Stanford Football Majoring in Fun

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Another season kicks off Friday for Stanford football, and recent successes have established a standard on The Farm that can bring pressure.

The 2015 Cardinal felt that pressure Week 1, dropping a 16-6 opener at Northwestern that, nearly 365 days later, is no less head-scratching. Nevertheless, that early failure a year ago taught the Cardinal 2015 Cardinal some lessons that could carry over into 2016 — in part because head coach David Shaw had the same takeaways.

“I think I’ve learned a lot from this football team,” Shaw said in December. “These guys have gotten me to loosen up a little bit and enjoy the process more and enjoy the journey with them.”

At a time a year ago — coming off a disappointing, 8-5 finish and losing a confounding opener — Stanford football could have tensed to an irreparable level.

Instead, the exact opposite happened.

“[Shaw was] a lot more relaxed in allowing us to play with that passion and that competitiveness,” graduated quarterback Kevin Hogan said. “And it shows on Saturdays. I’ve never seen him celebrating as much as he has before this year.”

A version of Stanford football that’s looser, more fun — but still adhering to the principles that made it successful in the first place — could give the Cardinal more reason to celebrate in 2016.

* * *

Two weeks after the Cardinal’s loss at Northwestern, I stood in the tunnel that leads from the locker rooms to the playing surface at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. A song rang out, above the din of equipment managers loading a semi-trailer with STANFORD FOOTBALL painted on it, over the smattering of media waiting for postgame interviews.

Defensive end Aziz Shittu belted out a celebratory tune as he marched through the tunnel toward the Cardinal’s charter bus. Usher he isn’t, but his revelatory crooning had a snappiness to it rivaling “Yeah.”

Days before January’s Rose Bowl, Shittu could not remember the specific song he sang that September night, but he echoed the sentiment Hogan expressed: the difference by Week 3, and for the remainder of the 2015 season compared to Week 1 was that the Cardinal learned to have some fun.

Shittu and Hogan are gone, but their emphasis on staying loose resonated with the returning Cardinal, like Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey.

“The guys [who] are here now shared the same locker room with the seniors last year, and they know how it goes,” he said. “They’ve been in the business long enough to know what it takes to win a football game and to have a tight-knit team, so nothing’s changed there.”

Nothing changing on that front seems like the right approach, given how McCaffrey looked his last time out.

Back in Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl, McCaffrey capped his historic season with 172 yards rushing, 105 receiving and 63 on punt returns, reaching the end zone twice. One score came on the game’s first play from scrimmage, a 75-yard reception that set the tone for the day.

Iowa’s fans went silent while the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band spent the rest of the evening jamming Free’s “All Right Now,” John Cena’s theme song and an ode to FarmersOnly.com.

Alright, so that day in Pasadena was nothing out of the ordinary from the LSJUMB. For the Stanford football team, however, the Rose Bowl Game perhaps best captured the aura of the 2015 campaign.

Shaw joked with Hogan at the post-game press conference podium. Players were all smiles.

Stanford’s still Nerd Nation, but that did not stop it from partying like Lambda Lambda Lambda with Omega Mu.

With all due respect to the Beastie Boys, the party was no right for Stanford football. The Cardinal earned the privilege to loosen up in 2015 through a process the 2016 team has made efforts to duplicate.

* * *

The cliche about all work and no play proved astute when applied to Stanford’s loss at Northwestern last September. In Evanston, the Cardinal were indeed dull. That doesn’t mean the program has not gone in the polar opposite direction philosophically.

“I don’t think that’s something that can just happen,” Shaw said of gaining a looser attitude. “The team has to earn the right to be that way.”

“The team’s mindset is about not taking anything for granted,” he added. “Knowing that we’ve got high expectations, spring wasn’t that loose. It was great; it was physical, it was intense.”

Physical. Intense. Those sounds like the kind of words associated with Stanford football throughout its first two Pac-12 title runs in 2012 and 2013. Shaw put a stamp on that assessment, adding:

“That team last year, about mid-season, started to play at a high level and started to enjoy themselves, and you saw us play with energy and passion,” he said. “But you still saw us play tough and physical and hard-nosed.”

Hard-nosed, physicality, especially on the defensive side, has proven fun for Stanford teams in the past.

Sacks gained the hashtag #PartyInTheBackfield during the Cardinal’s 2013 conference title run, and the party’s raged on from Trent Murphy to Aziz Shittu to Solomon Thomas.

Though he produced a prop tree to announce his commitment to Stanford as a recruit, Thomas will not be taking up the microphone from Shittu. He will replace the Rose Bowl Defensive MVP as the anchor of the Cardinal line, however.

Thomas finished 2015 with a flourish, scoring his first career touchdown on a scoop-and-score in the Pac-12 Championship Game win over USC, then helped bury Iowa with two tackles for loss and a sack.

While he appreciates the attitude that carried to Stanford football to its 2015 league crown, Thomas emphasized the work that got the Cardinal to that party in Pasadena.

“We have to come out swinging strong, and hitting strong,” he said.

Basically, there’s no fun without sacrifice.

Of the many words invoked to describe McCaffrey’s game, fun may be the most fitting. An explosive dynamo in space, McCaffrey injected a new element into a Stanford offense characterized by between-the-tackles rushing and a methodical approach.

Ostensibly the face of Stanford’s evolution of fun, McCaffrey marches into 2016 its benchmark for hard work.

“Christian’s working harder,” Thomas said. “He’s got a more serious approach — even though he had the most serious approach. He understands the magnitude of this season.”

A guy who just broke Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yardage record could understandably fall back on his resume. McCaffrey instead spent the offseason focusing on his deficiencies.

“Coach Shaw harps on being the most complete back you can be, and that’s what I’m really working on,” McCaffrey said. “I continue to break down my film from last year to see what I’ve got to work on. The greatest players in the world are never satisfied, and I’m dang sure not satisfied.”

In other words, McCaffrey hasn’t had his fill of the fun that defined 2015. Matching his sophomore year standard individually, and leading the Cardinal to another championship season akin to last, can bring immeasurable pressure.

No team knows better than Stanford, though, that the best way to deal with pressure is to just lighten up and have some fun.