Win over Cal sweetens finish to Harbaugh's first Stanford season

Updated: December 2, 2007, 4:12 PM ET
Associated Press

STANFORD, Calif. -- The season had been over for nearly 30 minutes when the entire Stanford team poured back out of the locker room and went to the field with the fabled Axe to celebrate more with their delirious fans.

No one in a Cardinal shirt wanted the feeling from beating archrival California for the first time in six years to end. The 20-13 season-ending victory over the Golden Bears on Saturday night left a sweet finish to coach Jim Harbaugh's first season on The Farm that could carry over for months of offseason workouts and conditioning.

"This is a springboard," quarterback Tavita Pritchard said. "It gets people excited about this team and about what we're capable of. It's huge learning how to win a game like this. We've lost some big ones this year, we've won some big games. To win this one is big for us. We're learning how to win and we're going to carry that over."

Stanford (4-8) improved markedly in Harbaugh's first season, achieving many milestones after going 1-11 under Walt Harris in 2006.

The Cardinal won their first game in seven tries at renovated Stanford Stadium, beating San Jose State 37-0 back in September. Then there was the 24-34 shocker of then-No. 2 and 41-point favorite Southern California on Oct. 6 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a victory that shook up the college football world.

Stanford couldn't capitalize on that momentum, losing five of six, but the Cardinal ended the season with their first win over Cal since 2001. Despite the struggles between those two wins, Harbaugh talked about how the players had "knocked down a lot of hurdles" and showed that they are learning how to win.

But there are many more steps necessary before the rebuilding job is complete.

"The vision of this program is to win multiple Pac-10 championships and that's not going to change," Harbaugh said Sunday. "Any time you set goals you're chasing perfection, and somewhere along the way you find excellence."

While Harbaugh gave all the credit to his players, some of them were quick to return it to their coach. Senior receiver Mark Bradford played for Harris and Buddy Teevens before Harbaugh's arrival and said the coaching change played a big part in the team's ability to beat teams that might have more talent.

"He's a guy that gets people who are on the fence," Bradford said. "He gets those guys to believe, those guys who aren't sure they can do it and he gets them riled up. If they don't feel like they can do it before they talk to him, they feel his energy and definitely feel like they can do it after they talk to him."

The task now is to upgrade the talent at Stanford. The Cardinal need to add depth in the offseason after being decimated by injuries.

While many of the big plays against Cal were made by some of the departing seniors, there are plenty of key players returning next season. The top four rushers will all be back, including Toby Gerhart, who ran for 140 yards in the only game he played this season.

Pritchard, who beat USC and led a second-half touchdown drive against Cal, will also return next season and will be challenged by Michigan transfer Jason Forcier and freshmen Alex Loukas and L.D. Crow for the starting job. Harbaugh said Pritchard will have a "leg up" on the slot but that it remains an open competition.

Richard Sherman, who led the team in receiving yards, will by a junior next season.

Eight of the 11 defensive starters from the Big Game were underclassmen, including star linebacker Clinton Snyder. Stanford had 37 sacks this season, bringing pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season.

"Defense was our No. 1 priority; playing tough, aggressive defense," Harbaugh said. "Sometimes that's the last thing to fall into place. But we're reaching that goal of building a dominating defense. We'll have a good group back. Defense is a progression and we're on track there."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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