TWISH: Thanksgiving Madness (2010)

In this week of giving thanks, Stanford fans should be forever grateful for a maddening, exhilarating and altogether memorable 36 hours of college football This Week in Stanford History. The Cardinal’s fortunes joined a spin-cycle of poisoned oak trees, blown leads, Brass Boots and history-altering missed field goals. Stanford football would never be the same.

Nov. 26-27, 2010

“I kinda wish I was still out there playing.”

Peter Griffin (alas, not that Peter Griffin) couldn’t help but turn jealous watching the celebration unfold in front of him. The former Stanford linebacker joined a handful of ex-teammates – veterans of the decrepit Teevens/Walt Harris years– at the 2010 regular season finale. After recalling their effort to beat USC three years earlier (“We caught some breaks, man. I don’t think we even had 300 yards of offense that night,”) the foundation they helped build culminated in a joyous scene following Stanford’s 38-0 blanking of Oregon State.

The victory assured Stanford (11-1) a Bowl Championship Series berth, with fans joining players – and a Gatorade-soaked Jim Harbaugh – on the field to mark the occasion. Stanford dominated another opponent, shutting out a Pac-10 foe for the third time that year. But if you remember, you know the Cardinal, sitting No. 6 in the BCS that week, needed help to reach its eventual slot in the Orange Bowl. And history was not on its side.

The BCS era saw Pac-10 teams twice miss out on a top-tier bowl despite a No. 5 position in the standings. The flawed system relegated 10-1 Cal (2004) and Oregon (2005) teams to the Holiday Bowl. Only a spot in the top four guaranteed the Cardinal a BCS spot. Aside from its matchup with the Beavers, the outcomes of three games on Thanksgiving weekend would determine the Card’s postseason fate. Though Championship Weekend – and another chance for top teams to stumble -- did still loom, an Alamo Bowl beckoned for the Card unless underdogs had a big Thanksgiving weekend.

What ensued was a maddening, exhilarating and altogether memorable 36 hours of college football. The Cardinal’s fortunes joined the spin-cycle of poisoned oak trees, blown leads, Brass Boots and history-altering missed field goals. Stanford football would never be the same.

Choking on turkey sandwiches

When Roy Kramer accepted a lifetime achievement honor at ESPN’s college annual awards banquet in 2011, the former SEC commissioner spoke of the postseason system he helped create. He affirmed the BCS’ accomplishment of bringing unprecedented national appeal to college football. “What happens in Eugene affects folks in Tuscaloosa, who want to know what’s going on in Stillwater,” he said.

Stanford fans were never more fixated on Bryant-Denny Stadium as they were on Black Friday four years ago. Both the Cardinal’s spot in a BCS bowl and Andrew Luck’s hope of stealing the Heisman Trophy from Cam Newton’s grasp rode on Alabama’s chances of ending No.2 Auburn’s perfect season (10-0 Oregon stood atop both major polls and the Bowl Championship Series ratings.)

The ’10 Crimson Tide remains the last of only two Nick Saban-coached Alabama teams to bring multiple losses into the Iron Bowl. Defending national champ Alabama (9-2) was still a 4.5-point favorite over their archrivals. Early on, things couldn’t have been any better from the Cardinal perspective.

Alabama jumped out to a 21-0 lead before Newton had completed a pass or engineered a first down. The margin grew to 24-0 until Auburn found the end zone. The Tigers, facing a double-digit deficit for the fourth time that season, were poised to plummet in the rankings.

The rest of the game proved another matter altogether, enough to make Stanford fans choke on our leftover turkey sandwiches.

The Tide’s 24-7 halftime edge would have been insurmountable, were it not for Trent Richardson and Greg McElroy each fumbling inside the Tigers’ 10-yard-line during the second period.

I spent the entire second half shaking my head, in a vegetative state as the Tide crumbled and the biggest comeback in Auburn history unfolded. Newton completed 13 of 20 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns, adding to his legend and all but locking up the Heisman. His defense held Alabama to 67 yards over the final two quarters.

“Tide sucks and chokes,” texted my dad, a lifelong Cardinal fan.

Auburn’s 28-27 victory proved too much for one man to digest. In the outcome’s wake, a 60-something Tide fanatic named Harvey Updyke drove to Auburn’s famed Toomer’s Corner and poured herbicide around the iconic 130-year-old oak trees. He remains on five years’ probation after serving 180 days in jail for poisoning the trees, which were removed last year. What if Alabama hangs on? Luck collects the Heisman and the most famous tree murder in college football history doesn’t happen.

“This is the win that will keep on giving.”

The 2010 season saw Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee make his infamous “Little Sisters of the Poor” address. Gee’s comments mocked the accomplishments of TCU and Boise State, the BCS standings’ respective No. 3 and No. 4 teams heading into November’s final week.

Shaken Stanford backers now looked to Reno, where a skinny quarterback from the San Joaquin Valley aimed to end the nation’s longest winning streak at 24 games. But unless mighty Boise State dropped its first regular season game since 2007, the Cardinal’s BCS hopes were all but finished.

Nevada played the first two quarters like the 14-point underdog they were, allowing 299 yards of total offense and trailing 24-7 by half. But storming back came Colin Kaepernick and Wolf Pack (10-1), outrushing the 10-0 Broncos by 239-8 margin after the break. By the final seconds, when Nevada knotted the score at 31-31, a helpless Chris Petersen looked like someone watching his dog run into traffic.

But the drama was far from over. Boise’s first play from scrimmage after the tying touchdown should be the stuff of Bronco legends. From his 37 with 13 seconds left, Kellen Moore uncorked a bomb deep down the field to Titus Young. Miraculously, Young, arms outstretched and body parallel to the ground, corralled the ball at the Nevada 9 with one second left. But somehow, some way, Kyle Brotzman – who graduated with the most points by a kicker in FBS history – pulled the ensuing 26-yard field goal wide right as time expired. He missed again from 29 yards on the first series in overtime.

Nevada went in for the kill. Anthony Martinez drilled his 34-yard boot, sending Mackey Stadium into delirium and the Broncos plummeting to the Las Vegas Bowl. Try, try, try not to get goose bumps watching and listening to Joe Tessitore’s call.

“There’s no such thing as Black Friday,” Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault proclaimed. “It’s Blue Friday.”

The outcome gave instant equity to the Wolf Pack, TCU and every other rogue contender looking to grab Gee by the bowtie and ring his neck. “This is the win that will keep on giving,” wrote ESPN’s Gene Wojiechowski.

For Stanford, because of what happened the next day, Nevada’s win kept giving all the way to Miami.

Guys checking their phones at halftime

Nov. 27 dawned cold and rainy in the Bay Area. Things cleared by early afternoon, just in time for the season’s last tailgates to take shape. I joined my now-wife and her best friend from high school for the proceedings. About a half hour before kickoff, as we walked along the concourse to our seats in the south end zone, Steve Frost announced a most important out-of-town score from his PA microphone.

“A final from Little Rock: Arkansas 31, LSU 23!”

Cheers erupted from all corners of Stanford Stadium. Now, it was on. Another team ranked ahead of Stanford in the BCS had fallen. The Ryan Mallett-led Razorbacks never trailed against the visiting No. 5 Tigers, claiming that border rivalry’s Brass Boot trophy. Even Stanford’s players were soon fully aware.

“Guys were checking their phones at halftime,” Chase Thomas said.

Some teams fail to seize moments of potential greatness. The 2010 Cardinal was not one of those teams. Stanford overwhelmed a Beaver club boasting tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and a secondary of capable defenders. Once the game’s opening drive ended with a touchdown strike from Andrew Luck to Zach Ertz, the Cardinal left no doubt.

Luck exceeded 300 yards, collecting four touchdown passes to break John Elway’s single-season record. The crowd of 38,000 made sellout presence. A cauldron of noise greeted each score and every Oregon State third down. A group of student fans donned curly blonde wigs in honor of senior Owen Marecic. By the middle of the third quarter, with the score 24-0, the masses couldn’t contain themselves any longer.

“B-C-S! B-C-S! B-C-S!”

In the postgame press conference, Thomas was asked to state his team’s case.

“I think we’re the best one-loss team in the country,” he said. “I don’t see why this team shouldn’t get to a BCS game. This school has a nationwide fan base, I think they’ll come to game.”

Stanford has endured its share of misfortune in 2014. But let’s not forget the positive karma it enjoyed beginning in 2009, when LaMichael James dropped what would have been a sure touchdown pass during the landmark victory over Oregon. Another Boise State missed field goal, this time against TCU, paved the Card’s way to the Fiesta Bowl in 2011. May fans here be thankful for Stanford’s recent good fortunes, especially in those instances when things were beyond the Cardinal’s control.

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