No. 36: Going bowling

The Grateful Dead did fall in love in the West Texas town of El Paso, but few others confuse the arid region with the French Riveria, or the smaller city with New York City or Rome. Save, of course, for 2009 Stanford football fans, who after an eight-year bowl drought were thrilled to be going anywhere, including to the Sun Bowl to take on Oklahoma.

We continue our ambitious offseason series, counting down the top 40 moments of the Harbaugh/ Shaw era.

No matter how you slice it, Stanford football has arrived. Though we've since assumed all the trappings of a football powerhouse – the three straight runner-up finishes in Heisman voting, the two straight BCS bowl berths and top-10 finishes, the top-ten 2012 recruiting class, or the eminent graduation of top pro prospect of the last decade – it wasn't that long ago that Stanford football was an afterthought.

On December 19, 2006, new athletic director Bob Bowlsby hired Jim Harbaugh, a former star quarterback, but an unproven coach who had never worked at the FBS level. The rest, as they say, was history.

We are pleased present Stanford football's 40 most memorable moments, trends, games and personalities from the magical five-plus years that followed that December 2006 announcement.

36. Going bowling
Loss to Oklahoma doesn't ruin first bowl game since 2001

Most Stanford diehards, at least of my generation, would make it out to El Paso, as they would Miami the next year. (Side note: Speaking of Miami, for everyone who says Stanford girls don't measure up, our alums of the fairer sex looked a lot better in their low-cut dresses at LIV than they ever did in my freshman-year intro seminars. Context, context, context.) While every fan's precise routines would differ, there was a lot of overlap. Many fans stayed at the team hotel, where they could hold court with Oliver Luck and other players' parents in the lobby. Many attended the various parades and events the city put on leading up to the game. Many hit one of the three bars in the city. Most with university ties showed up at the alumni tailgate the morning of the game and, of course, everyone then processed into the Sun Bowl to see the Sooners and the Cardinal tangle on a pleasant New Year's Eve afternoon.

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It's said that a team going from worst to first will pass through four stages: losing big, losing close, winning close and then winning big. When Jim Harbaugh inherited the head coaching position in 2006, Stanford was stuck squarely at stage one. In the last two seasons, Stanford was going stage four on anyone not in the top 10 or named USC, but at the time of this 2009 Sun Bowl, the Card were at stage two or three against tougher opponents.

So it was a team in transition against a squad that, despite a disappointing year, was and remains one of the nation's most talented. Unsurprisingly then, Stanford was outgained 418 to 117 in the air and by 215 yards overall, yet somehow, the Cardinal kept it close throughout, as neither team led by more than a touchdown. In fact, Stanford led 24-17 at the half, but the Cardinal offense did little in the final 30 minutes, and the Sooners would cross back over the Red River with a 31-27 win.

Ultimately, perhaps better than any other contest of the five-year period we're examining, this game highlighted vividly both how far Stanford had come and how far Stanford had yet to go:

  • Stanford's greatest asset in the game was Toby Gerhart, who ran for 135 yards and two scores on a respectable 4.2 yards per carry against a lot of guys the Minnesota Viking now sees in the League. Meanwhile, the Cardinal front seven held strong, yielding but 59 yards to the Sooners on 38 attempts, or just 1.6 yards per carry. The rushing attack and the rushing defense had both arrived in earnest, and they haven't left the Farm since.
  • In the air, however, it was another story. Tavita Pritchard, now a part of the coaching staff, will forever go down in lore for his part in the Greatest Upset Ever. However, the clock had struck midnight well before the Sun Bowl, as the Throwin' Samoan v 2.0 went just 8-of-19 for 117 yards, no scores and two picks in relief of an injured Andrew Luck. Suffice it to say that the passing game was not at the level necessary to sustain a winning BCS program. The aerial attack was obviously up to snuff in the two years since but, today, the $64,000 question is what happens to the passing game now that Luck has left the station.
  • Defending the pass has always been a problem on the Farm. While the issue abated somewhat the past two seasons, thanks to some standout talent, a fearsome front seven and an offense that forced teams into big holes and made them one-dimensional, it reared its ugly head again and again against top-notch talent. Matt Barkley and USC, Justin Blackmon and Oklahoma State, anyone at Oregon, and, on this day, Ryan Broyles and Oklahoma had their way with Stanford's backfield. Broyles accounted for 156 of Landry Jones' 418 passing yards, all three of Jones' touchdowns, and a school-record 13 of Jones' 30 completions. Looking forward, while Stanford's secondary will have to reload this year, it looks to be landing talent that hasn't been on the Farm in a long, long time. This marked uptick in recruiting is a major reason insiders are high on the future of Stanford football.

    Wayne Lyons, Jordan Richards, Devon Carrington and Alex Carter had yet to hit the Farm, however, in time for the 2009 Sun Bowl, and that was enough to keep Stanford in the L column. A six-yard Broyles catch tied the game at 24-all in the early third, and DeMarco Murray punched it in from a yard out later in the period for the eventual game-winner. After gaining but one first down in the third quarter, Stanford found itself in great position in the early fourth. However, after recovering Broyles' muffed punt return and inducing a personal foul call on the subsequent drive, Stanford had to settle for a 21- yard Nate Whitaker field goal. The Cardinal wouldn't cross their 30 again, with the final straw a Tavita Pritchard misfire on a fourth and two with a minute left.

    Still, it was Cardinal's first bowl game in eight years, and amidst the festivities in the El Paso desert, there would be no raining on Stanford's parade.

    50-41. More memorable moments - Loukas, a lot of Luck, and a phantom clipping call
    40. Fake out - Luck stuns UW with a naked bootleg in 2010
    39. Polls and bowls - Stanford climbs into college football's beauty contests
    38. Steamrolled - Card run for 446 yards in 2011 beatdown of Washington
    37.Opening act - 2009 win over Oregon launches a November to remember

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