RealClearSports
Advertisement

Harbaugh Turns Stanford Into a Winner

STANFORD, Calif - Stanford didn't as much play football as endure it. It was a place kids went so they could get into medical school or create Google, not get into the NFL. There was a reason it was nicknamed Harvard of the West, besides the academics.

Then a coach named Jim Harbaugh arrived a couple of years ago with the stubborn idea kids who had brains could also be kids who had athletic ability. He was going to recruit people who not only could score on the SATs but also on the field.

Harbaugh got his players. And Saturday, Stanford got another major upset, beating Oregon, 51-42, stopping the Ducks when needed and proving unstoppable when required.

A week ago, Oregon ran around, over and between a USC team ranked fifth in the country, gaining more than 600 yards and gaining a lot of believers. But having moved up to No. 7, the Ducks were moved all over Stanford Stadium by a team that at 6-3 made itself bowl eligible, and made people understand what Harbaugh has done since he took over a team that went 1-11 in 2006, the season before he arrived.

The first notice came when in the game around here they still call "The Greatest Upset in History" - just because you're smart doesn't mean you don't exaggerate - Stanford, 41-point underdogs, beat USC in Los Angeles in 2007.

But this win over Oregon may have been more significant.

What Stanford did was get out in front early, crunching Oregon beneath the feet of senior Toby Gerhart, who ran for a school record 223 yards and three touchdowns, and under the arm of freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw for 251 yards and two scores.

What Stanford did was play enough defense against Oregon's spread, the Quack Attack, so even though the Ducks gained 570 yards, not once did they never gain the lead.

"I'm really proud of the team and coaching staff," said Harbaugh, whose brother coaches the Baltimore Ravens. "They're strong, mighty good men. This was the best opportunity that Stanford football has had in the past 10 years to express who this team is, and they expressed it."

They did it against an Oregon team that had been 7-1 and 5-0 in the Pac-10, had won seven straight games and had not allowed more than 36 points in any game.

"We had a hard time stopping them," confirmed Oregon coach Chip Kelly. "They have two talented players in Gerhart and Luck, and they presented problems for us. Gerhart is a talented, talented running back. He will be sore (Saturday) night. But he's just a real physical runner, very strong and fast."

And it is understood, since he attends Stanford, very intelligent. Last Saturday, while watching Oregon dismantle USC on television, Gerhart, who grew up in southern California, was studying calculus. Stanford had the weekend off. When they came up against Oregon, they were definitely on.

"Toby as usual was unbelievable," said Luck, whose father, Oliver once played for the old Houston Oilers before they became the new Tennessee Titans. "His performance speaks for itself."

When Gerhart spoke for himself he said two weeks of preparation proved advantageous. He said breaking his own school single-game rushing record was "exciting, something I'll be able to look at the rest of my life.

"But it's a team game. Everybody contributed. To get a bowl game feels awesome. Last year there were games we had the lead but didn't finish. Not this time. There definitely was no fear going into the game. The offense felt it was going to score every time."

It did score the first flour times, building up a 24-7 lead.

"We saw some things we could take advantage of," said Luck. "We focused on us."

Harbaugh, a onetime quarterback at Michigan, and in the pros, was elated with Luck's play. "It's one thing to place the ball on a 10-yard route, a 15-yard route," said Harbaugh, "but when you start placing them on 50, 55, 45 (yard routes) those are great throws. It was just unbelievable performance."

Oregon's coach, Kelly, denied his team had a hangover from smashing USC, 47-20 eight days earlier, said the Ducks weren't looking behind. Or ahead.

"We got beat by a better team," Kelly insisted. "They did a heck of a nice job on the offensive side."

Also on the mental side. Harbaugh has Stanford thinking it can beat anyone, and maybe it can. When someone wondered if Harbaugh might be intimidated by Oregon, he paused only a moment. "No, I'm not," he said. "We're not."

Smart, skilled football players never are.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

Author Archive