Stanford getting nasty and quietly rising

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Stanford is the most elite academic institution playing FBS football. It's basically a West Coast Ivy League school. And in recent years the Cardinal played football like they belonged on the field with Yale and Harvard.

But that's changing. Both on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Stanford of the past brings to mind a team that boasts a future NFL QB and tries to finesse wins by out-thinking its opponents. Its smart players might not smack the opposition in the mouth, but they just might fool or outflank it every once and a while.

And Stanford was always disciplined. It didn't make mistakes or commit stupid penalties (see Pac-10 rankings of No. 1, No. 1 and No. 3 the previous three seasons in penalty yards against).

During the preseason, second-year coach Jim Harbaugh repeatedly spoke of developing a more physical team, one that wasn't trying to outsmart a foe but preferred to put a cleat mark on its figurative forehead.

While Stanford fans might prefer talking about an improved running game -- and we will, in a moment -- one unmistakable measure of the new Stanford is this: The Cardinal rank eighth in the conference in penalty yards per game (68) and are building a reputation as a team not afraid of playing until the echo of the referee's whistle -- or just a bit after.

Stanford (3-2, 2-1 Pac-10) had at least one personal foul penalty against all three Pac-10 opponents, and left coaches from Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington grumbling afterwards.

"They're dirty," said one Pac-10 assistant in the postgame elevator.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley, a guy not prone to ranting, spent two weeks ranting about Stanford LB Pat Maynor's cheap shot on Beavers QB Lyle Moevao in the season opener.

So these guys don't play like theoretical physics majors.

Another way the physical attitude shows itself is the run game. The Cardinal ranks third in the Pac-10 with 168.4 yards rushing per game and has eclipsed 200 yards on the ground in three of five games.

The defense is hardly dominant -- 27.6 points per game surrendered -- but it's aggressive (15 sacks) and tough against the run (3.4 yards per carry, 128 yards per game).

Both the passing offense and passing defense are a problem, but those issues are due in large part to an overall lack of speed and athleticism.

That might be changing because Harbaugh is proving to be an excellent recruiter.

Stanford presently has 16 verbal commitments for its 2009 class and most recruiting services rank the class among the nation's 15 best. ESPN.com's Tom Luginbill lists the Cardinal class among his 11 "Chomping at the Bit" outside his top 10.

So the athletes are coming.

And with a new, nasty attitude, Stanford might become a player in the Pac-10 and not just the team with the highest SAT scores.