Stanford's strong finish renews optimism for 2015

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) There was a time not so long ago at Stanford that going 8-5 and winning a bowl game would have been considered a successful season.

Now it's viewed as a disappointment.

That's the reality of the new Stanford standard, where Pac-12 titles and contending for national championships are how the program is measured. David Shaw has seen both sides of it, as a player and now the coach, and he prefers the high expectations - and all the scrutiny that comes with it.

''We want to be one of the best football programs in the nation,'' Shaw said.

The Cardinal fell short of this season's lofty goals. They failed to win a third straight Pac-12 championship and never came close to claiming a spot in the new College Football Playoff.

Almost as baffling as the way the season unfolded was the way it ended.

For the first half of the year, Stanford struggled to consistently impose its smash-mouth style on offense while its physical defense kept the team in most games. The Cardinal couldn't break free for big runs, the line offered little protection for Kevin Hogan and the quarterback struggled to make the throws he had completed so often in the past.

Shaw moved to more spread-heavy schemes late in the season, getting electric freshman Christian McCaffrey more involved and running plays outside the tackles just as frequently as between them. Everything finally came together the last three games, with the Cardinal crushing rival California 38-17, overwhelming UCLA 31-10 and dismantling Maryland 45-21 in the Foster Farms Bowl on Tuesday night.

''I'll try to look back on the season and learn some lessons,'' Shaw said. ''Schematically, there were some things we could have done better, but I never lament. I don't go back and say, `What if?' I'm a big believer in looking forward. Learn from what's happened in the past. I've always believed that and these guys have cemented that.''

The closing acts of 2014 have Shaw confident that his program can remain a major player in the conference and on the national stage for years to come.

As has been the case the last few winters, though, Stanford is set to lose a lot of talent to graduation and the NFL draft.

Wide receiver and special teams standout Ty Montgomery, defensive end Henry Anderson, defensive tackle David Parry, linebackers A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters, and safety Jordan Richards are among the outgoing seniors. But there will be a few others leaving with a year of eligibility remaining.

Junior cornerback Alex Carter is planning to enter the NFL draft, while wide receiver Devon Cajuste tweeted Wednesday that he would return. Cornerback Wayne Lyons and left tackle Andrus Peat have yet to publicly announce whether they will be back.

Regardless of what they do, Hogan's decision will have the biggest impact of all.

The three-year starter is on track to graduate in June and is weighing whether to enter the draft, where he would likely be a late-round pick at best. He also has family to consider after his father, Jerry, died earlier this month of cancer - something that hung over Hogan during his up-and-down season but he never publicly talked about.

Shaw believes Stanford has built enough depth to overcome the loss of any player.

Waiting behind Hogan is Keller Chryst, who was one of the country's top pocket-passers coming out of high school before redshirting this season, and highly touted redshirt sophomore Ryan Burns. There also are underclassmen such as McCaffrey, sophomore tight ends Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada and linebacker Peter Kalambayi who could become the next Stanford standouts.

''I feel really good. I believe we've recruited extremely well,'' Shaw said. ''We're going to miss these seniors like crazy. They've meant so much to us. But we've got a lot of guys coming back that are chomping at the bit. We're going to be a deep team again next year on both sides of the ball. I'm excited to get going.''

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Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

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