NCF Nation: 2011 Orange Bowl coverage

Stanford's future? Unknown

January, 4, 2011
MIAMI -- What to make of the future at Stanford?

As everyone anxiously awaits the twin decisions of coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck, an appropriate question to ask is this one:

If both leave, is this program in position to continue on its upward path?

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesQuarterback Andrew Luck and coach Jim Harbaugh may be working on Sundays next season.
“There’s a core group of young guys in this program that know how to work and know how to get the job done,” said fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic. “Coach Harbaugh -- that’s not taking anything away from him, he’s the reason we’ve had so much success -- but these guys are so grounded that they’ll be successful in whatever they pursue.”

Stanford players believe their 40-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl is a momentum-shifting event for a program that has seen its fair share of down times.

Linebacker Shayne Skov said there was no question it was a “statement win.”

“People that doubted this program four years ago, doubted the recruiting classes coming in, the motive for coming here -- this is what we’ve always dreamed of,” Skov said. “This is what we always wanted, and we weren’t going to let it slip away from us.”

The Cardinal had never won 12 games in a season before, and are going to finish ranked in the top 5 for the first time since 1940. They went from 1-11 in 2006 to 12-1 in 2010, an astonishing feat in such a short period of time.

As Marecic said, Harbaugh is the biggest reason. Therefore, he is also the biggest reason he's the hottest coach in America right now.

Of course, Luck has meant much to the team’s success as well. The Heisman runner-up had an incredible performance against Virginia Tech that left observers believing he is the most NFL-ready quarterback they had seen in years.

His second half was astounding: 9-of-10 for 201 yards with three touchdowns. His pinpoint passes were so accurate, only his receivers could catch them. The pass he threw on a rope to Coby Fleener on the sideline was perhaps his highlight of the night.

Of course, Stanford overcame the loss of Heisman finalist Toby Gerhart this season to make it to a BCS bowl game. But quarterbacks are the heart of a team, and replacing Luck would be no easy task, should he decide to head to the NFL draft.

Predictably, both Harbaugh and Luck deflected any talk about their future. So did the players, who insisted they had not thought about a future without Harbaugh or Luck.

So what does the future look like? Well, Stanford returns terrific young talent in leading rusher Stepfan Taylor and Skov, who led the team in tackles. Chris Owusu and Fleener return as well, along with Chase Thomas and Delano Howell.

But there are some big losses, including center Chase Beeler, leading receiver Doug Baldwin, Marecic, Taylor Skaufel, Richard Sherman and Sione Fua.

Then there is Luck, of course. But no matter what decisions are made, players truly believe the only place for Stanford to go is up.

“It’s been a heck of a turnaround and a championship season is special no matter how you do it,” Marecic said. “There’s still that national championship out there that this team is definitely capable of getting to. That’s going to motivate offseason workouts. These guys really have it in them. They realize that now.”
MIAMI -- Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer wasn’t about to apologize.

Not for his team’s effort in a 40-12 loss to Stanford in the Discover Orange Bowl. Not for letting the ACC down -- again -- on the national stage. And not for his program’s inability to beat top-five competition more than once in the past 27 tries.

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
AP Photo/J Pat CarterIt was another disappointing bowl loss for Frank Beamer as Stanford dominated Virginia Tech in the second half.
“I don’t apologize for the effort we played with,” Beamer said. “I feel bad for our football team and for our fans and for the ACC that we didn’t play better, that we didn’t function better. But I mean, the same kids that I loved before this game, I love them after. They’ve given a lot.”

He’s right, they have, and it was enough for an unprecedented turnaround in the FBS -- from 0-2 to the Orange Bowl. But Virginia Tech fans don’t want to hear that. They want to celebrate after December. Four ACC titles since joining the conference is a remarkable accomplishment, and one Beamer and his staff should be commended for. Beamer has done wonders from the program, but with that success comes a responsibility. Virginia Tech has become the face of the ACC; its best hope for the best this sport has to offer. With three trips in the past four years to the biggest game the ACC has been associated with during that span, all they’ve got to show for it is a win over Cincinnati.

Because of how far they came and where they started, most within the program, including Beamer, will still consider this season a success. And it was a good season, but it could have been great.

Virginia Tech wide receiver Danny Coale is tired of hearing about how the program has come up short in the big games, and tired of answering questions about it, but he’s too polite not to.

“I think we take it as a great privilege to represent the ACC, but in a game like this, there’s a few big plays that are going to be the deciding factor, and tonight they had the big plays that went their way and we didn’t make enough of them to make it a game,” he said. “That’s not an ACC thing, it’s a Virginia Tech thing. We didn’t play well enough.”

Not even close.

It wasn’t just that Virginia Tech lost, it was how the Hokies lost: convincingly. This team built a reputation this season on its comebacks -- not just from half to half, but from an 0-2 start to an 11-game winning streak and an ACC title. There wasn’t even a hint of a comeback, though, in the second half against Stanford. The Hokies were outscored 27-0, were manhandled up front, couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t protect their quarterback, and couldn’t stop Stanford.

Yes, Stanford and quarterback Andrew Luck are that good. But that’s part of the problem. Virginia Tech was the best team the ACC had to offer this year, and it wasn’t even close to being good enough to beat Stanford in the second half. In order for Virginia Tech, or anyone in the ACC for that matter, to start beating those top-five teams, it helps to be a top-five team -- or at least play like one when it matters most.

For all of the improvements quarterback Tyrod Taylor has made, and for all of the good he’s done for his team on and off the field, in the two losses to top-five teams this year, Virginia Tech faced quarterbacks who were even better in Luck and Kellen Moore. Stanford’s offensive line was better. The defense was smothering. Aside from a few special teams gaffes, Stanford beat the Hokies in every aspect of the game, including heart.

Running back Ryan Williams said in the second half, his team gave up.

“That’s not like Virginia Tech, at all,” he said. “I think we just lost it in our hearts to go out there and play. They wanted it more than we did.”

So did Virginia Tech fans. So did the rest of the ACC.
MIAMI -- You expected lots of Andrew Luck. You expected a bruising Stanford running game.

But Jeremy Stewart? Coby Fleener?

[+] EnlargeJeremy Stewart
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesJeremy Stewart had the best game of his collegiate career -- rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown.
Meet two of the unsung heroes of the Stanford offense in its 40-12 win over Virginia Tech on Monday night in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Stepfan Taylor has been the workhorse back for the Cardinal this season, but the momentum changing plays belonged to Stewart -- who has battled through ankle injuries the past several years while watching Toby Gerhart and Taylor shine in front of him.

Stewart busted through a gaping hole on the left side of the offensive line and scored on a career-long 60 yard run to give the Cardinal an early 7-0 lead. That run was much needed, as the Stanford offense looked off kilter early on.

Luck was out of rhythm, and the Virginia Tech defense was doing a good job of taking away his deep passes. Taylor also was stuffed on his first few carries, so Stanford turned to a player who had 13 carries and 38 yards going into the game. That ranked ninth on the team in rushing.

“They told me before the game I was going to get that play,” Stewart said. “So I was expecting at least one carry today.”

And was he expecting to score on that carry?

“I definitely wanted to,” he said with a smile. “I expected it a little but when you go out there and do it, it’s still nice.”

Stewart had another big run in the second quarter, going 26 yards on a drive that led to another touchdown and a 13-12 lead going into halftime. Stanford never trailed again.

He reached his career high for rushing in the first half, with 90 yards.

“It was absolutely fitting for him to make some of those huge plays,” said fullback Owen Marecic. “He has that talent. He’s just had bad luck with those bang ups here and there. I’m so happy the country got to see what he could do.”

Stewart played in four games the previous season but ended up injuring his ankle and sitting out the remainder of the year. Then in the season opener this year, his other ankle got rolled on during a kickoff return. Stewart only played in seven games and just started feeling healthy during bowl season.

He received a medical redshirt, so he will get to return for one more season. But the ups and downs have been tough for him, as they would be for any player.

He had more ups than anything on Monday night, though. His first half ended up carrying Stanford. Stewart finished with 99 yards on five carries. Not a bad night when you can average 19.8 yards per carry.

“He really got us juiced up,” Marecic said. “He just made huge plays for us and is probably the reason we’re on top here.”

[+] EnlargeCoby Fleener
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesCoby Fleener had six catches for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
It’s safe to say he jump-started the Cardinal offense. But another surprise player took care of the rest in the second half.

Much of the focus was on taking leading receiver Doug Baldwin away from Luck. Virginia Tech did that, as Baldwin had just two catches for 33 yards.

That left Fleener wide open for much of the night. The result? A career night for the tight end as well.

Fleener had career highs with six receptions for 173 yards and three touchdowns, torching the Virginia Tech secondary for touchdown catches of 41, 58 and 38 yards. The yardage total was also an Orange bowl record, breaking the mark of 170 set by Florida’s Taylor Jacobs in 2002.

He even had a nifty high hurdle of a defender during one of his other receptions.

“We practiced all week and you see certain plays that have the potential to be explosive plays,” Fleener said. “It just so happened Andrew hit me with a few long balls and it added up in the end. But Andrew makes my job very easy. I get open and he can put the ball anywhere.”

As for the hurdle: “Coach asked me, ‘The next time somebody’s going to tackle you, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Hurdle.’ When it came to it, I hurdled him. It worked.”

Plenty worked for the Stanford offense in the second half. Luck only threw one incomplete pass, and the Cardinal shut out the Hokies 27-0. Taylor ended up finding his groove, too, finishing with 114 yards and a big 56-yard run of his own.

Stanford closes the season having scored 30 or more points in every game this season but one. The 40 points were also the most scored in an Orange Bowl game since USC scored 55 in a win over Oklahoma in 2005. It also was a school bowl record, and Stanford’s first bowl win since 1996.

The big night may not have been possible without the big plays Stewart had to start.

“I joked with a lot of the guys coming up to this game that I knew I was going to get some carries, and I was going to make the best out of it,” Stewart said. “I just let my play speak for itself.”

Hokies' running game stifled

January, 4, 2011
MIAMI -- They hadn’t even left the locker room yet following their 40-12 loss to Stanford, and Virginia Tech running backs Ryan Williams and Darren Evans were already facing questions about their possible futures in the NFL.

Both had turned in their paperwork to the NFL advisory board to find out where they might be chosen in this year’s draft, and both had already heard back. Williams said he was projected to be a first or second- round pick, and Evans said he was a fourth-round prospect, possibly higher. They plan to hold a joint news conference in the next few days announcing their decisions.

And yet despite the NFL talent in that loaded backfield, Virginia Tech’s three-headed running back rotation, that also includes David Wilson, went nowhere fast against the Cardinal defense. Evans compared it to an arm wrestling match -- one in which the Hokies got outmuscled and pinned down for a meager 66 rushing yards.


“I thought coming into the game that we would be the more physical team, because that’s just the way that we play,” Evans said. “But they showed us up. The whole game, from start to finish, they were in our tails. It’s a tough one to swallow. It’s kind of like an arm wrestling match. You face up with somebody, and either you’re going to bring their arm down, or they’re going to bring yours down. They definitely brought it to us.”

It was a humbling experience for the nation’s No. 18 rushing offense, which entered the game averaging 208.92 yards per game. While there was 70 yards of lost yardage thanks to eight Stanford sacks, the Hokies finished with an average of 1.9 yards per carry. Evans led the team with 37 yards. Williams had four.

Virginia Tech was beaten soundly up front, and the offensive line had no answer, as Stanford moved its defensive front almost every play. Both Evans and Williams said Stanford was more physical.

Williams said Stanford prepared better, played better, but the worst part?

Williams said the difference in the second half was the Hokies gave up.

“That’s not like Virginia Tech, at all,” he said. “I think we just lost it in our hearts to go out there and play. They wanted it more than we did. So that’s what happened.”

Video: Stanford's Owen Marecic

January, 4, 2011

Andrea Adelson talks with Stanford FB/LB Owen Marecic following the Cardinal's victory over Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Video: Stanford RB Jeremy Stewart

January, 4, 2011

Andrea Adelson talks with Stanford RB Jeremy Stewart after the Cardinal's win in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Heather Dinich and Andrea Adelson wrap up the Discover Orange Bowl.

Heather Dinich talks with Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams after the Hokies loss in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Quick Stanford thoughts

January, 4, 2011
If Stanford was distracted by all the "What's next for Jim Harbaugh/Andrew Luck?" talk, well, then that just makes a 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl even more impressive.

If you are a betting person, don't lay money on Harbaugh staying. But Stanford fans should relish this one. The Cardinal will finish ranked in the final top four after going 1-11 in 2006.

Stanford dominated on both sides of the ball, outgaining the Hokies 534 yards to 291. Luck had four touchdown passes. The Cardinal rushed for 247 yards. The Hokies rushing attack, one of the best in the nation, rushed for only 67 yards.

Stanford won the second half 27-0. A nation that may have doubted Stanford now goes: "Oh. Golly. They are really, really good." And Stanford lost to Oregon 52-31.

Say Auburn fans: Hmm.

Stanford finishes 12-1. Without question, it's one of the special seasons on The Farm.

But it's hard to not look ahead to what is next for Harbaugh and Luck.

Stay tuned.
MIAMI -- Here's a quick recap of Stanford's 40-12 win in the Discover Orange Bowl:

How the game was won: Stanford controlled the line of scrimmage, and quarterback Andrew Luck took control of the game in the second half. Virginia Tech's defense had no answer for the Cardinal offensive line, got beat up front, and the Hokies couldn't run the ball. Virginia Tech scored just one touchdown in this game and was shut out in the second half. Luck's 58-yard touchdown pass to Coby Fleener in the fourth quarter all but closed the door on the Hokies.

Turning point: In the third quarter, Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor's interception landed Stanford on the Hokies' 3-yard line, but it took only two plays to move the ball the length of the field. Stepfan Taylor rushed 56 yards on the ensuing play, followed by Luck's 41-yard touchdown pass to Fleener for the 26-12 lead. That was the first time there was any true separation in the game, and the turnover and following scoring drive gave Stanford all of the momentum.

Stat of the game: Virginia Tech's defense allowed three plays for more than 50 yards, including Jeremy Stewart's 60-yard touchdown run, Fleener's 58-yard touchdown reception and a 56-yard run by Taylor.

Player of the game: Stanford quarterback Luck. He completed 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.

Unsung hero of the game: Fleener. He finished with six catches for 173 yards, three touchdowns and 28.8 yards per catch.

What it means: The ACC dropped to 2-11 in its BCS bowls, and Virginia Tech dropped to 1-27 against teams ranked in the top five of The Associated Press. It was another missed opportunity for Frank Beamer and the ACC.

MIAMI -- Stanford beat Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Discover Orange Bowl on Monday night. Here is a quick instant analysis:

How the game was won: Andrew Luck came to play in the second half. After being held to 86 yards passing in the first half, Luck had about as good a third quarter as you can get to put Stanford in control of the game. The Heisman finalist went 6-for-7 for 103 yards and a touchdown pass, helping the Cardinal turn a 13-12 lead into a 26-12 lead -- one it would not relinquish.

Turning point: See above, third quarter. The two-touchdown swing was simply too much for the Hokies to overcome. It didn't get much better in the fourth quarter, either. Stanford got one big play after another and Virginia Tech was helpless to stop the Cardinal. Luck ended up going 9-of-10 for 201 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.

Stat of the game: 40. Stanford hit its scoring average. In fact, the Cardinal have scored 30 or more points in all but one game this season. They added to the school-record 484 points they scored during the regular season.

Player of the game: Luck. Is there any question about this? Luck threw four touchdown passes and had the type of completions some NFL quarterbacks can't even make. There is a reason he is considering leaving school early for the NFL draft, and everyone saw that on full display Monday night. Luck finished the game 18-of-23 with 287 yards. He had zip on his passes in the second half, and put many of them where only his receivers could catch them. Truly outstanding.

Unsung hero of the game: Coby Fleener. He came into the game with 22 catches for 261 yards but ended up having the best game of his career. Fleener had three touchdown catches and 173 yards as Virginia Tech left him wide open for most of the night. The Hokies did a good job covering leading receiver Doug Baldwin, but they completely forgot about Fleener.

What it means: Stanford definitively had the best season in school history, an incredible turnaround when you consider where this program was when Jim Harbaugh took over. The Cardinal won a school-record 12 games and will finish ranked in the Top 5 for the first time since 1940. Now the only question that remains is whether Harbaugh and Luck return to the Farm.

GameDay Live: Orange Bowl

January, 3, 2011
Join our college football experts as they break down the Discover Orange Bowl between the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal and No. 13 Virginia Tech Hokies.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET. See you there.

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- One of Stanford's biggest strengths this season has been its unheralded offensive line. It's paved the way for one of the nation's top rushing games and protected a star quarterback.

Virginia Tech's defensive line will have to win the matchups up front if the Hokies are going to have a chance to beat No. 4 Stanford in Monday night's Discover Orange Bowl. Stanford has allowed just five sacks all season and is currently tied with Air Force in fewest sacks allowed per game at .42. The Hokies' defensive line has matured this season and is tied at No. 20 in the country in sacks with 2.54 per game and 33 overall.

“We definitely have to win it [the game] up front," said defensive end Steven Friday. "We have to take it upon ourselves to win it up front every play and get pressure on Andrew Luck.”

Luck has thrown 28 touchdown passes this season, breaking the single-season school record previously held by John Elway and Steve Stenstrom. He has also thrown for a school-record 3,489 yards in total offense. He can run the ball, too, and his 438 rushing yards is the highest single-season total by a Stanford quarterback.

"Obviously he is a [very good] quarterback," defensive end Chris Drager said. "He will make some throws that you cannot really defend, but we are going to do our best to pressure him; that is what we do as a defensive line.”

Stanford motivated by history

January, 3, 2011
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sometimes you find college football coaches who want to leave the history of their football programs in the past. Others embrace it.

Count Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh as one who has talked to his players about the significance of playing in the Discover Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech Monday night, and just where a win would rank this season in the history books.

"We keep telling them things like that, because that's important for them to know as they make decisions, even in the course of this week," Harbaugh said Sunday during his final pregame news conference.

"Keeping that in mind, what's the most important thing, what's important now, and that's getting ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally ready to play this football game and to be a chance to be a part of college football history.

"They know that. They know the chairs that they're sitting in when they play in a game like the Orange Bowl, to be an Orange Bowl champion, that that puts you in a position to make college football history. So our players are aware of that. They understand that, yeah, it was great going from 1-11 to 11-1 like they did this year, but 12-1 sounds a lot better. Some of our players have even brought that up.

"But I'll hammer that home again to them."

One part of history Harbaugh says he wasn't aware of until a reporter mentioned it during the news conference: the chance to be Stanford's first top-5 team since 1940.

No doubt Harbaugh will make mention of that to his players, too.

Orange Bowl prediction

January, 3, 2011
You may have noticed that I am not in South Florida for the Discover Orange Bowl, which has been capably covered by Heather Dinich and Andrea Adelson.

But that doesn't mean I'm not going to pick the game!

Andrea provided some insights here and here and predicted Stanford to win 37-24.

That sounds pretty reasonable. I'm going with Stanford, too, 35-28.

I see a game that figures to be in doubt until well into the fourth quarter. And I think that, in the end, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is the difference. Virginia Tech has faced a few good quarterbacks -- Boise State's Kellen Moore and NC State's Russell Wilson top the list -- but no one like Luck. And no one with an elite running game to support him.

I expect Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies' outstanding rushing attack to give the Cardinal some trouble. Further, we really don't know if all the "We don't know where Harbaugh is going but he is going" talk has been a distraction. There's a lot of down time at bowl games. Players chat. You know that has been a hot topic, particularly with the young guys coming back in 2011.

Count on that being the excuse/explanation if Stanford lays an egg.

Still, this has been a mentally tough, focused team. And it's a talented one. By season's end, the Cardinal were playing as well as any team in the nation.

So Stanford should get it done. Then we all can worry about where Harbaugh will land (and if Luck is headed to the NFL draft).