Luck is exceptional, but may not be outstanding enough for Heisman
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- David Shaw did not even wait for the first question at Saturday night's postgame news conference before beginning his stump speech.
"There's no player in America like Andrew Luck. There really isn't," the Stanford coach said after his star quarterback/Heisman hopeful went 20-of-30 for 233 yards, four touchdowns and an interception in his team's season-ending 28-14 win over Notre Dame. "Forget about the stats, forget about the comparisons to other guys or whatever. It doesn't matter."
Shaw, of course, is hardly an unbiased observer. First as Luck's position coach, now as his head coach, he's watched from the sideline as the goofy, bearded Texan has led the Cardinal to unprecedented heights -- consecutive 11-1 regular seasons, another Top 5 ranking come Sunday and, most likely, a second straight BCS bowl berth, this time in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl. He's watched his finely polished quarterback develop into a projected No. 1 NFL draft pick, accruing a mastery of Stanford's dense playbook unlike any quarterback in the country, changing plays at the line, constantly keeping his team out of bad spots.
"The kid is the definition of what you would want at the quarterback position in all facets," said Shaw.
Yet the decision facing Heisman voters over the next 10 days is far more vexing than Shaw would have you believe. Once the presumptive favorite, Luck is now just one of many qualified contenders in the most jumbled race in recent memory -- one that seems to fluctuate by the hour. Last week Baylor's Robert Griffin III seemed to jump to the top of the pack. Saturday evening against Texas Tech he suffered a head injury and missed the second half, unfortunate timing seeing as much of the country had spent the afternoon watching either Alabama's Trent Richardson rush for 203 yards against Auburn or Wisconsin's Montee Ball raise his season touchdown total by four -- to 34 -- in a division-clinching rout of Penn State.
And at the same exact time Shaw was making his case to reporters Saturday night, USC's Matt Barkley -- the fast-rising West Coast candidate suddenly threatening Luck's own turf -- was busy shredding hapless UCLA for another eye-popping stat line (424 yards and six touchdowns). On a related note, Houston's Case Keenum now boasts a mind-boggling 43-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Amid that backdrop, Luck, the one-time runaway favorite, took the field Saturday night against the 8-3 Irish with one final opportunity to make a case to a national prime time audience why he's the sport's most outstanding player. He needed to remind voters he makes throws that no other quarterback can, and he needed to make them forget the image of his three-turnover nightmare two weeks ago against Oregon.
I don't believe that he did.
Luck wasn't bad. Quite the contrary, he was his usual efficient and methodical self. He threw three first-half touchdowns, including a perfectly placed 28-yard dart to tight end Colby Fleener on one of his patented play-action masterpieces. He led the Cardinal 64 yards in a minute-and-a-half just before halftime, rushing for one first down, completing a third-and-10 pass for another and finishing with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Ty Montgomery to put Stanford up 21-0 heading to the locker room.
But he also looked plenty mortal at times, a potential sin when competing with video-game passers like Griffin and Keenum. Facing a heavy blitz in the second quarter, he failed to see oncoming linebacker Darius Fleming and threw an interception the Irish player returned 34 yards. Another near-certain pick fell through the hands of Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith in the third quarter. Going back to the Cardinal's triple-overtime win at USC on Oct. 29, in which Luck recovered from a potentially disastrous late-game pick six to rally Stanford to victory, the quarterback has thrown six interceptions in five games -- more than Keenum or Griffin have thrown all season.
Luck was never going to throw for PlayStation yards like those guys because Stanford's pro-style offense is too balanced. (Saturday it ran for 196 yards, threw for 233), but he still needed to do something truly outstanding -- and something tangible -- to put himself over the top. NFL scouts love his command, his pocket presence, the fact he can call his own plays. But this is not about the NFL draft, it's about the Heisman Trophy -- the most prestigious award in American sports, but one with completely arbitrary (and unwritten) criteria.
Asked what he'd tell the electorate to consider, Shaw replied: "Who's the best player in the nation?"
Shoot, how can we tell?
Luck, modest and forever uncomfortable about talk of individual performances, declined to put in a plug for himself. "I don't worry about the impression I made on anybody besides the guys in this locker room," he said. So the guys in the locker room did it for him.
"He'd have my vote," Fleener -- sitting two seats down from Luck at the press conference -- piped up, at which point linebacker Chase Thomas and safety Michael Thomas raised their hands and added: "Mine too."
"He continues to make plays for us, he manages this offense like not other player in the NCAA does," said Michael Thomas. "I think he's the best player in college football, hands down."
One factor most certainly working against Luck: He won't get to play on the final weekend of the regular season, as Oregon, not Stanford, advanced Saturday to next week's Pac-12 championship game. You would never know it, however, by the jubilant scene on the field after Saturday's game, as fans and family members mingled and celebrated with coaches and players, and Stanford's famed band churned out triumphant songs like "Our House."
"You'll see us in Arizona," one player said to the cheering fans in the front row.
It truly is remarkable what Stanford has accomplished the past two seasons, winning 23-of-25 games (the only losses coming to Oregon) at a school that had never previously won 11 games in a season and is not that far removed from a 1-11 record in 2006. Most of the seniors that suited up Saturday night were recruited during or shortly after that season.
"They came here on faith," said Shaw. "We were going to do what's impossible in college football today: Be in the top five in education and the top five in football. I don't know if it's ever been done, two straight years."
It took one of the sport's toughest offensive lines, an unparalleled set of tight ends (in addition to Fleener, 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo caught a touchdown) and a defense that wasn't able to keep pace with the lightning-fast Ducks but suffocated the Irish, holding them to 309 total yards and notching five sacks. Chase Thomas had three tackles for loss and forced his fifth fumble of the season.
But the face of the Cardinal's renaissance is unquestionably Luck. In a fitting tribute to the impact he's had on the program, and the lofty legacy he'll leave behind, Luck's second touchdown of the night gave him 78 for his career, breaking the school record previously held by ... John Elway.
A Heisman vote for Luck may be based on all those factors: his career achievements, his upstanding citizenry, his value to his team. Many a previous trophy-holder has won those very same merits.
But all the ballot actually says is "most outstanding player." Luck has been exceptional again in 2011. But most outstanding? That would mean he did something to set himself a notch above all of the other contenders around the country. He's done a whole lot for Stanford, but it's hard to argue he's done that. Shaw says we shouldn't compare him to other guys, but in fact we have to do just that.
No question, he'll get the invite to New York. It's less certain who will be joining him, though Richardson and Keenum seem like locks, and Barkley may have cemented himself a spot Saturday night. How the order plays out is anyone's best guess. Luck may leave college football as one of the most talented quarterbacks ever to play the game, but without ever being dubbed the best player in a given season.
If that happens, Luck will probably be ambivalent about it, but his coach will be peeved.
"I don't have a vote. We'll see what happens," said Shaw. "I just know that he's one of a kind."
The Stanford community knows it, too, no matter what name comes out of that envelope Dec 10.