MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The greatest season in Stanford football history is complete.
The Cardinal capped its historic run with a 40-12 dismantling of No. 13 Virginia Tech (11-3, 8-0 ACC) in last night’s Discover Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Fla. No. 4 Stanford (12-1, 8-1 Pac-10) will finish the season with the most wins in program history, a far cry from its 1-11 record in 2006.
“Very few times in life does anybody get a chance to be a champion at something and be an Orange Bowl champion,” Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That’s going to down in the history of college football. We started the season wanting to be champions.”
Stanford won the game in the second half, when it outplayed the Hokies on both sides of the ball. Entering the locker room at halftime, the score stood at 13-12 in favor of Stanford, and the game looked destined for a close finish. However, the Cardinal began to pull away with its first drive of the second half, when it scored on a one-yard touchdown run from senior fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic, and never looked back.
“The second half had a point explosion,” Harbaugh said. “There were no mistakes from there on out, from halftime until the end of the game. Everybody was just on point and executed extremely well.”
“We just went back to the fundamentals,” said redshirt junior tight end Coby Fleener. “We kept plugging away and we started to make some plays.”
The offensive highlight of Stanford’s second half was a drive with around six minutes left in the third quarter. After junior safety Delano Howell intercepted a pass from Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor on the Stanford three-yard line, Stanford’s offense went 97 yards down the field for a touchdown in exactly two plays and 29 seconds. Sophomore running back Stepfan Taylor, the team’s leading rusher, broke a 56-yard run from the three-yard line on the drive’s first play, and redshirt sophomore quarterback Luck threw a deep 41-yard bomb to a wide-open Fleener in the center of the field for a touchdown. The score put Stanford up, 26-12, and put all the momentum squarely on the Cardinal sideline.
“I thought it was huge,” Luck said, speaking about the drive. “Any time backed up in your own end zone as an offense, you’ve got a little bit of the hairs on the back of your neck standing up because you know how precarious that position can be. And to go from one end zone to the other end zone in two plays, it’s huge.”
Luck, who won the Orange Bowl MVP award, finished with 287 yards and four touchdowns on 18-of-23 passing. Fleener was by far his favorite target for the game; Luck found him for six receptions, 173 yards and three touchdown catches. The tight ends as a unit were huge for Stanford as they comprised three of Luck’s top five targets.
Stanford’s running game was also instrumental in winning the Orange Bowl. The Cardinal amassed 247 yards on the ground, including 118 yards from Stepfan Taylor and another 99 yards from senior Jeremy Stewart, who had been sidelined for much of the season by an injury sustained in Stanford’s opener. The Cardinal offensive line opened up big holes for its running backs, leading to several long runs.
“I think the O-line plays with a lot of pride,” Luck said. “They sort of kept at it, chipped away, kept grinding and holes really started opening up.”
As the offense rolled up points in the second half, the defense did an impressive job of containing Tyrod Taylor, the ACC offensive player of the year. Throughout the game, but especially in the second half, the defense dominated the line of scrimmage — it seemed like Tyrod Taylor had Cardinal blitzers in his face on almost every play. Stanford successfully limited his running ability, forcing him to scramble in the backfield and make tough throws. For the game, Stanford sacked Tyrod Taylor eight times, including three from sophomore linebacker Shayne Skov.
“We knew Tyrod would try to extend plays with his legs so if guys were missing [tackles] we knew guys would have to be there to cover him,” Skov said. “We just had to swarm to the ball and play well on defense.”
“We were trying to cage him in, we really were,” Harbaugh said. “Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. He is such an elusive player.”
Overall, Stanford limited the Hokies to 288 offensive yards, including just 66 rushing yards. It also forced Virginia Tech into eight punts, compared to three from the Cardinal.
For Virginia Tech, the loss marked a disappointing end to the season. The Hokies went undefeated in the ACC after losing its first two games of the season.
“It was frustrating,” Tyrod Taylor said. “But you’ve got to bounce back and look forward. [Stanford] just outplayed us in all parts of the game today.”
After the game, the conversation turned to the future of Harbaugh and Luck at Stanford. Harbaugh could bolt the Farm in the coming weeks for a more high profile coaching job, either with an NFL team or at the University of Michigan, and some analysts believe that his departure is imminent. Stanford has indicated it offered Harbaugh a raise from his current salary.
Meanwhile, Luck is eligible to declare for the NFL Draft as a redshirt sophomore, and is currently projected as the No. 1 overall pick by several scouting services, including ESPN.
Both declined to comment after the game on whether or not they plan to remain at Stanford for next season.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d rather not address that subject anymore,” Luck said when asked a similar question later.
For now, Harbaugh, Luck and the rest of the Stanford football team will just savor this victory, and reflect on what it means for the program.
“We’re going to enjoy this moment and these players that have really created a bond, a brotherhood,” Harbaugh said. “They really love to play, they love to win, they love playing for each other. I think even more so than they love playing the game, they like playing for each other and winning for each other.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported the score, which was 40-12, in the first paragraph.