- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Following Stanford's overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl last year, there were plenty of long faces in the Cardinal locker room. Obviously.
Both were choked up, in their own way. Gardner was so angrily-amped that he seemed to still be scanning for someone to hit. Cautiously, gingerly, I approached.
“We’re going to be back," Gardner declared, talking into my digital recorder, but also to the locker room. "We’re going to be just fine. We’re going to be back next year with a vengeance and we’re going to be a strong program for years to come.”
Stephens was more stoic and philosophical.
“If you dwell on the loss, you never get better," he said. "If you keep dwelling on what went wrong, you’ll never be able to focus on what to do right.”
They were two very different reactions -- but both drew the same conclusion. Here we are months later and the Stanford front seven -- headlined by Gardner and Stephens, among others -- are validating the duo's worth as soothsayers.
The Cardinal (3-0) are back in the top 10, ranked No. 8 following wins over San Jose State, Duke and No. 2 USC. They'll try to make it 4-0 when they travel to Seattle to face Washington (2-1) Thursday night at CenturyLink Field.
This time last year, the 3-0 Cardinal were ranked No. 5 -- so they aren't too far off from last year's pace, even though they started the season at No. 21. So how does it feel to be back in the top 10?
"I don't know if we ever left," Gardner said. "The expectation never left the locker room. Just because we weren't in the top 10 in the AP poll, didn't mean we didn't believe in ourselves or believe in our ability to be a national contender. We have guys that have been through the storm and handled the pressure and are ready to get out and do it again with better results this time around."
As expected, the Cardinal are getting it done with defense. Stanford boasts the nation's No. 1 rush defense, allowing just 41.4 yards per game on the ground, while ranking third nationally in tackles for a loss.
A lot of that has to do with six of the starting seven returning from last year -- plus the return of linebacker Shayne Skov from injury and the ascension of sophomore linebacker James Vaughters. Gardner leads the team with five tackles for a loss and he's tied for the team lead with two sacks. But safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards have also come on strong, giving the Cardinal a defense that isn't just about the front seven. Reynolds already has three interceptions. Richards has two and he leads the nation in passes defended.
The individuals names are nice, but Stephens says it's their team-first mentality that is guiding their success.
"I'm a nose tackle. That's a thankless job," Stephens said. "You won't make many plays. Won't get a lot of recognition, but you're doing your job. And my job is to demand two, maybe three people at a time and let my linebackers and ends and secondary roar. That's my job. I have to be that concrete rock in the middle of the defense to let everyone else do their job. That's the mindset we all have. We celebrate as a team when Chase Thomas gets a sack and Trent Murphy gets a sack and when Ed Reynolds gets a pick, we are all part of it. We all made it happen in some way.
"It's that sense of playing as a unit of 11. Eleven beats four, five, six any day. That's the way we play."
And Skov's return has been much welcomed.
"He brings that game day energy and fire and heart," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "It doesn't make tackles. It doesn't do anything other than energize guys. There are certain people that you are around, I'm sure in all walks of life, when they step into a room, everybody else feels their presence. That's what Shayne does for our defense."
Stanford has owned the Washington series of late, winning four straight and six of the last seven. After blanking the Huskies 41-0 two years ago, Stanford scored on its first eight possessions last year en route to a 65-21 win.
But like all things last year -- Fiesta Bowl included -- it's ancient history. The only thing that has stayed the same are the goals and expectations.
"Right after that last game, most teams take two or three weeks off," Gardner said. "But two or three days later we were ready to get back to work because of that taste in our mouth. We felt like we didn't finish the season the way we should have finished ...
"I think we've put it behind us. We all believed in each other and we were ready to get back to work. And we have."