The next, you lose to unranked USC in the final minute, and you are yesterday’s news.
Not only are you dropped from the national title conversation, your chances of reaching a fourth straight BCS game look slim.
Such is life in November for top-tier college football programs. You know upsets will happen; you just don’t want to be one of them. Should it happen, you can’t rely on help from anyone else.
What you can do is lean on your coaching staff and seniors to refocus and stay positive. And that’s exactly what 10th-ranked Stanford did this week. The veterans stepped up, paving the way for a 63-13 bounce-back victory against Cal in the 116th Big Game.
Then Arizona shocked Oregon, enabling the Cardinal to win the Pac-12 North Division for the second straight year, and clinch a berth in the conference title game on Dec. 7, where the winner goes to the Rose Bowl.
Afterward, in the Stanford locker room, players were almost giddy. Many posed for pictures with the Axe, some hugged and high-fived. What a difference a week makes.
“What we were saying is you’ve just got to move forward,” said fifth-year outside linebacker Trent Murphy. “I used the phrase chopping wood and coach (Derek) Mason used it, too. If we keep working hard and chopping wood, good things will happen. When we saw Oregon get beat – we weren’t really expecting it or worried about that. We just needed to move forward and respond from the loss last week and that’s what we did. I’m real proud of the guys. Now we’re in a good position again.”
Added fifth-year inside linebacker Shayne Skov, “We got a second chance and we’re not going to let this one go.”
How did players rebound?
“We looked at it as we have six more hours to leave our mark and our legacy on this program,” Skov said. “And we wanted to be remembered as winners for playing good football. We just wanted to make sure these last opportunities we make the most of them and people will remember for us for what we did out there on the field.”
The mantra of the team is resilience. Under David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, the Cardinal is now 6-0 following a loss.
“It’s just that every single week we’re going to fight,” said Skov. “Win, lose or draw, we’re going to come back harder the next week. We have faith in one another and it’s about playing for the guys in this locker room.”
Backup linebacker Blake Martinez, a sophomore from Tucson, credited the upperclassmen for helping the younger guys re-commit themselves during the week.
“It was huge with the seniors,” he said. “They all just talked to us and told us we need to change our attitude for the next game. We need to go technician-style practices. They told all of us young guys that every single rep during practice we need to make sure that we’re on our P’s and Q’s.”
For only the 11th time in the series history, Stanford seniors went undefeated against Cal during their careers.
“It’s our rivalry,” Skov said. “No matter what time of the year it is, no matter where we are, whether we’re up or down, this a the Big Game and it’s huge for us, and so it means tons. There are some seniors that are going to walk out of this place – not my class – but are going to walk out of here without ever losing that Axe. It’s tremendous and we take pride in what we do.”
Backup fullback and special teams ace Patrick Skov, Shayne’s younger brother, said helping the seniors go undefeated served as added motivation.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We love these guys. We went out there and got the Axe for them – they’ve had it their whole careers. We do a lot of what we do for the older guys and keep tradition going and keep winning and take that momentum into Notre Dame.”
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Martinez has battled injuries this season, but received extensive playing time against Cal. He wound up sharing team-high tackling honors with James Vaughters, each recording six, but also forced a fumbled and intercepted a fourth-quarter pass. The latter extended Stanford’s streak to 36-consecutive games forcing a turnover, second-best in the nation behind Missouri (41).
“Well, that makes it a whole lot bigger,” Martinez said of his theft. “Our coach on the sideline was just like, ‘Hey we need a turnover, guys.’ I told our inside linebacker coach (David Kotulski), ‘I got ya.’ Like Coach Mason always tells us, ‘If you do your job, the ball will hit you in the face.’ ’’
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After rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the last five games, senior running back Tyler Gaffney came up just short against Cal. He finished with 95 yards on 16 carries, including a 58-yard touchdown run from the wildcat formation, his 16th score on the season.
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Patrick Skov had a nice game, foiling a fake punt, made two tackles and caught a pass. Skov had a hunch Cal would attempt a fake punt early in the third quarter and stopped the play for a 1-yard gain.
“They were yelling ‘fake punt’ for a while,” Skov said. “I decided I’m going to stick with this one and let my man go. The punter kept holding the ball, so I stood there and said forget blocking, maybe he’ll fair catch it. I got lucky, they gave me a chance, and I took advantage of the opportunity.”
Skov has a linebacker’s mentality and relished the chance to make a big play.
“I don’t get an opportunity to make tackles very often, so it was a little flashback playing defense,” he said. “I didn’t get a very good wrap up, but just got a run through him … as long as he ends up on the ground.”
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Francis Owusu, a true freshman wide receiver from Oxnard, Calif., caught his first collegiate pass and his second catch went for a touchdown with 1:51 remaining in the game on a 14-yard throw from backup quarterback Evan Crower. It also marked Crower’s first-career touchdown pass.
“It was awesome,” said Owusu, the younger brother of former Cardinal standout Chris Owusu. “Just an awesome effort by the whole team. I just appreciate the opportunity.”
His last scoring pass came in a losing playoff game a year ago while playing for Oaks Christian High School.
“This is just on a whole different level,” he said. “They (his eyes) got huge. I just wanted to make sure I made a play and that’s what happened.”
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Sophomore wide receiver Michael Rector from Gig Harbor, Wash., hauled in a 45-yard scoring pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan in the second quarter. He finished with four receptions for 104 yards.
“We drew up a deep route and put Ty (Montgomery) in the slot,” said Rector. “We knew that one of us was going to be open – they were playing their safeties kind of down low. Luckily, I got my break and saw the ball in the air.”
While Stanford is known for its power running game, Rector said it was fun to remind people that their passing game can also be potent.
“We had a field day today,” he said. “We rotated a lot of guys in. Dontonio (Jordan) and Conner (Crane) got their first snaps in their careers, so it was a special game for the wide outs as a whole.”
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Former Stanford standouts Richard Sherman, Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Jonathan Martin watched the game from the Cardinal sideline. Ertz wore a black t-shirt that said, “The Home of Intellectual Brutality.” Sherman’s shirt said, “Nerd Nation.”
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Ertz, a rookie tight end with the Philadelphia Eagles. “It’s really fun to come back and see the guys and see some of the older guys like Levine, Jonathan and Sam (Schwartstein). This is a place like nowhere else and it’s fun to come back.
Informed that the 63 points scored by Stanford were the most in the 116-game his history, Ertz said, “The offense had a heckuva game plan and the defense played outstanding.”
Ertz, whose team has a bye this week, said he is enjoying life in the NFL. He has caught 21 passes for 274 yards and one touchdown.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s different not being with the guys here that you grow up with, but I’m learning a lot every day. It’s an unbelievable experience.”
Saturday’s crowd of 50,424 marked Stanford’s sixth straight sellout. Next Saturday’s game against Notre Dame is also sold out. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. (PT) … Stanford extended its home winning streak to 15, the second-longest in the country behind South Carolina … Kevin Hogan is 14-2 as a starter … Jordan Pratt caught a career-high four passes for 47 yards … Twenty-seven Stanford players helped on at least one tackle … The Cardinal defense held Cal to two of 13 on third down, while the offense converted 11 of 17 chances … Devon Carrington started at cornerback in place of injured Alex Carter … Former Stanford defensive back Tank Williams served as the team’s honorary captain. He greeted players in the locker room afterward and got a nice handshake from offensive guard Kevin Danser. “First time as honorary captain?” Danser asked. Williams nodded. “Hey, 1-0!” said Danser … Quotable: “It was fun to get the passing game going, especially the way they were playing defensively, allowing us to throw the ball, trying to take away the run game,” said Hogan, who completed 17-of-26 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns.