No. 22: Xs and Os… and Ys and Zs

Despite the finest education that SAT scores and now $50,000 per year can buy, all many Stanford alums could come up with to describe our offensive strategy these past several seasons was "eff you". Though perhaps not Shakespearian, the descriptor is surprisingly apt.

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.

22. Xs and Os… and Ys and Zs
Stanford toys with defensive coordinators

Though fans and prognosticators complain about the limitations academic restrictions place upon Stanford athletics, football in particular, there is also an upside. As Coach David Shaw would detail in a PowerPoint presentation, as he made the case for Andrew Luck's Heisman campaign during the 2011 season, Stanford's playbook makes other schools' look like See Spot Run.

Stanford's coaches most assuredly leveraged their players' ability to incorporate extra wrinkles into the gameplan. On defense, Scott Shafer and Vic Fangio brought new looks that turned a defense from near-worst to near-first, and the unit appears to have only strengthened under the new coaching staff. It was on offense, however, that the full creativity and cruelty of the coaching staff truly came into full relief.

Convention was no limit: whatever Stanford could do to create a mismatch, the Cardinal gladly would. Line up with seven offensive linemen? No problem. (The problem arose when Stanford tried to pass to one of the linemen, James McGillicuddy, and the "turf monster" tackled the wide-open lineman in the end zone.)

Bring in three tight ends and shift them all pre-snap? That was done too. (Drive Stanford fans crazy by recruiting enough tight ends to develop multiple All-American caliber players at the position? Mea culpa, Jim Harbaugh, you were right all along. Now if only there were a four-quarterback formation…)

Build an identity as a smashmouth, grind-it-out, clock-control offense – only to go no huddle and throw the opponent off balance? Check.

Do whatever you could to get your best players on the field, even if it meant making Owen Marecic a starter at both linebacker and fullback? Despite the protests of fans, Jim Harbaugh was crazy like a fox, stuck to his guns, and came up roses. (And how's that sentence for mixed metaphors?)

Especially when the program was circling the drain, an all-too-common debate amongst us Cardinalmaniacs was whether it was "Xs and Os" or "Jessies and Joes" that made for a winning program, and, by implication, Stanford was lacking. We know full well now that there was a lot more talent among the Jesses and Joes than we might have guessed at first blush. The 2008 class is one for the ages, retroactively ranked among the top three in the country that year. Stanford dominated the first round of April's NFL Draft, and with players like Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov, Stepfan Taylor (?) and promising youngsters, NFL scouts will be racking up frequent flyer miles through SFO and SJC for the foreseeable future.

What may not be as obvious is that the Xs and Os were every bit as much in our corner. That Harbaugh, Fangio and Roman have turned around the 49ers is all the more proof that they are operating at another level compared to NFL coaches, let alone coaches in the college ranks. (Save for Chip Kelly, but don't get a Stanford fan started on the impossibility of stopping that offense.)

The results of the last few years amidst the frustration and exhaustion evident on defenders' faces shows that we were wrong all along. It was Jesses, Joes and Xs, Os – and Ys, Zs, lambdas, gammas, umlauts, pi-r-squareds, and everything else that comprised the kitchen sink Stanford's coaches threw at opponents.

Final note: Let's not sell Andrew Luck short on the offensive wizardry, especially if he is as football savvy and essential to Stanford's playcalling as those in the know have claimed. Next year will be a major test for the coaching staff: how much schematic advantage can we continue to enjoy as the rest of the league continues to adapt to our looks and we start over with a new quarterback who presumably will have far less independence in playcalling?

Previous
50-41. More memorable moments - Loukas, 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 UW
37. Opening act - 2009 win over Ducks launches a November to remember
36. Going bowling - Loss to Sooners doesn't ruin first bowl game since 2001
35. "Shut up and play football" - Cal jaws pregame, falls behind 45-0 in 2010
34. Look ma, no legs - Luck throws a 52- yard dart while in free fall
33. Sit down - Burfict's head leads to go- ahead TD, Wilkerson's ices W at ASU
32. Injury bug - Despite multiple injuries, 2011 Card manage to rally
31. Whale watching - Stanford starts recruiting at an elite level
30. Suck for Luck - The media machine anoints the next football savior
29. Outta my way - Luck bounces off Cattouse for a 50-yard run
28. 0 for 3 - Card post three shutouts in 2010 campaign
27. Laying the wood - Luck lays out Wright
26. Concussed - Owusu is knocked out of four games
25. Jumping ahead - A 21-3 lead vanishes in Autzen in 2010
24. So close, yet so far - Luck's worst game costs Card 2009 Big Game
23. Run, Toby, run - Gerhart takes over against Notre Dame


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