PALO ALTO, Calif. - It was perhaps the most appalling display involving the Stanford football team since the band prematurely charged the field on that fall Saturday in 1982.
On Sept. 17, the Cardinal suffered what is easily the most embarrassing loss by a college football team this season: a 20-17 defeat at home against UC-Davis — a school that is in the process of moving up to Division I-AA.
“I’m feeling ill,” nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo said afterward.
Just two games into his maiden voyage as Cardinal coach, Walt Harris’ rebuilding project appeared headed on a bullet train to Nowheresville. But a reversal of fortune the last two weeks has seen a once-lost season turn into one with promise.
Two straight Pac-10 wins on the road has Stanford at 3-2 and contending for its first bowl appearance since 2001. More important, it is playing with confidence and keeping mistakes to a minimum.
“Painstaking attention to details is what it is,” said Harris, whose squad hosts Arizona State today. “There’s a right way to play the game. I would really have trouble if we were undisciplined. That makes it even harder, and it’s already hard to win football games.”
In wins against Washington State and Arizona, the Cardinal played with the smarts that is a trademark of Stanford. Though Harris’ team mustered just 195 yards of offense at Arizona, it had just 36 yards in penalties and forced five turnovers, giving none.
For the season, the Cardinal are plus-6 in turnover margin, ranking 11th in the nation.
“Football is a simple game,” linebacker Jon Alston said. “If you don’t hurt yourself, you give yourself a chance to win. If you do the right things, you force other teams to do the wrong things. It’s the little things.
“Until we are at a level where we can afford to hurt ourselves, those little things are going to help us tremendously.”
Not giving aid to the opponent has been a theme in Stanford’s practices this week, as the Cardinal feel they gave away last year’s game at ASU. The Sun Devils won 34-31 when their offense drove 80 yards in two minutes, culminating on Matt Miller’s touchdown catch with nine seconds left.
“That game has stuck in my mind because we let them have it at the end,” safety Brandon Harrison said. “We’re using it as a point of emphasis, since we were with them last year and let them escape.”
As heartbreaking as last year’s loss against ASU was, losing to UC-Davis was much, much worse. Fortunately for the Cardinal, a win today will go a long way toward atoning for both setbacks.
“The players deserve the credit,” Harris said. “They are the ones that win games, not the coach.”