Nov. 7, 2009
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STANFORD, Calif. - "Fifty-one points," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said to himself.
Stanford Stadium was still reverberating with the Cardinal's stunning 51-42 victory over No. 7 Oregon on Saturday, and in the tumult, it was all he could think about.
"Fifty-one points." It hadn't sunk in.
On so many fronts, the victory was monumental for Stanford football.
It vaulted Stanford back into the Rose Bowl race -- still needing help, but back in the race nonetheless.
It showcased the talent of Toby Gerhart, who set Stanford rushing records for a game (223 yards) and a season (1,217).
It gave Stanford its sixth victory, making the Cardinal bowl eligible for the first time since 2001.
And it ignited such a reaction from Stanford fans that they stormed the field at the end of the game.
"Over the hump, baby," Harbaugh said while hugging another well-wisher.
Indeed, after last year's 5-7 season, the Cardinal sought the elusive victory that would symbolize the program's ascent. The fact that it came over highly-ranked program that was at the forefront of national prominence after a resounding 47-20 victory over USC last week, made the significance even greater.
"This was the best opportunity that Stanford football has had in the past 10 years for this team to express who this team is," Harbaugh said. "And they expressed it. I couldn't be more proud."
Stanford (6-3, 5-2) plays at No. 12 USC next Saturday, and follows with home games against No. 23 Cal and No. 19 Notre Dame. By beating Oregon (7-2, 5-1), the only remaining undefeated team in Pac-10 play, Stanford is one game off the pace in the loss column.
"We're here to win the Rose Bowl," McNally said. "We'll need some help, but we want to control our own destiny. We want to win out and go to a major bowl game."
Anything seemed possible Saturday, with teams trading touchdowns like an Ali-Frazier slugfest. Stanford built a 31-14 halftime lead, but that was before Oregon began scoring at will. The teams combined for 1,075 yards, 570 by Oregon and 505 by Stanford.
The Ducks scored touchdowns on four of six second-half possessions, with no series taking more than 2:36 off the clock. The danger of a quick-strike comeback grew as Oregon drew closer.
After Stanford's Nate Whitaker missed a 44-yard field goal try with 3:32 left, Oregon drove 74 yards in 54 seconds. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli hit D.J. Davis on a screen pass for a 21-yard touchdown play to draw within 48-41 with 2:38 to go.
Stanford picked up one first down in an effort to run out the clock, but was unable to gain another. Rather than attempt a short-yardage play on fourth down, Harbaugh opted for a field goal, and this time Whitaker nailed a try from 48 yards to ensure the victory.
"We talked about it on our staff, and maybe there was a consensus to not kick the field goal," Harbaugh said. "But I just had a good feeling about Whitaker."
He also had a good feeling about Gerhart, who can now be labeled as the greatest runner in 115 years of Stanford football.
Besides his three touchdowns, Gerhart broke Jon Volpe's single-game mark of 220 (set against Washington in 1988) and his own year-old season record of 1,136.
In typical Gerhart fashion, his yards were hard-earned. He carried the ball 38 times, one from another school record, and enabled Stanford to maintain possession for long periods of time and keep the potent Oregon offense off the field.
Gerhart scored twice in the first quarter, helping Stanford jump to a 17-7 lead, which was built from the opening kickoff, which Chris Owusu returned 77 yards to set up a Whitaker field goal.
Gerhart's most spectacular run was his last, a 17-yarder that allowed Stanford to surge to a 45-28 lead. Gerhart eluded tackles, stiff-armed a defender at the 10 and dragged him into the end zone late in the third quarter.
"Pretty darn heroic," was Harbaugh's summary of Gerhart's performance.
He could have said the same thing about his redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, who completed 12 of 20 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Harbaugh elicited some chuckles during a recent press conference by saying he had seen no better quarterback in the country. Well, that evaluation seems less humorous with every Luck performance.
It wasn't the statistics that set Luck apart, it was his decision-making and laser-beam passes that leave observers wondering how they got there in the first place.
A 31-yard third-quarter touchdown pass that Owusu caught on his outside shoulder just as he turned his head to see the ball arrive.
A 39-yard second-quarter pass to Ryan Whalen down the sideline that was placed in the only spot it could be caught against tight coverage.
A 40-yard second-quarter pass to Owusu that hit the receiver in stride, again against tight coverage.
A 29-yard second-quarter pass to tight end Jim Dray that was released as Luck was hit hard under heavy pressure, a common occurrence Saturday, but which never seemed to phase the youngster.
"It's one thing to place the ball on a 10-yard route, a 15-yard route," said Harbaugh, 15-year NFL quarterback. "But when you start placing them on 50, 55, 45 ... those are great throws.
"It was just an unbelievable performance. How can you play better as a quarterback? Who could have done better?"
In the end, the most telling highlight may not have involved Gerhart or Luck. As the Stanford band played a joyous "All Right Now," cornerback Michael Thomas took the baton from the drum major (a man dressed in a tight Hooters waitress outfit, but that's for another story) and led the band in celebration, while surrounded by students and fans.
This was Stanford football.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics