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Stanford needs a lot to happen to escape middle of the Pac

Believe it or not, the Stanford football team actually believes it could become bowl eligible this season.

Despite predictions from the self-described experts tabbing Stanford to be the Pac-10 Conference’s punching bag, the Cardinal just isn’t listening.

The team started out right by beating Oregon State 36-28 last week.

Maybe the guys from Palo Alto, Calif. aren’t just over-confident.

The program has improved in the short time since coach Jim Harbaugh took over after the 2006 season, the year Stanford won a single game.

If you include the final game of last season, they’re on their first two-game win streak since October 2005. Oddly enough, their last three-game win streak occurred against ASU.

That doesn’t necessarily mean coach Dennis Erickson and the Sun Devils should expect a similar result this time around.

It does mean, however, that they should be ready. If Stanford hopes to maintain its chances at postseason, it’s going to need to win games against the conference’s top teams.

Stanford is right on the bubble of bowl contention.

While the Cardinal will hover at 6-6, it does have some experience, returning the most starters in the conference this year.

It’s not unreasonable to think Stanford will reach a bowl game.

Coupled with last year’s victories over USC and Cal, the defeat of OSU gives senior quarterback Tavita Pritchard three big victories under his belt.

If the offense can’t find a balance between their running backs (junior Toby Gerhart and senior Anthony Kimble), it will find itself in serious trouble.

The receiving corps for Pritchard isn’t very good, catching a meager 10 balls in last week’s victory.

One thing Stanford does have going is its pre-conference schedule. That’s because it’s exactly the same as it was last season: Notre Dame, Texas Christian University and San Jose State.

Stanford beat SJSU, 37-0, last season and Stanford hasn’t gotten any worse since then. Furthermore, while Stanford did lose to both Notre Dame and TCU last season, it did so by a combined nine points.

While Notre Dame also isn’t the same team that won only three games last year, Stanford should take care of all three of these opponents.

This would give Stanford four wins. Its Sept. 27 game at Washington, however, is a crucial one as well. A mediocre secondary for Stanford must limit an inexperienced receiving corps for UW. Stanford allowed 404 yards through the air against OSU last week.

It’s the defense that will ultimately cast the fate of the Cardinal. Led by a group of linebackers that returns all starters, the defense returns nine of 11. Stanford’s gravest concern will be its defensive backs ability to stop the pass.

To make its job a little easier, Stanford must find a way to generate more sacks and force opposing quarterbacks into more pressured situations. Pressuring the quarterback is Stanford’s strength.

There’s no reason to think they won’t make the cut, either. While UCLA looks a lot better (for now), teams like Washington State and Oregon all spell opportunity for the Cardinal to shock the conference.

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