to Harper, whom he knew from kicking camps, with words of encouragement.
His message: You had a great game. It's not on you. Keep your head up.
"After having people reach out to me who had been through those situations, they understood what it was like," Williamson said. "Now, I'm trying to reach out to people who have gone through tough times. Having been through it myself, I realize just exactly how difficult it is for some of these guys."
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On Tuesday, Cal fired head coach Jeff Tedford, who had beaten Stanford seven times in the past 11 Big Games.
"I've got a lot of respect for him as a football coach, but more importantly as a person," Shaw said. "It's always a sad day, particularly because of what he's been able to accomplish at Cal and where that program was when he took over, the amount of games that they've won, and how he's conducted himself."
* * *
Stanford's chance at beating Oregon looked to slip away when quarterback Kevin Hogan fumbled in overtime. Only scrappiness in the pile of bodies prevented disaster for the Cardinal, which maintained possession when left guard Khalil Wilkes came up with the ball.
Shaw said an Oregon player had it, but a dive into the pile by Wilkes knocked the ball free. That's when Hogan reached the scrum and knocked the ball back toward Wilkes, who grabbed it and hung on.
"I just kind of dove in there," Hogan said. "I think we both had hands on it. I heard the refs saying, `white ball, white ball.' I just had a sigh of relief."
Moments later, Williamson kicked his winner.
* * *
As the only player in Stanford history to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, Stepfan Taylor has established himself as one of the school's greats, regardless of whether he catches Darrin Nelson for the career rushing record.
Nelson (1977-81) ran for 4,169 yards. Taylor, a senior, has 3,992 with two, and possibly three, games left.
"Everything about him says success," Shaw said of Taylor. "His demeanor, his attention to detail, his work ethic. His seriousness, his unselfishness. There's nothing he can't do from the running back position. The NFL scouts see that versatility, the ability to do a little bit of everything. That's going to help him on the next level."
But there is one overlooked element to Taylor's game.
"He is without a doubt, the best pass protector in our conference - one of the best ever," Shaw said. "That's hard for a lot of runners to do."
"He is a great pass blocker," Hogan said. "He makes me feel comfortable back there, knowing that if they're sending a linebacker, Stepfan will be there to do his job."
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Senior inside linebacker Shayne Skov had his best game of the season, with 10 tackles against Oregon. It also was significant in his comeback effort from a severe knee injury suffered in 2011.
"Mentally, it's the best I've been," Skov said. "I think I have a ways to go physically for my own expectations, but there's a point where you're locked in. The difference between playing well and playing great is, you think about getting off blocks or you refuse to be blocked. It's a state of mind, and I feel I was pretty locked in on Saturday."
Skov will continue to improve, Shaw promised.
"He's still coming back," Shaw said. "He's completely healthy, there are no limitations. He can do everything. But the last thing that gets back is the explosion. It's close to being back, but not completely back to being where it was before the injury. But it's really only a matter of time."
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Few gave Stanford a chance against Oregon, or to have the potential to return to a BCS bowl game after the graduation of Luck. But Skov was vocal from the beginning that this team was good.
"We believe in one another," Skov said. "It's one thing to say that people believed, it's another to firmly and whole-heartedly have faith in your teammates and your program. That's the way this team operates.
"It doesn't matter who leaves or what pieces are gone, that will always be one of the core tenets of this program. When guys have faith in one another and what we do and how we execute it, we're going to win."
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To achieve the season's goal of winning the Pac-12 North Division and then the Pac-12 Championship, Stanford must beat UCLA twice - in Saturday's regular-season finale at the Rose Bowl, and in the conference championship game on Nov. 30.
Shaw allowed himself some contingency planning - a practice and meeting schedule should Stanford reach the Pac-12 title game - but that was the end of it.
"We're only worried about this game, not next week," Shaw said. "We've got one game this week. If we play it well enough, we'll earn another one. We'll deal with that when and if that happens."
* * *
Stanford's prowess on defense - the team remains No. 1 in the nation in tackles for loss (9.18 per game) and is second in rushing defense (71.18) and sacks (4.00) - is better than ever under defensive coordinator Derek Mason.
Mason arrived in 2010 as a defensive backs coach under then-coordinator Vic Fangio, now with the San Francisco 49ers, and last year shared defensive coordinator duties with Jason Tarver, who now holds the same position with the Oakland Raiders.
Mason has taken the 3-4 alignments and zone-blitz schemes put in place by Fangio and put his own stamp on them.
"Derek is unique," Shaw said. "He's got great communication skills, he's up-tempo, and energetic. He's the first to raise his voice and let him know when they do it wrong and the first to raise his voice to let him know when they do it right. It's all about guys playing well together and playing fast. He's got those guys playing really well right now."
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With continued conference expansion and realignment around the country in search of richer television contracts and BCS viability, Shaw can foresee a more national interaction among the big conferences, perhaps along the lines of the NFL. In that model, the conferences would be essentially divisions within a broader and more intertwined national structure.
"Will we ever get to the point where we just schedule everyone together and go to an NFL-type schedule?" Shaw wondered. "I have this whole pie-in-the sky thing, but it's not going to happen anytime soon."
* * *
Shaw's assessment of sophomore Hogan's play in his first road start: "He played well. He's a young quarterback who made a couple of young quarterback mistakes, but he's also the kind of guy who doesn't dwell on them and moves on to the next play. It's just the mentality he has.
"He'll tell you he has a lot of stuff to work on. After the celebration, he goes back in the locker room, and I said, `good game.' And he said, `sorry about that fumble.'"
Hogan's take: "Still just OK. I made mistakes and turned the ball over. I would like plays back. But in the end, we won the game."
On what he did right, "I think I got us into the right plays," Hogan said. "I didn't make too many of the wrong checks at the line. I put the team in a good position."
* * *
The night before the Oregon game, the team was gathered for `movie night,' when Shaw announced that the Stanford women's basketball team had just knocked off No. 1 Baylor.
Once the cheering died down, Shaw added, "Now, it's your turn."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics