On Monday, as Stanford began its early preparations for Friday's Pac-12 title game, second-year coach David Shaw delivered a message to his team. The Cardinal were getting ready to play UCLA -- the same UCLA team they'd beaten two days earlier, 35-17, to clinch the North Division -- and they were going over their approach for the Bruins. Shaw's message was simple.
"You can't think about last Saturday's game, just because we won, that's it's gonna happen again," said running back Stepfan Taylor. "That'll get you beat quick. We gotta understand that they're gonna make adjustments and prepare for them."
Of course, Taylor is saying the right thing. But it's hard to downplay the obvious. Stanford has been arguably the nation's hottest team in recent weeks, and it overwhelmed UCLA last Saturday in Pasadena. Taylor rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan passed for 160 yards and a score and the Cardinal defense limited UCLA star Johnathan Franklin to 65 yards on 21 carries. Stanford raced to a double-digit lead and cruised to its sixth straight victory.
But Shaw's and Taylor's comments speak to a deeper-seated mentality, one that permeates the entire program. The past is in the past. Stick to the process, and the future will bring success.
"Once you get that going and start having a little bit of success you get hungry for more," said linebacker Shayne Skov. "And I think we've remained hungry no matter what's in front of us. And we've just kept it going."
Since Jim Harbaugh took over a woeful 1-11 Stanford team in Dec. 2006, something extraordinary has happened in Palo Alto. The Cardinal have completely reinvented themselves, morphing into a perennial BCS threat on par with nearly any program in the country. They've won 33 games since the start of the 2010 season -- as many or more than any school except Oregon and LSU -- and clinched back-to-back BCS berths. They've even recently sent two players (Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck) to New York for the Heisman ceremony; no other Cardinal player had cracked the top 10 in Heisman voting since running back Glyn Milburn finished ninth in 1992.
Each year, critics have written off Stanford. That was the case after Harbaugh's move to the NFL in 2011, and it was the case after Luck's final game in the Fiesta Bowl last January. But each year, the team has responded. And 2012 has been no different. Overlooked behind preseason darlings USC and Oregon, Stanford is now in position to win the school's first conference championship since 1999.
"It doesn't matter what everybody else thinks," said Skov. "We know we've got the guys in our locker room, and if somebody doubts or disregards us as a program, that doesn't change what we do. ... When somebody leaves or there's a departure, we've still gotta bond and get stronger. That commitment is what dictates our success."
This isn't "Life After Luck," a phrase that's circulated since the all-everything quarterback graduated. It's the new and improved Life on The Farm, a mindset that blossomed under Harbaugh and has been cultivated under Shaw. The Cardinal have used a power-running game -- even with Luck under center, they maintained a nearly 1.25-to-1 run-to-pass ratio in 2011 -- and stingy defense to hang with formerly superior competition. It doesn't matter that Stanford was traditionally a punching bag. The culture has started to change.
In fact, it's that type of don't-look-back mindset that attracted Taylor to the school in the first place. Despite growing up in Mansfield, Texas, and receiving offers from TCU, Texas A&M and Nebraska, among others, he took his only official visit to Palo Alto. He was sold on Harbaugh's vision, and perhaps equally so, on the wealth of incoming talent. Taylor's class included standouts such as tight end Zach Ertz, defensive end Ben Gardner and linebackers Skov and Trent Murphy, all of whom have played pivotal roles in Stanford's rise to prominence.
"Being from Texas, I didn't know too much about Stanford, honestly," said Taylor. "But I looked at the recruiting class, looked at my teammates that'd be coming in at the time, and I liked it a lot. I saw a lot of five-stars, four-stars, even three-stars. I watched their highlight tapes and said, 'OK. I'm gonna be ready to play and compete with these guys.'"
That class has sparked Stanford's reversal of fortune. A perennial doormat, it has now recorded three consecutive 10-win seasons. Before 2010, the program had posted just three 10-win seasons ever -- in 1926, 1940 and 1992.
For all of the groundwork in place, however, this year's team may be the most unlikely contender. Hogan took over at quarterback for struggling senior Josh Nunes in early November. The defense had to break in an inexperienced secondary that lost three multi-year starters before the season. And there were certainly hiccups. After knocking off then top-ranked USC on Sept. 15, the Cardinal dropped two of their next three games, a stunner on a Thursday night at Washington and a heartbreaker in overtime at Notre Dame. In those contests, they gained a paltry 507 combined yards and failed to score an offensive touchdown.
Both Skov and Taylor cite the latter defeat as a turning point. And since, Stanford has won six in a row, including its BCS-altering upset at Oregon. Skov, Chase Thomas and the defense are ranked first nationally in rushing defense (71.3 yards per game), sacks (53) and tackles for loss (94), while Taylor and the offense have upped their average from 366 to 396 yards per game over the last six weeks. The senior class -- one that will likely be remembered long after it leaves -- reinforced Shaw's message.
"The very first class that stepped on here under coach Harbaugh has really changed the mentality of this program," said Skov. "And hopefully it's an infectious attitude and it continues long after we're all gone. We wanna leave this place a winning program and for it to stay that way."
Stanford is no longer just the team of smart kids. It's a group with a relentless front seven, a stout offensive line and, most importantly, a coach who gets it. It's primed to be a major player in college football for years to come. The Cardinal have become the nerds
Still, no one in the program is focused on that progress. The past is in the past. This week, Stanford will play a young and talented UCLA squad for the Pac-12 title. And that's the only thing on the team's radar.
"To steal a quote from Andrew Luck, 'Football is a meritocracy,'" said Skov. "All that matters is what you do on Saturday."