Nov. 10, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -- Not long after Stanford players finally filtered into the locker room after rallying past No. 13 Oregon State, 27-23, to keep their Rose Bowl hopes alive, coach David Shaw quieted them and addressed the team.
Holding the game ball, Shaw told them that one of the players in that room did something that nobody else in school history had ever done - rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
The coach held out his arm, clutching the ball with his hand, and pointed it toward senior Stepfan Taylor. Meanwhile, the team began to chant: "S-T, S-T, S-T! ... "
That's when Shaw, trying to control his emotions, quietly reached out and handed the ball to No. 33.
The team erupted with joy.
Taylor, playing his final regular-season game at Stanford Stadium on Saturday, had meant that much. It wasn't the numbers - as impressive as they have been (3,831 career rushing yards; No. 2 in Stanford history) -- it was the unselfishness in compiling those numbers, his quiet composure, and the respect he has earned for his play and his personality.
Shaw understood all of that as he handed the ball to Taylor, who will be regarded as among the best ever to wear cardinal red.
"I can't say how proud I am of him," said Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football.
Taylor, who rushed for 114 yards on 19 carries and scored two touchdowns, did not seem to be in man-of-the-hour contention when he had the ball pulled from his arms in the second quarter for his first fumble in past 262 carries.
It didn't help that tight end Zach Ertz, another Cardinal headliner, fumbled in the first quarter. In all, Stanford turned the ball over four times and fell behind by nine, but rallied to win. And they did so behind the very players who had committed those mistakes - Taylor and Ertz.
The storylines were abundant.
There was the comeback, of course, from a 23-14 third-quarter deficit in a top-20 matchup between No. 16 Stanford (8-2 overall, 6-1 Pac-12) and the No. 13 Beavers (7-2, 5-2).
There was the successful first collegiate start of sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan.
There was the continued dominance of a big-play defense that came through once again.
There was the thought of the upcoming showdown with No. 2 Oregon for Pac-12 North supremacy, among other incentives.
And, of course, there was the "Shakesperian" redemption, as described by Shaw, of Taylor and Ertz.
On his 22nd birthday, Ertz made up for his fumble by scoring the winning touchdown. The play was the result of a confluence among the relentless defense, Hogan's emergence, and Ertz's ability to beat just about any defender one on one.
In the midst of a rally that began with a Hogan/Taylor play for the ages, the Stanford defense took advantage of the only OSU turnover it would receive or need. Beavers quarterback Cody Vaz tried to escape pressure and flat dropped the ball. Josh Mauro, one play removed from dropping an OSU ballcarrier for a five-yard loss, fell on it at the Beaver 29.
Moments later, Ertz caught the Hogan pass in stride as he sped down the seam of the defense and into the end zone to complete a go-ahead 13-yard scoring play with 5:07 to go.
"I saw good coverage," said Hogan, who completed 22 of 29 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. "They were playing man. Any time you can get Zach out one-on-one, not many people can cover him, if any."
The remainder of that fourth quarter continued like it began. Stanford completely stifled an offense that had propelled the Beavers to 23 unanswered points in the second and third quarters to grasp the lead. In the fourth quarter, Oregon State was held without a point on four possessions. Those drives ended on sack by Ben Gardner, the fumble, a three-and-out, and a third-down sack by Alex Debniak with 2:15 left.
The play knocked Vaz out of the game with a foot injury and the Cardinal held on a fourth-down heave by Sean Mannion, who replaced Vaz. Stanford then ran out the clock.
In all, Stanford added three sacks to their national-leading total of 40, and limited the Beavers to 86 yards rushing.
Looking back, however, there was the play that Shaw described as "the play of the day."
Shaw prefaced this with a conversation he had earlier in the game with Mike Sanford. The running backs coached noticed the say Taylor moved, flowed, and bullied his way through tackles and said to Shaw, "Stepfan's feeling it today."
That was evident on a play that began with a Hogan's effort to be remembered and ended with one that may be recalled as Taylor's best.
With the Cardinal down by nine after some of Stanford's early offensive luster (in building a 14-0 lead) had worn off, Hogan faced a moment of truth. He was in unfamiliar territory, having to rally a team from behind, after having received extensive action only in a blowout 48-0 victory over Colorado a week earlier.
But in this case, Hogan proved up to the challenge. Facing a heavy rush, he stepped forward in the pocket and was hit. But as he was falling, he managed to unload a pass to Taylor, his checkdown receiver, who stood anxiously for a chance to do something.
Taylor beat a defender to the edge, tiptoed down the sideline, cut to his right, and stiff- armed a defender at the 10, and carried a defender into the end zone to complete a 40-yard touchdown play.
"I didn't see anything," Hogan said. "I heard the crowd."
Besides showcasing Taylor's talents - he now has 41 touchdowns in his career - it also highlighted the spontaneity and versatility of Hogan. Shaw estimated that Hogan changed plays at the line of scrimmage 40 percent of the time. One such play was the winning pass to Ertz, which was originally called to be a run.
"He's earned our trust," Shaw said.
"Early in the week, we knew he could handle quite a bit," Shaw continued. "But by the end of the week, he had a hand in changing protections and calling audibles."
Said Taylor, "he's a gamer. He let people know that this is his huddle."
Stanford remains in position to control its own destiny, but the task will be daunting against a team expected to be the consensus No. 1 team after Alabama's loss to Texas A&M.
There may be a scenario where Stanford could lose and still make the Rose Bowl, but the Cardinal won't consider that. The team knows a victory will set them on the path - with only a regular-season finale against UCLA remaining - to the Pac-12 Championship game and a Jan. 1 game in Pasadena.
There's much to consider from here on out, but there also has been much to savor, and it begins with No. 33, with game ball in hand.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics