This one is going to sting for a long, long time. There is no 24-hour rule here, no chance to put this one behind you and focus on the next opponent. All there is is time to think, stew, marinate in a myriad of how-did-it-all-go-wrongs.
There are two ways the Stanford Cardinal can move on from a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. They can slide back into Pac-12 mediocrity now that quarterback Andrew Luck and an amazing cast of seniors are leaving. Or they can learn from this loss and come back with a chip on their Luck-less, shoulder.
“We’re going to be back,” said a choked up defensive end Ben Gardner. “We’re going to be just fine. We’re going to be back next year with a vengeance and we’re going to be a strong program for years to come.”
That’s what the big boys do -- the established programs that season after season are in the top-10 conversation. They learn to take the sweet with the sour. And this group hasn’t had to swallow much sour over the past few years. A loss like this can numb the taste buds or accelerate the desire to get back to the sweet.
“If you dwell on the loss, you never get better,” said nose tackle Terrence Stephens. “If you keep dwelling on what went wrong, you’ll never be able to focus on what to do right.”
There will be questions. In the immediate future, most of them will swirl around a redshirt freshman kicker. Jordan Williamson missed three field goals, including a 35-yarder as time expired that would have given the Cardinal their second straight BCS bowl victory. He also missed a 41-yard field goal on Stanford’s opening possession and a 43-yard kick in overtime. Williamson did not address the media after the game.
There will be questions that head coach David Shaw played it too conservative on the final drive in regulation that set up Williamson’s miss – a straight shot up the middle that hooked left. Maybe. It’s worth noting, however, that Williamson was 6-of-7 this season on kicks between 30 and 39 yards.
But bigger questions loom after the missed-kicks fallout settles. Like finding Luck’s replacement; like filling holes on the offensive line for the NFL-bound Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro; like replacing veteran safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell; whether outside linebacker Chase Thomas leaves school or returns for another season.
Whatever the answers, Stephens believes the Cardinal will be just fine.
“That’s the best part of our program,” Stephens said. “We hold the word resilient very high. You have to be resilient in everything you do. You come back and you fight and you get better. That’s been the attitude since I got here and it will be the attitude far after I leave. I think that’s something the players instill in the other players.”
There’s no doubt that the departing players leave the program in much better shape than when they came in -- several of whom committed following (even during) Stanford’s 1-11 season.
Luck thinks the future of the program is in good hands.
“I think just keep getting better, put your head down and keep working,” he said. “A lot has been written about the seniors and the senior class and regardless of which guys stay and which guys leave, there are really good football players here. Obviously, you want to improve every year. But I think a very solid foundation has been laid with coach Shaw at the helm. I see a very bright future for the program.”
Still, it’s tough to see that through the haze of missed field goals, missed opportunities, missed tackles and Justin Blackmon's jet wash. The Oklahoma State wide receiver torched the Cardinal for 186 yards and three touchdowns on eight catches.
“He took advantage of our mistakes and that’s something that any good player will do,” said Michael Thomas. “You can’t afford to make mistakes against that guy. One missed tackle and he takes it to the house. Missed communication in coverage and you leave the best player on the team wide open. Just guys not taking advantage of the opportunities they had, but give credit to him. He made the plays and he exposed us when we made mistakes.”
Lost in the mix will be an amazing performance by Luck -- who was 27-of-31 for 347 yards, two touchdowns and an interception -- and a fantastic performance by the rushing attack. Stepfan Taylor pounded out 186 yards on 35 carries and two touchdowns.
“There’s an old saying that adversity reveals character,” Shaw said. “… Two real good teams come down to a few plays, not just that one (the field goal at the end of regulation) but a few plays that we could have all done something a little bit better.
“I have a lot of confidence in the guys we have in our locker room as individuals, but also what we’re capable of together; get through this together and coming back, fighting back strong and hard.”
Shaw and his players are saying all of the right things. Now the ball is in their court for the next seven months to back it up.