David Shaw, Stanford bullish about carrying over good feelings

BURBANK, Calif. -- There was a moment after Stanford's gut-wrenching 20-17 double-overtime loss to Utah in which coach David Shaw thought it was all falling apart.

The Cardinal, a team that had been to four consecutive BCS bowl games, had just lost its fifth game of the 2014 season, and the rumbles of a player's expletive-laden postgame speech shook through the walls to the room where the coach was holding his press conference.

"For a split second, I thought, 'Oh God, we're fracturing,'" Shaw said.

Hindsight, though, tells us the opposite was happening: The roars were those of walk-on safety John Flacco, who was delivering the impassioned plea that Shaw credits with reversing the course of Stanford's season.

"Here's a guy who earned his right to get on the field, and he's basically saying it's not about what you get but what you give," Shaw said. "I think it flipped the mentality of our football team."

Ever since an ulcer-inducing early-season loss to USC, Stanford had been pressing its way into an increasingly deeper hole -- "even in the games we won, it didn't look like our guys were having any fun," Shaw said -- and players indicate it took Flacco's cathartic speech to slap a sense of enjoyment back into the team.

Stanford immediately ripped off three consecutive victories -- including a stunner at No. 8 UCLA -- by an average margin of more than three touchdowns, and they dashed into the offseason on the highest of notes. And during Thursday's discussions at Pac-12 media days, members of the Cardinal suggested that they've learned the necessary lessons to eradicate similar struggles. Linebacker Blake Martinez, for example, emanated firm belief that the loose, positive mood of late 2014 will carry over into 2015.

"We treated those last three games as a new season, a clean slate," Martinez said. "It was almost like the beginning of this [2015] season."

Shaw has had more than half a year to reflect on what exactly went wrong in 2014, and some of his observations focus on the personal struggles of quarterback Kevin Hogan, whose father died in December after a prolonged illness.

"A lot of us didn't know how [difficult that was for Hogan] because he is such a stoic person," Shaw said. "I didn't know how much that was affecting him at the time. And he was already going through something that very few people can imagine, being the guy that replaces Andrew Luck. ... So he was carrying around these two big boulders."

Shaw said that the weight only grew heavier as the season progressed and Stanford's offense ground to a halt.

"The more Hogan wanted it, the more he tried," Shaw explained, "he wanted to choke the football more, he was so tense. Later in the year [after the Utah game], he was smooth, confident and relaxed."

Shaw also discussed improvements that his staff made, particularly in the red zone, that paved the way for the late-season explosion in which the Cardinal averaged 38 points per game.

"Later in the year, I thought we did a better job of finding our match-ups, making the throws, making the catches and having the coaches put guys in the right position," he said.

The Cardinal finished the year on fire from scoring range -- Remound Wright scored nine touchdowns in the final three games -- after racking up more negative plays in the red zone than they had in the seven combined years of the Jim Harbaugh-Shaw era before that.

"It was a huge lesson for us," Shaw said.

He also opined that the Cardinal put too much early-season pressure on an offensive line that, while touted, was breaking in four new starters to begin 2014.

"I didn't recognize, and I should have -- I kick myself now -- that you can't start four new starters on the offensive line and put so much pressure on them to be great," Shaw said. "That's not fair. That's just not fair. They had to learn a lot. They had to jell."

With four starters returning on the offensive line this time around, that shouldn't be an issue this season. And, if anybody asks Shaw and his players, neither should the danger of suffocating self-inflicted pressure -- Stanford believes that they already weathered that storm last year, and they're looking forward to a free-flowing 2015 rhythm.

"It's my job now to help us stay in that fast, explosive, fun, enjoyable environment that helps us be successful," Shaw said.