By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - After sustaining a heartbreaking 20-13 overtime loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 13, Stanford's second defeat in three weeks, tri-captains Stepfan Taylor and Chase Thomas called a team meeting. The Big Game at Cal was next, and the final three contests matched the Cardinal against ranked opponents Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA, the latter two on the road.
"Sam, Stepfan and I got the guys together in the locker room before practice and told them they have to make a decision right now: How do you want the rest of the season to play out?" recalled Thomas this week. "We controlled our destiny and knew if we won out, we'd be going to the Rose Bowl."
Stanford concluded the regular-season with seven consecutive victories, four by seven points or fewer, capped by a 27-24 win against UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game. That earned the 11-2 Cardinal a trip to Pasadena to play Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
In retrospect, that players-only team meeting was the turning point of the season. "Absolutely," said sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan. "We look up to the captains and they are the leaders of our team. They just wanted to make sure we realized how talented we were and that even though we had lost two tough games, the season wasn't lost. We can either lie down or keep fighting together. We really took it to heart and it made us believe."
Thomas said the message struck the right chord.
"The guys responded really well," said the three-time all-Pac-12 Conference outside linebacker. "They took on that challenge, they accepted it, and they ran with it. The players did a great job of coming together and really committed to giving their best effort every day."
No one has given more than Thomas. He became a vocal leader of the defense when inside linebacker Shayne Skov was suspended last winter for breaking team rules.
"It's hard to measure what he's done for this team because when Shayne went through his deal, Chase had to step up," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "And even when Shayne came back, he couldn't come back on the field. So when we started the second session of spring football, somebody had to set the standard. From then until now, it' been Chase."
"I knew our defense was going to be one of the top defenses in the country. I wanted to make sure guys were ready to embrace that and reach our full potential."
"Sometimes you'll see some of the older guys take a couple reps off or something, but true leaders like Chase find a way to make an example of it by doing every rep," Hogan said. "In the off-season, I had the opportunity to go against him in a lot of speed races and stuff. He's one of the best players on our team and he took every rep very seriously. It made me a better player just watching this person who has earned his stripes and been in all these big games."
For Thomas, it wasn't a difficult transition. After all, he decided to skip the NFL Draft to return for a fifth season. He wasn't about to let anyone coast.
"One of the reasons I came back was because I knew our defense was going to be one of the top defenses in the country," he said. "I wanted to make sure guys were ready to embrace that and reach our full potential."
According to Shaw, Thomas was more than ready to play in the NFL. But he was thrilled Thomas opted to return to the Farm.
"He'd be playing fine right now in the NFL," said Shaw. "But I think it's been the best decision for him. I think he's a more developed football player. He's been much better in pass drops and pass coverage, and I think he's learned a couple more pass-rush moves. He's playing faster and more confident."
The perpetually cranky Thomas - a trait Shaw loves about him - is happy he returned. Not only did he improve personally, finishing second on the team in total tackles (73), sacks (7.5) and tackles for losses (14.5), he'll be playing in his third straight BCS game.
"I just think I've become more of a complete linebacker," he said. "The coaches have recognized that and moved me around a lot more this year. They have that trust in me that they can put me in space and I'll come up and make the tackle or that I can cover a tight end one-on-one. They always put me in the right scheme to make a play."
Now, about his demeanor. Shaw thinks it's crucial for every good defense to have a linebacker with a nasty streak. Thomas provides it.
"Have to," said Shaw. "It sets the mentality of your defense. I think he's naturally grumpy, naturally surly, never really in that good a mood. And when he is in a good mood, he makes sure he gives somebody else a hard time so they feel bad about themselves."
Shaw smiled. Even when he was redshirting as a true freshman, Thomas was so disruptive, the first team offense often had trouble running plays against him. "We couldn't practice," Shaw said. "He got after the quarterback. It's been fun watching him."