State of Stanford: Championship Week

OL David Yankey

Before delving solely into football matters, let's take a quick glance at the epic weekend of Stanford sports that lies ahead. Friday may offer the most eventful hour-long window in school history.

Monumental Weekend
David Shaw's football team kicks the fun off with Stanford's inaugural appearance in the Pac-12 title game at 5 p.m. on Friday. The Cardinal's No. 2 women's volleyball team will then begin its NCAA Tournament quest versus Jackson State at 8 o'clock -- before the gridiron gang is even through with UCLA next door. Meanwhile, the top-ranked Stanford's women's soccer team will be kicking off its College Cup Final Four match against powerhouse North Carolina in San Diego.

Tara VanDerveer's top-ranked women's basketball squad also gets in on the action, though their Friday 7:00 p.m. PT game at UC Davis will be relegated to fourth place on the Stanford importance list at the time. That's because, at 8 p.m. on Friday, Stanford football, volleyball, and soccer will all simultaneously be playing championship elimination games.

A Clear-Cut Objective
In contrast to the past two seasons, Stanford enters its last game before a bowl with cut-and-dry postseason options. A win sends the Farm Boys on a return trip to Pasadena for the January 1 Rose Bowl. A loss means a flight to San Antonio for the December 29 Alamo Bowl.

"It's good to control our own destiny," Chase Thomas said. "In previous years, we didn't know if we were going to get an at-large [BCS] bid or end up in El Paso again."

Speaking of El Paso, the Sun Bowl is a possible destination for once-mighty USC, which stumbled to a 7-5 record after being upended by Stanford in week three.

Obviously, the Cardinal are again favored at home this week after pounding the very same UCLA team 35-17 on the road Saturday. This means that the Farm Boys will almost certainly also be favored in their bowl game, whether it be against Nebraska or Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl or an equal to lesser opponent in the Alamo Bowl. If the Farm Boys do indeed punch their ticket to the Rose Bowl Friday, they'll be in position to match the 2010 Orange Bowl team's program-record 12 wins and finish as one of the top five teams in the country.

Of course, no top-five finish would be complete without watching Stanford's preseason doubters eat a healthy load of crow. Many predicted the Cardinal would win only seven games, while some picked Shaw's squad to play .500 football.

"It was the same thing when Toby left, the same thing when Harbaugh left, the same thing when Andrew left," Thomas said. "People out there just don't get it."

Stanford's stalwart outside linebacker, named First Team Pac-12 on Monday, took particular joy in the fact that his team's success has given him one more career home game via this Friday's championship bout. Even Shaw, after all, admitted to thinking the Cardinal seniors wouldn't be back in Stanford Stadium until graduation.

"I'm going to have to change the date of the Last Walk T-shirt," Thomas smiled. "Tape it over or something."

Record and Statistics Watch
Following his 142-yard effort against UCLA, Stepfan Taylor finds himself 35 yards short of Darrin Nelson's all-time Stanford rushing record of 4,169 yards. Interestingly, at UCLA, No. 33 surpassed Nelson's mark of 4,033, which had stood in the Stanford record books for years. However, last week Stanford announced that they were now counting Nelson's bowl-game yardage, so Taylor's number to break jumped by 36 yards entering the battle with the Bruins. Now, at long last, the senior is potentially one rush away from school history, and he'll likely break the mark at home.

Meanwhile, Stanford's front seven shattered the school sack record (48) previously held by the 1999 Rose Bowl team. Following seven more quarterback takedowns, the Cardinal have established a lofty new mark of 53 with two games remaining. Fittingly, defensive end Ben Gardner, who wears No. 49, posted the record-breaking 49th sack on Saturday night.

The Farm Boys lead the nation by wide margins in sacks, tackles for loss (111), and rushing defense (2.36 yards/carry). Remarkably, they have done so without a single player posting a double-digit sack total. Trent Murphy leads the way with 9.5, and that's good for only 25th in the nation. Shayne Skov, meanwhile, has accounted for only 2.5 of the Cardinal's 53 sacks. That's not a reflection of poor play, as he leads the team with 63 tackles); rather, it is an excellent sign of just how star-studded this Stanford lineup is.

The Farm Boys' secondary has certainly benefited from improved front seven play and an influx of young talent. They have 13 interceptions this year, after managing just seven in 2011.

Meanwhile, Stanford tight end Zach Ertz has already set a school record for tight end receptions (63) and yards (818). An 80-catch, 1,000-yard receiving season is attainable. This Friday's game is Ertz's last chance to make a case for the Mackey Award, awarded to the nation's best tight end. He is one of three finalists for that honor.

Coach of the Year
Monday, Pac-12 coaches voted David Shaw their Coach of the Year for the second straight season. His body of work down the stretch has been excellent, with his ability to adapt to Stanford's early season struggles particularly impressive. Offensive ineptitude surfaced its ugly head in the first two months of the season, resulting in losses at Washington and Notre Dame and disaster-averted squeakers over Washington State and San Jose State. Shaw's move to Kevin Hogan eventually lifted the team to another level.

"There are a lot of guys in this conference who I respect very, very highly," Shaw said. "And for those guys to vote for me, it's humbling."

Fans and media, this site's included, criticized Shaw for allowing Josh Nunes to struggle for so long. But that saga is water under the bridge now, overshadowed by the excellent job he has done in preparing Stanford for the season's biggest game. Along with strength and conditioning guru Shannon Turley, the head coach also gets credit as his Stanford teams seem to grow stronger, tougher and more physical by the season.

Now, moving forward, Shaw is particularly excited about the challenge presented by playing UCLA twice in a row.

"We know this team," he said of UCLA. "But we don't know everything about this team."

Ertz, Murphy, Ed Reynolds, and Thomas were named to the All-Pac-12 First Team. The full list of Stanford players named to all-conference squads can be found here. One notable absence from the first team is running back Stepfan Taylor, as over-aggressive defenses hindered his statistics before Hogan took over at quarterback. No. 33's recent spectacular play, though, suggests that he may well be the league's top back.

Injury Report
Shaw said that injured punter Daniel Zychlinski, who left the Rose Bowl in a sling, likely won't play Friday. Ben Rhyne is his replacement. Nose tackle Terrence Stephens, who missed the regular season finale for a personal reason, also may not be back this Friday.

Drew Terrell, meanwhile, is questionable. More updates are expected as the week progresses.


David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.


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