ANAHEIM-The Stanford football team can look back and think lesson learned from the first game of the 2015 college football season. That game was the catalyst that turned around their attitude for the rest of the season. The 16-6 loss to an unheralded Northwestern team on opening day didn’t just raise some eyebrows among the Cardinal, it woke them up from taking any game on their schedule for granted.
The Cardinal have been rolling ever since that ugly road defeat. Coach David Shaw and his men have kicked it in another gear and stirred their way right into the 2016 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, where the Cardinal will be playing the once-defeated Iowa Hawkeyes.
With both teams being illuminated to and basking in the Southern California sunshine for a week, beginning with a trip to Disneyland for a kickoff press conference, Stanford’s leading men spoke out about that defeat Northwestern, and how it propelled their play the rest of the season.
Starting quarterback Kevin Hogan, who took over signal-calling duties for the past several seasons after the departed Andrew Luck, said the loss to Northwestern was a stern reminder for the team to stay focused to the task at hand.
“It reminded us of how hard it is to win a college football game,” Hogan said. “There was a lot of adversity that was in our face that first week, a lot of things going on; we just didn’t execute. We turned the ball over. We just didn’t execute to the level that we’re capable of and to the level that we were able to do later on in the season. It was definitely was a wake-up moment where we just had to express the importance of preparation and not taking any team for granted, not saying that we did, but kind of expressing to the young guys how hard it is to win a game and making sure everyone was on board.”
Stanford had come into the season-opening contest ranked No. 21 in the country. Northwestern wasn’t even on the radar screen. It turned out to be a tough day all-around for Hogan and the rest of Stanford’s offense. Hogan finished the game with just 155 yards passing and one interception.
Running back Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, didn’t do anything magical that day as well, going for just 66 yards on the ground on 12 carries. But since that outing, Stanford rolled to 11 wins in their last 12 games to finished the regular season with an overall record of 11-2, a Pac-12 Conference title and a No. 6 ranking in the College Football Playoff poll.
A big reason for Stanford’s turnaround was Shaw turning McCaffrey loose. After that Northwestern loss, McCaffrey rushed for 100 yards or more 10 times during the regular season. He went over the 200-yard mark four times, including rushing for 207 yards in Stanford’s rout of USC in the Pac-12 Conference championship game. McCaffrey hasn’t just been good for the Cardinal during the 2015 season; he’s been something special.
Special in the fact that he smashed Barry Sanders’ NCAA’s all-purpose yardage record. And he’s just a sophomore. That means there’s more of the same to come. Stanford’s massive offensive line has played a major part in the physical play of the Cardinal. Without those guys creating gaping holes for him, McCaffrey probably wouldn’t have the numbers he has accumulated.
But let’s not get things twisted. McCaffrey is a stud. There’s a reason why he is considered to be one of the best players in the country. He’s fast. He’s tough. And he’s has enough shake game in him to break more than a few ankles.
“I think in our offense, we do a whole lot of everything,” McCaffrey said. “So I’d like to think that I’m quick and elusive, but I can run between the tackles too and get physical. Coach (David) Shaw harps on (me) being the best back you can be. So right now, for me, I’m just working on just that; if that means being more physical, being able to catch the ball out of the backfield, be versatile and all of that.”
McCaffrey wasn’t the only Cardinal player to rebound nicely with a splendid season after that setback to Northwestern. Hogan recovered from that game well enough to be calling signals in the Rose Bowl for the third time in his career. Having a successful season and getting back to the Rose Bowl Game was a matter of McCaffrey, Hogan and rest of the Stanford team taking their cue from Shaw, who didn’t go over the top after the season-opening loss.
Shaw simply said he chose not to put too much emphasis on the outcome of the contest or over analyze the defeat.
“Things like that, you can call it a wake-up call, you can call it kind of a splash of water or slap in the face. Whatever it is, the biggest thing I’ve learned is not to over analyze those things. What I told the team, honestly, after the fact, is what I believe 100 percent, we just didn’t play well,” Shaw said amid the backdrop of California Adventure at Disneyland.
“It can be over analyzed, you can point to this player and that player; we just didn’t play very well. From top to bottom to beginning to end, from player to player, coach to coach, we’re capable of so much more so there’s no reason for me to yell and scream and punish everybody, tell them how disappointed I was. That stuff doesn’t even matter. I just looked at them and said, ‘We’re just better. We’re better than we played. Our job now is to play better. Let’s coach better and play better, and let’s be the team we think we can be. But we’re not it until we put it together on game day.'”