Loss to UC Davis has rejuvenated Cardinal

Stanford was the punch line for jokes after an embarrassing loss to UC Davis. Now, it's the Cardinal's turn to laugh at the critics.

Updated: October 29, 2005, 2:55 PM ET
By Ted Miller | Special to ESPN.com

On the afternoon of Sept. 17, Stanford became a national punch line.

When the Cardinal lost 20-17 at home to UC Davis, a school in the process of moving up from Division II to Division I-AA, it became the leading object of derision for every barstool debate about the most humiliating defeat in college football history.

It is what it is; Davis happened. It's something that's fresh every day. We'd be stupid to let that go.
Stanford linebacker Jon Alston

Temple over Virginia Tech in 1998? Oregon State over Washington in 1985? No way. Those 35- and 38-point underdogs were Division I-A teams.

UC Davis, which had previously lost to New Hampshire and Portland State, has just 37 players on scholarship, 48 fewer than a Division I-A team. Heck, before besting the Cardinal, the Aggies hadn't even played a Division I-A team in eight years or a Pac-10 team in 65 years.

Even worse: Statistics didn't suggest it was a fluke. Stanford failed to score an offensive touchdown and was held to 180 total yards.

With a bye the following Saturday, it became a two-week trauma. In its next game, again in front of an already sagging fan base, Stanford was outgained 595 yards to 220 in a blowout loss to Oregon. Suffice to say, it wasn't the best way to get the Walt Harris era started.

Or was it?

"The bottom is a great thing to push off on," Harris said.

Come on! The Davis defeat has to be the bane of every living Stanford coach, fan and player.

"I kind of like talking about it, actually," Cardinal quarterback Trent Edwards said, arching eyebrows from Palo Alto to the El Palo Grocery in New York City.

Of course, Edwards knows there's another punch line, one that's nearly as shocking.

Joke goes like this: A scarred and pilloried Stanford team limps to Washington State amid mocking chants of "UC Davis!" And, er, wins, 24-21, with Edwards passing for 257 yards and three touchdowns and adding 92 yards rushing for good measure.

Perhaps the Cougars, who have been throwing up all over themselves this year, just "Couged it," as their fans are wont to say when another game slips away. Then Stanford won again, besting Arizona 20-16.

"To discredit Stanford is unfair," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "Trust me, they're not inept by any stretch of the imagination." Stoops assertion was further validated when the Cardinal last weekend rolled to a 45-7 lead on Arizona State -- a team that had gone nose-to-nose with LSU and USC.

Stanford's eventual 45-35 victory made it 4-2 overall, and a 3-1 Pac-10 mark rated the Cardinal fourth in the conference, with unbeaten and eighth-ranked UCLA headed to The Farm on Saturday.

So, Walt, mind if we, for the 12,341st time, again ask about the Davis game, the one you termed, "the debacle"?

"I get less tired talking about it the more we win," Harris said. "There are some things people who follow sports can learn from it. From the outside looking in, the progress we've made is probably very interesting."

Some coaches would make the topic off-limits, particularly to the media. Some would have gone new age and tried to reinforce their program's self-esteem with positive reinforcement. Many first-year coaches taking over a program with players pining for their beloved, befuddled old coach would have reconsidered how they were relating to their athletes.

Harris admits there was some self-analysis.

"I spent some time talking to myself about how I should present myself," he said.

Harris isn't known as a cuddly, "players' coach," nor is he terribly chummy with reporters. He didn't try to change.

So instead of taking the Monday after the Davis game off, as planned, Harris made his players run. And run. He met with the upperclassmen and told them their legacy was at stake, that their leadership would determine whether the season swirled into the toilet.

He told them they were humiliating everyone who once wore the Cardinal jersey with pride.

In other words, he called them out.

"I think that's what needed to be done," Edwards said. "Coach Harris forces you to adapt to his ways. I don't think there is any choice but to buy in."

Fact is, Stanford should be competitive. There are 17 starters back from a 4-7 team that lost five games by a combined 22 points in 2004.

A Harris-coached team previously had been left for dead, only to confound naysayers. In 2001, Pittsburgh started 1-5 but won six straight to conclude the season, include a 34-19 victory over North Carolina State in the Tangerine Bowl.

The solution isn't terribly revolutionary. The attitude, intensity and concentration in practices picked up. Players joined Harris in demanding accountability.

They also focused on the program's traditional strength: They played smart.

The Cardinal hasn't committed a turnover during the winning streak and is eighth in the nation in turnover margin (plus-1.17 per game). They lead the conference in fewest penalty yards per game (40).

"Stanford is doing an awesome job of not beating itself," Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter said.

The healing process will only be complete, the players say, if they produce a winning record and earn a bowl berth for the first time since 2001.

Forget UC Davis? No way. Outside linebacker Jon Alston, in typical Stanford fashion, admits the topic has been discussed "ad nauseam," but for him that embarrassment is a deterrent for ever taking an opponent for granted.

"It is what it is; Davis happened," Alston said. "It's something that's fresh every day. We'd be stupid to let that go."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Ted Miller | email

College Football