January 4, 2011

Finally on top, Stanford hopes its leaders stay

MIAMI -- After drubbing Virginia Tech 40-12 in Monday night's Orange Bowl, every Stanford fan should celebrate like the school's traditionally raucous band, the one where a member of the drum line beat on a sink and the tuba players painted their instruments in, ahem, creative ways at Sun Life Stadium.

But the revelry could be short-lived. Enjoy the night, Stanford, because the next few weeks -- heck, days -- will be tense.

The future of the two most valuable cogs in Stanford's rise from 1-11 in 2006 to 12-1 this season will be decided soon. The careers of coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck are at a crossroads.

The Orange Bowl was proof enough Harbaugh and Luck will have their choice of next moves -- if there is to be a next move.

Michigan, Harbaugh's alma mater, hasn't made a public decision on coach Rich Rodriguez's future, but the NFL also is in play for Harbaugh. The San Francisco 49ers are one of a number of NFL teams expected to target Harbaugh.

Luck, a third-year sophomore, is eligible to declare for the NFL draft, where he likely would be the first overall pick. He might not have any pro workouts better than his second-half performance against Virginia Tech -- 9-of-10 for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

Losing both men is the worst-case scenario for a program that wrapped up its best season since 1940.

"I haven't contemplated it," junior tight end Coby Fleener said before admitting, "Those decisions weigh heavily on the program."

Luck said he doesn't want to make an impulsive decision. That much has been established: He was asked by the television crew, by the on-field announcer during the postgame awards ceremony, then again in the post-game news conference.

Harbaugh didn't have much time to bask in the win, either. The first question in his post-game news conference was if he had coached his final game at Stanford. His response was terse and perhaps appropriate -- but a non-answer nonetheless.

"Oh, please, give me a break," Harbaugh said. "Have some respect for the game. It's about the performance tonight of these players, and I love them. Let's talk about them."

So let's talk about the players, starting with the game MVP.

Luck showed why he's such a coveted NFL prospect. He was not his normal self in the first half, throwing an interception to Virginia Tech cornerback Jayron Hosley and passing for a mere 86 yards. But he still zipped a pass to reserve tight end Zach Ertz for a 25-yard touchdown that was Stanford's second score.

In the second half, he was almost perfect against one of the nation's top secondaries. He fit passes into tight coverage, caught his receivers in stride, threw on the run and showed perfect touch.

"He's an irreplaceable quarterback," said Fleener, who caught all three of Luck's second-half touchdown passes. "He's making plays that you only see in the NFL."

But even if Stanford has to rebuild, the Cardinal could do worse than to rebuild around the pieces they already have.

Fleener is a 6-foot-6, 244-pounder who set an Orange Bowl record with 173 receiving yards. He's a junior.

Stepfan Taylor started slow, but he had a 56-yard run from Stanford's 2 that jump-started the drive that put the game out of reach. He finished with 115 yards. He's a sophomore.

Taylor ran behind a dominating line that started three fifth-year seniors. But some of the biggest holes were opened by left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro. They're sophomores, too.

Outside of Luck, linebacker Shayne Skov was the best player on the field. He set an Orange Bowl record with five tackles for loss and had three sacks. Skov is another sophomore.

Strong safety Delano Howell had a sack and an interception. He's one of five junior starters on defense, which has seven underclassmen who start.

Meanwhile, Stanford's recruiting classes have improved every season under Harbaugh. The one that included Luck was ranked eighth in the Pac-10.

"Coach has done a great job collecting talent, and it's shown in this past season," Skov said. "Coach has done a terrific job instilling a mindset where things will turn in our future."

Perhaps most important, this group isn't used to losing anymore, going from four wins in Harbaugh's first season in 2007 to five in '08 to eight in '09 to 12 this season.

Amid the adulation in Miami, there's still the prospect of an uncertain future for Stanford. But the Cardinal players don't feel like it rests entirely on the shoulders of Harbaugh and Luck.

"I don't know what's in the cards for the future for them," Skov said. "But I think it's going to be a bright one at Stanford."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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