When I look back on Stanford Football’s 2015 season, there will be no shortage of descriptors, but when I think about it now, there’s only one word that has really defined this season. David Shaw put that word in my head way back in the summer, in one of the most courageous and startling admissions I’ve ever seen a big-time coach make, at Pac-12 Media Day.
Coach Shaw was reflecting on the devastating loss to Utah at Stanford Stadium, when 2014 reached its nadir. We all gathered in the press hut adjacent to the old field house up the tunnel outside Stanford Stadium. Coach Shaw jumped into his post-game reaction, and the sounds of screaming and cursing pulsated through the wall from Stanford’s locker room. Coach kept talking, but it was so conspicuous that everybody could hear it, and it didn’t sound good.
Last summer, Coach Shaw admitted that as he was stuck outside the locker room, he feared the worst. He felt that he was losing the team, that they were coming apart and that the season may indeed be slipping from his grip. He referenced that incident and said quite candidly that the 2014 Cardinal had quite simply lost the joy of playing football. He wrestled with the frustration that nothing he tried put that joy back on the field for his players.
Of course we know the deep irony of his sentiments now. Stanford wasn’t splintering, they were coming together. John Flacco’s impassioned and scalding speech put season-long wounds out in the open and allowed them to heal. The team took off and ended the year scorching its final three opponents.
There was no joy in Evanston over Labor Day weekend, as a Stanford team returning four of five offensive line starters, a fith-year quarterback, and loads of offensive playmaking talent mustered but two field goals in a stunning loss to Northwestern. Frustration abounded, though even at that low point, the Cardinal was resolute that it had the players it needed to reach its goal of winning the Pac-12 Championship. Devon Cajuste tweeted right after the loss: “You think this is going to stop us? Hold us back from our goal? No. We’re brothers and we don’t quit until every last man goes down.”
After that week, Stanford provided a resounding response to the 5 Burning Questions I asked at the start of the season, and the result was a team that what was an unmitigated joy to watch. So let’s go back and check out how Stanford built its Pac-12 championship response to a disappointing 2014 (These are the questions I posed in my season preview):
1. Can an Experienced Offense Carry An Inexperienced Defense Farther Than An Experienced Defense Carried an Inexperienced Offense? The answer here is unequivocal. In 2014, Stanford’s Defense allowed 1.42 points per drive, eighth best in the nation. Its offense put up 2.30 points per drive, 50th best in the country. In 2015, the Cardinal defense allowed 2.07 points per drive, an increase that dropped the Cardinal to 64th best in the country. However, Stanford’s 3.59 points per offensive drive more than made up for it. That number was the third-highest in the nation, and it led to a 1.52 net points per drive, fourth best in the country.
2. Will the Real Stanford Offense Please Stand Up? Again, it’s clear at this point that the Cardinal team fans saw tear up Cal, UCLA, and Maryland was the one it’d be seeing for the vast majority of 2015. The Cardinal went from the 11th best Pac-12 scoring offense in 2014 to tied for the best in 2015. Stanford was vastly improved as documented above, and it led to even more indisputable evidence of improvement to subsequent questions.
3. Will the Real Kevin Hogan Please Stand Up? There has been a reluctance to praise Kevin Hogan without qualifiers on the part of observers. There is no need to qualify Hogan’s excellence this season. He finished conference play as the highest rated passer among QB’s who played in all nine conference games. He also had the best yards per attempt of any quarterback who played the full conference schedule. Beyond that, he was the absolute difference in the three defining wins of Stanford’s season. Against USC in the Coliseum, he led the team to a 41-31 win that righted the course of what had been a disappointing 1-1 start. On that day he completed 78.3% of his passes for 12.1 yards per attempt, gutted his way through a painful ankle injury, and threw two touchdown passes. Against Washington State, the Cardinal couldn’t spring Christian McCaffrey and couldn’t get success via the pass. Hogan responded by running Stanford to victory, going for 112 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries to secure a win that was the difference in the Pac-12 North. Finally, against Notre Dame, he completed over 80% of his passes and threw four touchdowns in the Cardinal’s thrilling 38-36 win to close out the regular season. Hogan didn’t just stand up. His chill carried this team to its third Rose Bowl in his four seasons as a starter.
4. Can Coach Shaw Turn the Dead Zone Back Into the Red Zone? The frustration of Stanford’s 2014 was due in large part to the Cardinal’s inability to finish drives with touchdowns. That all changed in 2015, as Stanford’s 70.2% touchdown rate was second in the Pac-12. Coach Shaw listed the keys to Red Zone success in the preseason: You have be able to run the ball, you need a mobile quarterback, and you need to exploit matchups. Thanks to the exploits of Remound Wright (13 touches on 77 carries) and Hogan, Stanford had the first two covered. That 11 different receivers caught touchdowns this year shows that Stanford hit the third criteria on Coach Shaw’s checklist. Stanford’s 5.63 points per trip inside the 40 were 4th most in the nation. Coffee is for closers, and Stanford was Ricky Roma.
5. Who's Kicking? It may have taken until the final game of 2015 for ‘Murka to learn the name Conrad Ukropina, but Cardinal fans saw their placekicker help play a part in a massive resurgence on special teams this year. One of the most underemphasized culprits in Stanford’s letdown 2014 was a massive drop in special teams rankings. Football Outsiders had the Cardinal’s special teams rank at 84th in 2014. That number skyrocketed to fifth this year. The Cardinal was better in virtually every aspect of special teams this year. Ukropina’s 17-19 FG and 61-61 PAT performance graded out as the fourth best in all of college football this year, up from 76th in 2014. Stanford’s kick return game experienced a similar leap thanks to some dude from Colorado, but the Cardinal’s punt coverage improved dramatically as well, going from the 100th rated group (per FEI) to the 42nd best. Ukropina, Jake Bailey, and Alex Robinson all contributed this year, and they helped boost Cardinal special teams significantly.
I predicted a bounce back year of 9-3 for Stanford this year, so I’m not altogether shocked that they cleared that lofty bar and turned 2014 back into the exception and not the rule. However, I had no idea the extent to which they’d bring back the joy. It’s clear if you spend any time around this group that they genuinely love playing together and that the coaches have embraced who they are as a group and as individuals.
It’s ironic that in the year the “Fifty Shades of David Shaw” t-shirt came out, Coach Shaw responded by showing more emotion both in public and private than he ever had. His response to Ronnie Harris’ pleas (and Harris’ leadership as well) that he show more emotion galvanized a team that got knocked down in Round 1, then spent the next 12 rounds dishing out a lot of punishment, even in the one other game in which they fell short.
As the players and coaches took the stage at Levi’s Stadium and the confetti rained down from the sky, it was impossible not to reflect back on a magical and magnificent 11-2 run that punctuated with consecutive victories over the two most storied programs in college football history, and a third Rose Bowl appearance in four seasons. Coach Shaw and his players have engulfed us all in the greatest era in Stanford Football history. They did it by sticking together and evolving as a group to transcend the frustrations of the past and taking its fans once more into a glorious present.