Stanford’s Loss To Northwestern Was Best-Case Scenario for The Cardinal

The first College Football Playoff rankings came out this week, prompting a whole lot of “what if” questions from fans and media alike. In reality, the first rankings are meaningless as there will be a fresh set every Tuesday for the next four weeks. But that didn’t stop Cardinal fans from asking: “What if Stanford hadn’t lost that season opener to Northwestern?”

Stanford was the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings, landing in the No. 11 spot, followed closely by Utah, which clocked in at No. 12. Yes, there is no doubt that an unblemished record would have propelled Stanford higher on the list, but to head coach David Shaw and his players, the lessons learned from the loss were worth their weight in goals.

“That Northwestern loss did something to us, it bonded us together,” said sophomore sensation running back Christian McCaffrey. “A lot of teams fold after a loss like that first game and a lot of people were against us and we remember that. It continued to push us and it will continue to push us because you can’t forget where you come from.”

Stanford was, for a brief while, the only Pac-12 team that was ranked in the pre-season and is still ranked – they started at 21 then became unranked after the loss to Northwestern. Now the Cardinal are back at No. 9 in the AP poll while Utah is ranked No.13 and UCLA snuck back in at No. 22. Stanford is the only undefeated Pac-12 team – 6-0 in conference competition for the first time since 2011.

The upswing of Stanford’s season seems to stem from that very ugly game in Evanston, something Shaw & Co. won’t ever forget.

“I think every good team has something that they overcome,” commented Shaw. “The teams that don’t end up being a good team are the ones that something bad happens and they don’t learn from that mistake. We are still not perfect but I think that game has kind of been a rallying cry to a certain degree because we didn’t play our best football, because we didn’t find a way to win, we didn’t make enough plays in any side of the game.”

And learned from their mistakes the Cardinal has. They lead the Pac-12 in a number of statistical categories, including: fourth-down conversion percentage (.875), first-down defense (144), passing yards/completion (14.22), tackles for loss allowed (4.50), time of possession (34:56), total defense (352.1) and winning percentage (.875).  McCaffrey leads the nation with 244.25 all-purpose yards/game while ranking eighth with 1,060 rushing yards. And fifth-year senior CB Ronnie Harris leads the Pac-12 in passes defended (1.4), with classmate Kevin Hogan leading all league quarterbacks with 14.33 passing yards/completion and yards/attempt (9.34). Oh, and Senior ILB Blake Martinez leads the league with 11.4 tackles/game.

They may have faltered a bit against Washington State, and some of the old insecurities may have surfaced, but they weathered the storm.

“I think the first half of this past game was a lot like the first half of the Northwestern game – we just couldn’t get in the rhythm,” noted McCaffrey. “But every great team has a game like that and I think we went back to that Northwestern game and looked back to where we came from and said ‘this is not going to be us.’ We remembered what that felt like and knew we needed to come together rather than start to deplete so it was a good thing for us. We always look back to that game.”

It would appear that Shaw believes in looking back as a means of moving forward – losing to win, so to speak.

“I also am a firm believer in you are where you are because of where you come from,” said Shaw. “That’s a conscious thing you have to be wary of or intent on learning from mistakes, learning from bad experiences as well as you learn from good experiences.”

After this weekend’s road game at Colorado, Stanford returns to a tough home slate that includes back-to-back-to-back games against Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame. The final game against the Irish could be the cornerstone win the Cardinal needs to make a serious playoff push, but as one reporter noted, that win would mean nothing if Stanford doesn’t beat the Southern contender in the Pac-12 championship game.

When asked if the Northwestern loss was a good thing, the standout sophomore and recent Heisman contender answered judiciously, if not honestly.

“That’s a tough thing to say and a tough question because you never want to lose, but right now, I think the morale of our team is stronger because of that game and I think that it’s allowed us to do a lot of different things, allowed us to look ourselves in the mirror and realize really who we are and what we have to do to win games,” said McCaffrey.

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