Marathon Finishes

2012 Stanford football may have opened its season like a lamb, but the squad closed like lions. Here's a look at some great closes of seasons past.

What they never told you was that a 26.2-mile marathon is actually two races. The first 20 miles you run tactically, in control. You lean on the baseline fitness and leg strength you've built up from months of training. You leverage years of experience to listen to your body and adjust what you can: pace, food and water intake, clothing, stride length, posture.

But by the last 10K (6.2 miles), something has gone horribly awry. It's inevitable. There are dozens of moving parts to the operation and the race creates enough pressure that something critical will give out. Your pacer pulled a groin, you've lost a shoelace and can't push off too hard with your left leg lest you run out of your shoe, and now your new, funky stride is causing your whole right side to cramp up. And, oh yeah, you're out of food.

With everything else busted, then, you have no choice but to race that stretch run with your heart.

A Division I football squad must finish its season in that same gritty manner. Like in a marathon, numerous calculations and countless variables are inherent to the endeavor's success, and the season subjects players to physical stresses their bodies were not built to ensure. It's inevitable: players will tear ligaments, pull muscles and break bones, and even the "healthy" players fortunate enough to escape a formal injury will just plain hurt, everywhere.

How the team plays in dreary November, then, is far more indicative of the squad's internal fortitude than how it looks in sunny September. That said, and in honor of a most character-defining close to the 2012 season, here is the definitive look across the ages at Stanford football closes for the ages:

Old time Booties remember the season well, no doubt. Stanford won just two of its first five, suffering 5-0 losses to the Olympic Club and the Sherman Indians, and managing no better than a scoreless tie against the Multnomah Athletic Club. But as the leaves turned, so too did the Indians' fortunes. The squad won its last five to finish 7-2-1, all one-sided shutouts, all against clubs you've heard of today: Nevada, Oregon, Utah State, Cal and Colorado went down a combined 160-0. We trust the current Stanford defensive staff is taking notes.

Stanford stood a respectable 5-3 at the turn, but the meat of their schedule still remained. No worries, as the squad rolled Santa Clara, Washington and, most impressively, No. 3 Army in a Bronx season finale, a combined 69-0. A 13-all tie against Cal was the other late-season result, and with the Bears entering that contest 6-1-1, that too was a strong showing from the Cardinal and White.

I imagine this will be the first highlighted season any of our readers can recall, but I would love to hear if I'm wrong. Here, Stanford was a disappointing 2-3 through five games, and nationally ranked Washington and USC were both still to come. The Indians first battled the Huskies to a 7-7 tie, beat up a hapless San Jose State squad 34-18, and then pulled out their major upset against, naturally, USC. The Indians beat the Trojans 28-20 on November 5 for their first Pacific Coast Conference victory of the season, and then ran the table with easy wins over Oregon and Cal.

This might be the most underrated Stanford team of all-time. The squad's only losses came by a total of three points, both to top-ten teams. No. 8 Purdue got the Indians 36-35 on Oct. 4, and then No. 4 USC snuck out a 26-24 victory the next week. The Indians would tie No. 5 UCLA 20-all later that month, and in November, smack evenly-matched Oregon State 33-0 and upset No. 20 Air Force 47-34. Add in blowouts over the overmatched Washington schools and a 29-28 Big Game squeaker, and Stanford finished the season 7-2-1, having won four straight. The Rose Bowl teams of the next two years would go down in the history books, but this squad might well have been the most impressive of the bunch.

Stanford turned a 3-3 start into an 8-4 finish, upsetting Arizona State, Cal and, in the Bluebonnet Bowl, 9-1-1 Georgia, to finish the season with a No. 16 national ranking. A 13-7 loss to No. 6 USC was the only blemish on the record after October 14.

Your Cardinal started 1-3 but wound up 8-4. Much of the turnaround was a function of schedule, as top-20 foes Washington, Colorado, and Notre Dame accounted for the early losses before Stanford feasted on an easier schedule down the back stretch. Still, we'll sing "All Right Now" to any close to a season that includes an upset of all three California schools. As is true of so many of Stanford's great seasons, an upset of USC, 24-21, suggested something special was brewing. Stanford then left no doubt come November, beating No. 22 UCLA 27-10 and, in perhaps their most impressive Big Game victory of all time, triumphing 38-21 over a Cal squad that entered No. 6 in the polls and 9-1 in the record book. Alas, their fortune would not hold outside the continental 48, as Stanford narrowly lost the Aloha Bowl to Georgia Tech, 18-17.

Here is the season that most parallels 2012. Stanford stood a dispiriting 6-3 through October, with one loss to a top-tier team (41-7 to No. 2 Washington) and one loss to a decidedly more middling squad (21-6 to Arizona). (There was also a 10-7 season-opening loss to No. 7 Texas A&M, but that's when southern schools played real out-of-conference foes, another era entirely.) At any rate, the calendar turned to November, and, as would be true 20 years later, Stanford reached the double-digit mark with a 4-0 close. A 23-9 upset of (who else?) USC kicked off the fun, while wins against top-25 foes Washington State and Penn State (in the Blockbuster Bowl) sandwiched a 41-21 Big Game shellacking.

Not too many 2-5 teams make a bowl, especially in the days when schools needed winning records to reach the postseason and play in game you'd actually heard of. Yet Stanford did just that by beating its three in-state Pac-10 rivals, all in November upsets, along with a more expected win over a Washington State team still a year away from Ryan Leaf's surprise Rose Bowl run. For the November sprint, the Cardinal earned a trip to El Paso in what looked to be a coin flip of a contest. Turns out Stanford left Michigan State running for the border, victims of a 38-0 whipping.

What, you thought Stanford's last Rose Bowl berth would have come any easier than this season's? The Cardinal had a November 6 bye after falling 35-30 to Washington the previous week and dropping to 5-3. My advice: whatever the offense did during their rest week, do that more often! Stanford scored 50, 31 and 40 in its final three games to upset Arizona State, win Big Game and escape Notre Dame by a field goal. Alas, Ron Dayne and Wisconsin were too much, wearing down the Card in a physical Rose Bowl by a 17-9 count, but Stanford will soon have its opportunity for revenge.

Stanford had upset USC and Cal in a 4-8 2007 season, and improved yet another game in a 5-6 2008 campaign, but November 2009 is the month in which Stanford football arrived in earnest. The Cardinal entered the month 5-3, and with Oregon, USC, Cal and Notre Dame on the schedule, the first two top-ten heavyweights. Many fans were bracing themselves for a late-season slide that would keep Stanford bowlless, as had happened the year prior. Instead, years of suffering and a seven-season bowlless streak came to a glorious end in a 51-42 home upset of Oregon. Then came the "What's Your Deal" game, in which Stanford and USC were locked in a tight battle through three quarters, only for Toby Gerhart to run over the Trojans in the fourth, Jim Harbaugh to go for two in a 55-21 victory and, well, you know the rest of the story. Andrew Luck threw a last-minute pick in the next week's Big Game as Stanford fell 34-28 (and, without Luck, Oklahoma hung on versus the Cardinal in the Sun Bowl) [Ed: has anyone figured out why Stanford passed two straight times instead of giving the unstoppable Gerhart the ball?] but the Cardinal would come back to finish the regular season strong. Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit all but gave Gerhart the Heisman Trophy as he ran over Gary Gray and Notre Dame in a most satisfying 45-38 win [Ed: Mark Ingram's "victory" remains one of the biggest farces in the history of the award].

Stanford would have played for national championships in each of the last two seasons but for slaughters at the hands of Oregon. Come 2012, the Cardinal went to Eugene 21-point underdogs in Kevin Hogan's first road start, but Hogan led an epic fourth-quarter touchdown march, the defense held the Ducks scoreless for 10 straight possessions and Stanford had itself a 17-14 overtime upset. Stanford had to come back against Oregon State the week previous to keep its Rose Bowl hopes alive and then beat UCLA twice to clinch the deal, but that's exactly what happened for a team that, today, looks as good as any in the land.

Turns out, regardless of a slow start, how you finish can make a world of difference.

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