Stanford's Turnaround: Key Players Not Named Andrew Luck
In 2006, Stanford won one game and lost 11.
Five seasons later, the Cardinal are coming off back-to-back BCS bowls, with three straight Heisman Trophy runner-ups and four of the first 42 selections in last week's NFL draft.
How did this remarkable turnaround occur?
Well, it was nice to have had Andrew Luck at QB. He was a transformative player. As was RB Toby Gerhart, the school's all-time leading rusher.
But they hardly turned the program around single-handedly. In this first of a multi-part series, check out some of the other Cardinal stars who helped restore national prominence to The Farm.
QB Tavita Pritchard (2006-09)
Quarterback Tavita Pritchard’s career statistics are not overwhelming.
From 2006 to 2009, he was 7-13 as a starting quarterback, completed a modest 53.9 percent of his passes for 2,865 yards and 15 touchdowns, with 24 interceptions and 6.1 yards per attempt.
But statistics don’t measure leadership and will to win, and Pritchard was at his best in two memorable games for the Cardinal that helped turn the program around.
The first was the historic 24-23 upset over USC in the Coliseum in October 2007. The Cardinal were six-touchdown underdogs to Pete Carroll’s second-ranked Trojans.
Pressed into action by an injury to starting quarterback T.C. Ostrander, Pritchard made his first college start at USC that night. Unfazed by the point spread or the raucous Coliseum crowd of over 85,000, Pritchard coolly led Stanford to 17 fourth-quarter points for the improbable victory.
As the fourth quarter began, he capped a 75-yard drive with a 37-yard completion to wide receiver Mark Bradford. From there, running back Anthony Kimble scored to bring Stanford to within 16-14.
After USC scored to go up 23-14, Pritchard guided a methodical 16-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a field goal, cutting the deficit to 23-17.
Then, after an interception of USC quarterback John David Booty, on Stanford’s next and final drive, Pritchard twice converted 4th-and-long for two of the most exciting plays in Cardinal annals.
First, Pritchard connected with Richard Sherman on 4th-and-20 to the USC 9-yard line with 1:38 remaining. Three plays later, Pritchard won the game with a last-minute, 4th-and-goal touchdown toss to Mark Bradford for the deciding score.
That game proved to the Stanford players that they could indeed compete with any opponent, and while they finished 2007 at 4-8, the culture on The Farm was changing.
By 2009, the Andrew Luck era was underway. Pritchard dutifully accepted the backup role, mentoring Luck as Stanford had its first winning season in eight years.
Stanford went 8-4 and was invited to the Sun Bowl, against Oklahoma. Alas, Luck had suffered a broken finger in the season finale, and so Pritchard was summoned to start at quarterback.
Again, Pritchard rose to the occasion, leading the Cardinal to a 24-17 halftime advantage. While the Sooners rallied late for a 31-27 win, Stanford showed that it could match up against a Big 12 powerhouse.
Pritchard is now an assistant coach on David Shaw’s staff.
WR/CB Richard Sherman (2006-10)
Richard Sherman was a rookie revelation at cornerback for the Seahawks in 2011, with four interceptions, 55 tackles, 17 passes defensed (top 10 league-wide) and a spot on the NFL All Rookie team.
But long before his dynamic professional debut, Sherman played a key role on Stanford's offense, defense and special teams.
Recruited to The Farm as a fleet wide receiver from Compton, CA, Sherman led Stanford in receptions, yards and touchdowns as a freshman in 2006 and again as a sophomore in 2007.
After redshirting in 2008 due to an early season injury, Sherman was asked in spring 2009 by Coach Harbaugh to move to cornerback to help shore up the Cardinal secondary. Sherman obliged.
On both sides of the ball, Sherman was at his best against USC. As a sophomore wide receiver, he was on the receiving end of the miraculous Tavita Pritchard 4th-and-20 pass late in the fourth quarter at USC in October 2007.
That play that ranks with John Elway’s 4th-and-17 to Emile Harry at Cal in 1982 and John Paye’s 3rd-and-22 to Jeff James at Cal in 1985 as among the greatest late-game first-down conversions in school history. What's more, Sherman not only caught the ball at the first-down mark; he held on despite a thunderous hit by Trojans S Taylor Mays.
In 2009, Sherman transitioned to cornerback and ranked fourth on the team with 62 tackles. In the famous "What's Your Deal?" game at USC, Sherman's fourth-quarter, 43-yard pick-six off Matt Barkley was the dagger in Stanford's record-setting 55-21 drubbing of Troy.
Sherman led the Cardinal in punt returns as well in 2009. In 2010, he had a team-high four interceptions and 13 passes defensed, and had 50 tackles for the 12-1 Orange Bowl team.
For his career, Sherman totaled 81 receptions for 1,340 yards and a sparkling 16.5 yards per catch, and seven touchdowns. He added a pair of punt return touchdowns, and on defense he had 113 tackles and six interceptions, including the aforementioned pick-six at USC in 2009.
Through it all, Sherman was a fiery competitor, whose family could always be seen and heard in Section 134 at Stanford stadium, leading the players’ families in cheering on the Cardinal.
FS Bo McNally (2006-09)
Like Pritchard and Sherman, free safety Bo McNally was a playmaker, a relentless competitor and a fierce leader. Listed at just 6’0" and 210 lbs, he was a fearless heat-seeking missile who was stellar in pass coverage and seemingly always around the ball.
A high school quarterback and a basketball and track star, McNally started 37 games for the Cardinal at free safety, played special teams and was also the holder for extra points and field goals.
Statistically, he was one of the greatest defensive backs ever on The Farm. He led the team in tackles in 2007 (114), 2008 (76) and 2009 (83). For his career, McNally had a staggering 294 tackles, including 192 solo tackles.
He also led the team in interceptions in 2006, 2008 and 2009, with 10 career picks (tied for fifth all time), including two he took to the house.
Just for good measure, he added a touchdown run on a fake field goal against Oregon in 2008.
As with Pritchard and Sherman, McNally was heroic in the 2007 upset over USC. He led the defense that night with 10 tackles, and sealed the historic win by intercepting John David Booty on fourth down in the last minute.
But as with Pritchard and Sherman, the numbers only begin to tell the story. McNally was twice team co-captain, and his leadership, intense competitiveness and desire to win helped propel the Cardinal from the depths of 1-11 in his sophomore season to the Sun Bowl by his senior year.