Clayton Thorson scrambling for a 42-yard touchdown on a 3rd and 7. Kevin Hogan throwing a game-ending interception into the hands of Kyle Queiro. Stanford's offense converting only 20% of its third-downs.
Spencer Hall of EDSBS summed it up best:
Like, the only team I've seen so far that should feel really, really bad about themselves is Stanford.— OLIVER 3STACKS (@edsbs) September 5, 2015
I am not here though to talk about what Stanford did wrong or how they can improve. I am not here to question David Shaw's conservative play-calling or Hogan's abilities as a quarterback or the offensive line's regression. Those are the obvious narratives, and they have been discussed ad nauseum.
No, I am here to say that I think Stanford will learn to love this loss to Northwestern. They will learn to love the thing that they most wish had not happened. As Stephen Colbert in his recent GQ profile might put it: they will "learn to love the bomb" because this loss to Northwestern could turn out to be exactly the kind of catalyst the team needs for the rest of the season.
Consider what happened last season on both the collegiate and pro levels. On the collegiate level, the Ohio State Buckeyes lost early to the Virginia Tech Hokies. On the pro level, the New England Patriots were embarrassed early by the Kansas City Chiefs. Despite these poor early performances though, both the Buckeyes and Patriots went on to win their respective championships.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Stanford—by losing to a middling Big Ten team like Northwestern—is somehow destined to win the national championship. Shaw, unlike Urban Meyer, has yet to discover this team's Cardale Jones or Ezekiel Elliott, and Hogan has certainly never been called the next Tom Brady. On the contrary, it would not surprise me if Stanford ended their season 6-6 or worse. After all, the team still has five ranked opponents left on the schedule—USC, Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, and Notre Dame.
But the thing about Stanford football is that the team always seems to play better when the players and coaches feel disrespected by low expectations. Credit that maybe to the residual effects of Jim Harbaugh's Spartan-esque "We bow to no man" mentality or maybe just to the simple fact that people generally work harder when they feel like they have something to prove to others (or perhaps to themselves).
Let's not forget that Shaw is the same coach who was willing to bench junior Josh Nunes, a key player in Stanford's 2012 upset of USC, in favor of Hogan, who was then a red-shirt freshman, after letdown losses to Washington and Notre Dame. Shaw might be conservative when it comes to play-calling, but he's shown in the past that he's fully capable of making the kind of bold decisions necessary to turn a season around.
Let's also not forget that despite his struggles against Northwestern, Hogan is still the same player who led Stanford to back-to-back Rose Bowls and who finished last season strong against UCLA. And he did all of this despite being burdened during his whole time at Stanford with the fact that his father Jerry was dying from colon cancer.
So, while Stanford may very well end up not being bowl-eligible this year, I can't help but think of how great of a story it would be to see this team turn it around. I can't help but think that Shaw and his coaching staff are spending hours and hours coming up with new schemes and personnel packages. I can't help but think that Hogan and the rest of the offense are putting in extra work every day before, during, and after practice. I can't help but think that the entire team is right now "pissed off for greatness" and that they are all using this Northwestern loss as motivation to prepare better, to work harder, and to hopefully prove all the doubters wrong (yours truly included).
Let's all remember that we're in the playoff era of college football; crazy things can happen.