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Stanford turning the corner with Harbaugh at reins

Bill Walsh, the former football head coach for the San Francisco 49ers and Stanford University, died early Monday, July 30, 2007, following a long battle with leukemia. In this 2007 file photo, Walsh and Stanford football head coach Jim Harbaugh watch the first day of spring football practice. (Photo Courtesy of MCT)

The Stanford football team is not the same as it was a year ago.

Though the Cardinal had significant Pac-10 Conference wins against USC and California, last season ended with a disappointing 4-8 record.

But things are starting to turn around under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh.

This team was dismantled by ASU last year, but opened this season with a huge 36-28 win over Oregon State in one the craziest games of the opening week.

“We know we’re much better this year,” Harbaugh said. “Our opening win was significant ... It rewarded our kids for all their hard work.”

Harbaugh said OSU is an “elite” Pac-10 team and that Stanford was lucky to play them early in the season.

“It’s only one win, but it validates everything we’ve been doing,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys are very passionate and play with a lot of emotion.

“We’d have no chance on the World Poker Tour; we’re as transparent as a baggy.”

Harbaugh said defense and a successful running game are the keys for this new-look Cardinal team.

“The Pac-10 is a strong, tough conference,” Harbaugh said. “We’re a blue-collar team that needs to get tougher than we have been in the past.”

A key ingredient in Stanford’s new recipe is junior running back Toby Gerhart. He sat out most of last season after suffering a season-ending knee injury against San Jose State on Sept. 15, 2007.

Gerhart rushed for 140 yards on 12 carries in that game, the best rushing performance for the Cardinal all season, before leaving due to the injury.

“I’ve seen him in two games and was very impressed,” Harbaugh said. “Toby had a terrific game last week [too].

“He’s tough to bring down, has surprising speed, is light on his feet and has good instincts. He is everything you want in a [running] back.”

All of Gerhart’s skills were on display last week as the back carried the ball 19 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensively, Stanford resembled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in its season opener, but is looking for much more stability this week.

If all of Stanford‘s games are like its first, the Cardinal’s opponent will be lighting up the scoreboard.

Stanford’s defense gave up more than 400 yards of offense and seemed incapable of stopping OSU’s passing game.

That same defense, however, also caused a late safety, picked off two passes — one that was returned for a touchdown — and forced a fumble that resulted in a touchback.

Creating turnovers is always a plus, but Harbaugh said that that will be a challenge versus ASU.

“Finding a weakness on their offense is tough to do,” Harbaugh said. “They have the most prolific active quarterback in the Pac-10.

“They have good running backs and wide receivers. The line has been dinged up, but they have a high-scoring, point-generating offense that we have to keep up with.”

The responsibility of stopping ASU’s offense will rest on the shoulders of Stanford’s linebackers.

“I really like our linebackers,” Harbaugh said. “I think it’s the best position on our team. All three are going to have a great year.”

Leading the unit of linebackers is senior Clinton Snyder. The program’s active leader in tackles, sacks, forced fumbles, fumbles recovered and tackles for a loss, is one of the Pac-10’s best all-around defenders.

“All our guys are working hard and staying loose and focused,” Harbaugh said. “All the guys get along and their guys you want to be around and pull for. There are no prima donnas.”

If the Cardinal can recapture the magic they conjured up against OSU, Saturday’s contest could be an instant classic.

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