Much like the season which led to Stanford's first-ever Orange Bowl berth, this victory rests most comfortably on the shoulders of two men: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, and his head coach Jim Harbaugh. These men's immediate futures will undoubtedly garner the lionshare of attention in the days to come, and perhaps that focus is inevitable given their success, but before the world turns its eyes onto the next great thing, let us now celebrate what this Stanford team accomplished here, tonight, at the Orange Bowl.
A formidable foe who'd run through its ACC schedule undefeated, winning 11 straight games in the process, Virginia Tech was considered Stanford's toughest test in months, so much so that the Cardinal – who had given fully half its 2010 schedule their worst losses of the season – were installed as only three-point favorites pregame. Indeed, Virginia Tech played to its reputation and represented itself and its conference skillfully – for a half.
After that half, a tight, 13-12 first stanza, Stanford came out the halftime locker room a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders, and put a beating on Virginia Tech reminiscent of a stretch the Cardinal had against three-win Wake Forest. (The Deacons are also of the ACC, now 2-11 in BCS bowls.) At home against the hapless Deacons, the Cardinal achieved perfection – alternating touchdowns on offense with forced turnovers or punts on defense – for a full half. Today, against 11-3 Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, Stanford forced a three-and-out, scored a touchdown, forced an interception, scored a touchdown, and then forced a punt and scored yet another touchdown. The 21-0 sequence out of the halftime locker room took only a quarter and change, and Stanford would add yet another insurance touchdown before the game was over, but the damage had been done and a statement had been delivered. Stanford had completely outclassed Virginia Tech and were fully deserving champions of this Bowl Championship Series game.
Luck completed three consecutive long passes for Stanford's first touchdown drive of the second half, the last two rolling to his right in throws that must have NFL executives drooling over the presumed future No. 1 pick. After Coby Fleener hurdled a Hokie defender to advance to the Virginia Tech 19, Ryan Whalen came out of the Cardinal backfield to catch a Luck dump-off and dive to the one. Owen Marecic lunged in three plays later, and Stanford had a 19-12 lead after missing its second extra point of the day.
Vic Fangio's defense, the game's unheralded heroes, then harried Tyrod Taylor into a poor interception, thrown directly to a waiting Delano Howell at Stanford's two, and Stanford's offense responded with two brilliant plays, off two brilliant play calls, that would all but ice the game. First, from its two, Stanford shifted three men right to left pre-snap, and then sent one of those men in motion back to his right. Much like on Stanford's first touchdown, a 60-yard Jeremy Stewart run in the first quarter off pre-snap motion, the shifting confused Virginia Tech and put them at a numerical disadvantage playside. Stepfan Taylor took full advantage, running 56 yards to Virginia Tech's 41, untouched save for a touchdown-saving, lunging tackle from a desperate Hokie safety. The very next play, Stanford hurried to the line, and snapped it sufficiently quickly to again confuse Virginia Tech. Colby Fleener streaking wide open behind Virginia Tech's defense resulted, and one Andrew Luck heave later, Stanford had a 26-12 margin midway through the third from which Virginia Tech could not recover. To character and cruelty then, let us add strategic, as it was some brilliant play calling that gave Stanford the separation it needed to run away from the Hokies.
After Stewart's run to daylight in the mid-first, the Card ended the first quarter with a safety, when Derek Hall caught a batted Luck pass in the end zone. Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor was rendered rather mortal by a ferocious Stanford defense that easily held the Hokies to a season-low in points, but Taylor had his one Supermanesque play to start the second, rolling toward the left sideline, avoiding two Stanford defenders and the white sideline chalk by the narrowest of margins, and whipping a no-look strike to a diving David Wilson who just got his legs down in the corner of the end zone, some 12 yards away. The score gave Virginia Tech a 9-7 lead in the early second, but Stanford responded with a 25-yard pass to Zach Ertz to reclaim a 13-9 edge it would not relinquish. A Virginia Tech 37-yard field goal as the first half ended, and two long fourth-quarter touchdown catches from Coby Fleener rounded out the scoring.
Postgame, Stanford fans stayed in their sections for a good half hour after the final whistle and chanted "One more year" to their quarterback and "Thanks, Jim Harbaugh," to their coach, as both men were presented the Orange Bowl trophy and interviewed over the stadium PA. In a seemingly promising sign for Stanford fans – and hopefully one that receives a modicum of attention amidst the cesspool of media speculation – Luck was asked about returning next year, and said that he'd have to sit down and talk to his family, as "I don't want to make an impulsive decision." Andrew certainly deserves his time to think, as does his head coach, but at least in this moment, that quote, coming on an Orange Bowl trophy podium on the heels of the biggest win of his career, suggests that Andrew's impulses have him staying firmly in Palo Alto.
[Note: No fourth-quarter liveblog, as this game was decided long before. With 8:40 left in the fourth quarter and a 33-12 Cardinal lead, the stadium was perhaps 50% empty, and we haven't seen a single Stanford fan leave. Perhaps uncoincidentally, the "Go Stanford" and "defense" cheers for our guys are ringing truer than ever. A few minutes later, Stanford's packed contingent sent off yet more VT fans with a rousing rendition of "Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye". VT drops to 1-27 against top-five teams.]
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