Leading up to the 2014 edition of The Big Game, Stanford football faced an unfamiliar predicament.
The Cardinal were coming off a 20-17, overtime loss at home to Utah for their third defeat in four outings. At 5-5, they’d lost as many games in 2015 as the previous two seasons combined.
Forget reaching the Rose Bowl; Stanford was trying to stay in the conversation for any bowl bid at this point.
Losses to Cal and UCLA would have doomed the Cardinal to their first sub-.500 finish since 2008, just the second year of the Jim Harbaugh era. And, without the Harbaugh era, there is no David Shaw era.
Shaw is 42-12 in four seasons as Cardinal head coach, but that rocky patch last season set in the first twinges of doubt about Stanford’s place among college football’s elite.
Consider the doubt answered after Stanford’s final, three-game stretch.
Starting with a three-touchdown walloping of rival cal, Stanford went on a tear reminiscent of those Orange, Fiesta and Rose Bowl seasons. The Cardinal didn’t just get into a bowl game; they ripped Maryland, 45-21.
But the coup de grace was a regular-season finale blowout of UCLA.
“It was a big turning point in that season, just because everyone saw the potential we had and knew that, alright, we left all this out on the table,” said linebacker Blake Martinez.
Leaving it all out on the table meant deluging UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley with blitzes on side of the ball, and employing a multifaceted attack on the other. The Bruins, one those Pac-12 teams that seemingly bypassed the two-time champs, were completely overwhelmed in a 31-10 decision.
“It was a huge moment in that season, but we used that as a rubric in how we want next [the 2015] season to go,” Martinez said.
It’s not as if Stanford was a shell of itself before the late-season resurgence. Losses to USC, Notre Dame and Utah totaled nine points. Add a few scores, and the Cardinal are 10-2 at the regular season’s conclusion with a realistic shot at New Year’s Six bowl.
But, it was adding those necessary scores that precluded Stanford from being back near the nation’s pinnacle in 2014. Stanford scored in the teens through all three of its close losses, as well as in lopsided defeats at Arizona State and Oregon.
So what changed down the stretch, when Stanford put up 114 points in just three games? Christian McCaffrey finding more work in a variety of capacities helped.
Everything seemed to click for quarterback Kevin Hogan, deep into his third season as starter. Shaw said that’s carried over with new-found confidence and understanding of running the offense.
“Kevin is really, really close, I believe, to mastering our offense,” Shaw said. “His spring, I thought, was phenomenal.”
Hogan wasn’t the only Cardinal player to have a promising spring, either. Stanford’s success under Shaw has been largely the result of outstanding offensive line play. The 2014 season wasn’t up to the program’s lofty standards, but front five’s leader in the coming campaign has seen a shift.
“Over the course of spring ball and summer workouts, we got even tighter and tighter,” offensive lineman Kyle Murphy said. “Not that we were never tight as people…but offensive line, if you have to communicate. You’re never working by yourself. It’s always tough with four new starters.”
Though losing NFL-bound Andrus Peat is a challenge, returning the rest of the line should be a boon to the Cardinal offense. The unit’s collective development was critical to the late-season turnaround a season ago.
Overall, so much of that turnaround gives Stanford a frame of reference to succeed in 2015. The Cardinal return a lineup that, through 2014’s adversity, can contend for the Pac-12 championship once more.
“We always look at it like, what did we do? How did we work in those three games?” Martinez said. “How did we achieve those three games? How didn’t we achieve it through the whole season? We use that as, ‘hey, if we achieved that those three games, why can’t we do it all year?'”
It’s a great question, and one the Cardinal must answer to return to college football’s mountaintop.