(I started this Sunday but didn’t finish it until today)
Before the football game started yesterday, I was certain that #13 Stanford was going lose to #2 Oregon. I had watched our team go into the Oregon game with high hopes the two previous years and been flustered by their strategy and burned by their speed. Despite promising play from Kevin Hogan, our new quarterback, and solid defense all season, I didn’t see anything to make me feel significantly better about our chances than previous years. I was certain we would lose big. Just as certain as us losing to USC earlier this season.
If you were unaware, I was completely wrong about this as we won in overtime, 17-14. This was one of the best games I have watched, and it has a much larger impact than just adding a win for our team. It changes the possibilities for the national championship game. After then #1 Alabama lost to Texas A&M las week, the remaining three undefeated teams (Oregon, Kansas State, and Notre Dame) became the frontrunners for one of those 2 slots to go to the national championship game and win it all. After ‘Bama lost, there was outcry about the rankings among them since the #3 team presumably would be left out.
That thinking was premature as Oregon lost to us and Kansas State lost to Baylor. Notre Dame slid up to #1, and the championship berth is their’s to lose. More surprisingly, ‘Bama is back at #2, which is a tremendous turnaround from the belief that their dreams were over after the loss to Texas A&M. I’m honestly somewhat disappointed to see a SEC team (‘Bama) back in the championship game because the SEC is an overrated conference, in my opinion. Although they’re the best, I don’t think the PAC-12 gets the respect it deserves in conversation. Still, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. There are still 2 weeks of games left, and this all is only big news because we made assumptions about how the rest of the games would happen.
Setting aside the national impact, this game was huge for Stanford because it was an upset. Since I had already assumed that Stanford would lose to Oregon, our only shot at Rose Bowl would be a win over UCLA this upcoming week and the good graces of BCS organizers to pick Stanford for the Rose Bowl (in that scenario, Oregon finishes undefeated and goes to the national championship game). Now, we “control our own destiny” and can make it to the Rose Bowl by defeating UCLA this upcoming weekend and then again in the PAC-12 championship game the week after. The season after our star quarterback Andrew Luck left, it’s quite surprising to see us in the hunt again.
It’s been a rough season for Stanford fans, but as my friend George points out, it’s only because we’re extremely fair-weathered fans. 2 games into the season, fans were down about the prospects of the season, despite having won both of those games. We were reenergized after beating USC, then feeling terrible again after losing to Washington. We’re now quite excited after beating Oregon, but a loss soon could lead to a lot of disappointment despite a very good season. This fickleness shows that our fan base is neither strong nor mature. It’s surprising when a now top 10 team can’t fill the stadium. For homecoming.
There are the usual excuses. Stanford excels in athletics, but its students are largely more academically focused. Palo Alto doesn’t have the composition that leads to great devotion to local sports teams. A few years of mediocrity before our recent rise kills a lot of spirit. Being a fan, however, is sticking through all of that and appreciating the results as they come.
Even more narrowly than the team is the best part of the outcome: redemption for our sophomore kicker, Jordan Williamson. Williamson went into the Fiesta Bowl last season 13/16 (81%) on field goals. At the Fiesta Bowl, under the most pressure, he went 0/3, including critical misses at the end that would’ve won us the game. For his final kick, I still had complete faith he would make it since he had been “lights out” all season. He didn’t, and we lost.
Prior to this game, he was 12/20 (60%) this season. For the fans, it has felt far worse, and an unreliable kicker is extremely stressful. It’s even more stressful for the kicker, and given his performance last year, it seemed like he was still carrying the guilt of the Fiesta Bowl loss, and it has costed us a game this season. Still, there’s nothing else I could do as a fan than offer complete support in his ability. In overtime, Williamson lined up for a game-winning field goal, and I knew he would make it. And he did.
Not everyone has forgiven Williamson for the Fiesta Bowl, but I did a long time ago, and that kick demonstrated that he can kick under pressure. In a game-winning situation in one of the toughest stadiums (Autzen Stadium) against the second best team in the country, he delivered, not only for the team, but for himself. Placekickers in football are only placed in often unexpected, but almost always high-pressure situations, and mental preparedness is key. I hope he can carry on and returns to his old form again.
I’m not an athlete, though I played and play many sports. I’m not a face-painting, die-hard fan, but I certainly feel the ups and downs. In some ways, following sports is somewhat pointless: the same things happen year after year, there’s a lot of thought spent on something that doesn’t meaningfully progress the world (at a high level), and it tends to bring out the worst in us. However, sports also show us how assumptions can lead to the wrong places, what the meaning of devotion is, what redemption can mean, and more. Sports are an opportunity for us to face the challenges of real life in a safe environment, and maybe the lessons can help outside the sidelines as well.