NCF Nation: Mark Bradford

Stanford seniors live transformation

December, 29, 2010
12/29/10
9:00
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Folks throw around terms such as "best" and "worst" and "most" and "least" in sports in all the time, even when their application is more symbolic than real. Extremes are easy to understand. Talking about them can be fun. Actually experiencing them is rare, though. Living through the best of times and worst of times? That was just Charles Dickens rolling out a good opening line.

Richard Sherman and the rest of Stanford's fifth-year seniors, however, know both the best of times and worst of times, at least in terms of college football.

In 2006, the Cardinal went 1-11. That was the most losses in school history and worst record since an 0-10 mark in 1960. It was the program's fifth consecutive losing season, and coach Walt Harris was fired after just two years.

[+] EnlargeWalt Harris
AP Photo/Paul SakumaThe Cardinal went 1-11 in 2006 under former coach Walt Harris.
Worst of times.

In 2010, the Cardinal went 11-1. That set a school season record for victories. Stanford, ranked fourth in the final BCS standings, hasn't finished ranked in the top five of the AP poll since 1940. It's headed for a date with Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl on Monday.

Best of times.

And, yes, the latter is more fun.

"It's unbelievable," Sherman said. "I can't even express to you the emotions I have and the other seniors have. Coming in the way we did, obviously, 1-11 and now leaving with a record-setting season, one of the best offenses in the country, one of the best defenses in the country. Just a great team. We love each other. I can't explain it to you. It's a combination of joy, happiness, pride, a lot of things. Man, watching these guys grow up. We've all come a long way."

Sherman was a freshman on the 2006 team. It was shut out twice. It lost to San Jose State. It ranked 118th in the nation in scoring (10.6 points per game) and 108th in scoring defense (31.4 ppg), meaning it lost by an average of three touchdowns.

Harris went 6-17, turning in the shortest tenure of any Stanford coach since Rod Dowhower left after one season in 1979 with a 5-5-1 record. It was clear his disciplinarian methods weren't clicking with the sort of players who can get into Stanford.

"It was maybe just a bad fit," receiver Mark Bradford said at the time. "Maybe we didn't respond to the way that was his style of coaching. His style of coaching probably would have worked in a lot of other places. It didn't work here."

Enter Jim Harbaugh, who introduced himself by stating, "I vow I will attack this endeavor with enthusiasm unknown to mankind."

He was the anti-Harris. "It was just a whole different way of coaching. ... Coach Harbaugh definitely brought a different energy and enthusiasm to the program. Basically, he brought a belief in winning that I don't think guys had before he got here," Sherman said.

That can't be undersold. While injuries were a huge issue for Stanford in 2006, there was plenty of talent on the roster: Trent Edwards was the quarterback for the first half of the season before he got hurt, and plenty of guys went on to the NFL. And many names are familiar because of their roles in the Cardinal's recent surge under Harbaugh, from running back Toby Gerhart to Sherman to almost the entire offensive line.

[+] EnlargeRichard Sherman
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesRichard Sherman is part of Stanford's senior class that has transformed the program.
There was talent in 2006. Sherman said the players worked hard and practiced hard. But the results were terrible. The offense only scored as many as two touchdowns in two games all season.

"It was rough coming from high school," said Sherman, who started out as a receiver. "You don't really know what to expect and then you come into that. It's rough to not get wins. You work hard every week, you game plan every week, and things just don't work out for you. It's obviously frustrating."

Just four years later, Stanford became one of the great turnaround stories in college football history. Louisville, which went 11-1 in 2001 after going 1-10 in 1997, was the last FBS team to win one game and then as many as 11 games four years later. Pittsburgh won the 1976 national championship with a 12-0 record four years after posting a 1-10 mark.

The 2010 Cardinal not only won, they dominated. They outscored foes by an average of more than 22 points. They ranked No. 8 in the nation in scoring (40.3 ppg) and No. 11 in scoring defense (17.83). They recorded three shutouts for the first time since 1969. They set a school record for points (484), and quarterback Andrew Luck set a school record with 28 touchdown passes. For the second consecutive year, the program produced a Heisman Trophy finalist -- Luck -- who followed Gerhart, the 2009 runner-up.

"This year was like the perfect storm," Sherman said.

But Sherman & Co. still retain a chip on their collective shoulders. They aren't ready to announce their arrival on the national scene just yet. They won four games in 2007, five in '08 and eight in 2009. It's been a process, and they sense there are still some stragglers who doubt them.

"People don't look at us as a talented team now and they didn't look at us as a talented team then [in 2006]," Sherman said. "Obviously, when you put on the Stanford 'S' it takes your talent and speed away. You're not fast or athletic anymore. It's been that way since I got here. We have great athletes, great players."

Sherman said the Cardinal aren't satisfied with merely earning the trip to Miami for a BCS bowl game. "There aren't going to be many guys trying to live the life in Miami. It's not about the trip. It's about the win," he said.

Winning, of course, is the only way to ensure that 2010 will be remembered as the very best of times on the Farm.

Pac-10 games of the decade

January, 20, 2010
1/20/10
12:03
PM ET
Lots of extraordinary games to choose from, as well as many ways to ascribe greatness: the size of the stage, the competitiveness of the game and the overall strangeness.

And we made the executive decision not to make this a list of USC upset losses -- other than the biggest one of those.

10. Oregon 56, Arizona State 55 (2 OT), 2000: Many of you are drawing a blank, but the ones who saw this one are jumping out of their chairs and going, "Oh man. That one was nuts." Both teams scored 21 points in the fourth quarter. The teams combined for 1,228 yards, 663 of those for the Sun Devils. Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington threw six -- SIX! -- touchdown passes, including three in the fourth quarter, the last of which tied the score with 27 seconds left after the Sun Devils gave away a critical fumble. Arizona State freshman QB Jeff Krohn threw five TD passes, by the way. ASU lost the game when coach Bruce Snyder decided to fake the extra point and go for the two-point conversion in the second overtime. It failed, leaving fans in Tempe stunned.

9. Washington State 30, USC 27 (OT), 2002: Any of you Cougars fans able to muster the memory of kicker Drew Dunning's slide on his knees at Martin Stadium? Dunning sent the game into overtime with a 35-yard field goal and then made the game-winner from the same distance in a victory that was critical to the Cougars' run to the Rose Bowl. The game featured a brilliant quarterback duel between Carson Palmer and Jason Gesser -- Gesser passed for 315 yards, Palmer for 381 -- and a dominant performance from Cougars defensive tackle Rien Long, who went on to win the Outland Trophy. Between this game and the 2006 Rose Bowl, USC lost just once.

8. Oregon 44, Arizona 41 (2 OT), 2009: If Arizona had won this game, we now know the Wildcats would have played in their first Rose Bowl. The Wildcats led 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, but then the game went crazy. With red-clad Arizona fans encircling the field, Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli tied the game in regulation with six seconds left with a touchdown pass to Ed Dickson. Masoli then won it in the second overtime with a 1-yard run. Masoli ran for three TDs and passed for three more.

7. Stanford 24, USC 23, 2007: Greatest upset in Pac-10 history? Maybe. Stanford was a 41-point underdog playing its backup quarterback at No. 2 USC, which had won 35 in a row at home. But Trojans quarterback John David Booty, who foolishly played -- and was allowed to play -- with an injured throwing hand, threw four interceptions, while Stanford's Tavita Pritchard led a clutch, game-winning drive, throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mark Bradford on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds remaining.

6. Oregon 37, Oregon State 33, 2009: It was the Civil War for the Roses, with the Ducks earning a berth in the Rose Bowl. While the return of Ducks running back LeGarrette Blount was significant -- he scored a critical touchdown -- the game belonged to redshirt freshman running back LaMichael James, who scored three touchdowns and rushed for 166 yards, and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who ran over Beavers safety Lance Mitchell to convert a fourth-and-3 play from the Beavers' 33 with 3:41 left, as Oregon ran out the final six minutes with its final drive.

5. California 31, Oregon 24, 2007: Sixth-ranked California, featuring a stellar performance from receiver DeSean Jackson, outlasted No. 11 Oregon in a game between two teams that would at one point rise to No. 2 during the season, though both ultimately crumbled. The game turned on a strange play as the Ducks were on the cusp of tying the score. With 22 seconds to go, Dennis Dixon found Cameron Colvin near the goal line, but Colvin fumbled trying to reach the ball into the end zone when he was hit by Marcus Ezeff. The loose ball went through the end zone and was ruled a touchback and possession for Cal.

4. Washington 33, Oregon State 30, 2000: It was the greatest game no one saw because of the late, West Coast kickoff at Husky Stadium. And at the time, its magnitude wasn't clear. The critical play of the back-and-forth affair happened when Washington defensive tackle Larry Tripplett caught Ken Simonton for a three-yard loss on second-and-1 from the Huskies 26-yard line with 42 seconds left. The Beavers panicked and mistakenly spiked the ball -- they had a timeout left -- and then Ryan Cesca missed a 46-yard field goal to tie. It was the Beavers' only loss of the season; they crushed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. They would have played Oklahoma for the national title if they had prevailed. And the win helped the Huskies win the Rose Bowl tiebreaker.

3. USC 23, California 17, 2004: No. 7 California had a first-and-goal on top-ranked USC's 9-yard line with under two minutes left. At that point, Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers had completed 29 of 31 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown. But the Bears couldn't punch it in, with USC registering a sack and forcing three incompletions. It was the closest call of the season for the best team of the USC dynasty.

2. USC 34, Notre Dame 31, 2005: The infamous "Bush Push" game. No. 9 Notre Dame was about to knock off top-ranked rival USC and make Irish coach Charlie Weis a national sensation, but Matt Leinart led a drive for the ages in the waning moments as the Trojans prevailed, scoring the winning points when Leinart got a little extra help from Bush on his second effort on a quarterback sneak.

1. Texas 41, USC 38, 2006 Rose Bowl: Perhaps the great game in college football history, particularly considering that the stakes were a national title for two unbeaten teams and the field was packed with talent and future high draft choices. Vince Young almost single-handedly willed his team to the victory -- he ran for 200 yards and passed for 267 more -- and denied the Trojans a third consecutive national title. USC walked away with a laundry list of "what ifs," but the ultimate result was a 34-game winning streak coming to an end.

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