When Andrew Luck arrived at Stanford in the fall of 2008, it had been years since either the Cardinal or Arizona had been to a bowl game.
Now the two schools are set to play one of the biggest games of the weekend in a prime time, nationally televised matchup that could have implications on who plays in a BCS bowl.
“Who would have thought it would be Stanford and Arizona playing in a big-time game a couple of years ago?” Luck said. “We try to get as excited as we can each and every game and treat them the same. But obviously, we’re human. That’s not going to happen each and every time.
“We do understand this has huge implications on the end of the season and the Pac-10. We’re taking it like a big game.”
The 10th-ranked Cardinal (7-1, 4-1 Pac-10) are four years removed from a one-win season that raised questions about whether they should still compete in the Pac-10 in football. The 13th-ranked Wildcats (7-1, 4-1) ended a 10-year bowl drought two years ago.
The winner of Saturday night’s game will remain in the running for a share of the Pac-10 title and a possible Rose Bowl bid— something Arizona has never experienced and Stanford has done only once in more than 38 years.
“We have a heck of an opportunity,” Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. “I don’t think anyone is sleeping on that. We know what we’re capable of achieving by season’s end. This is the next step we have. I think guys are excited about what we’re capable of doing and the attention we’re starting to receive, but I don’t think that changes how we prepare.”
Having already lost to No. 1 Oregon, Stanford’s chances at winning the Pac-10 outright are remote; the Cardinal would need the Ducks falter down stretch.
But their chances of making the Rose Bowl depend on Oregon winning out and Stanford not dropping another game.
Normally, finishing 11-1 in a season where the Pac-10 champion goes to the BCS title game would be enough to earn a bid to the Rose Bowl. But BCS rules require the Rose Bowl to take a team from a non-automatic qualifying conference if one qualifies.
So not only does Stanford need Oregon to win out, the Cardinal also will probably need Boise State or the winner of Saturday’s game between No. 4 TCU and No. 6 Utah to make it to the title game as well.
“We don’t think about the other things,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We know there’s other games after this and eventually those will be the biggest games of the season. This one is here and now. It’s just a matter of mentally preparing for it, physically preparing for it, and getting your mind right and ready to play.”
The Wildcats have a simpler path to Pasadena, needing to win out and hope Oregon State drops one of its final five conference games.
While it may be simpler, it’s not necessarily easier. Arizona follows this week’s game at Stanford with a home game against Southern California, a visit to Oregon and then the season finale against rival Arizona State.
“They’re all hard,” coach Mike Stoops said. “I’ve been here seven years, I don’t remember an easy one. Maybe a couple of them, but you don’t look at it that way. You just do what you have to do to win this week. I don’t worry about what’s in front of us.”
Stoops is most concerned with figuring out how to stop Luck and the high-powered Stanford offense. The Cardinal have scored at least 30 points in eight straight games and are fifth in the nation in scoring with 42.4 points per game.
While Stepfan Taylor leads a strong running game with five straight 100-yard contests, Luck is the key to the Cardinal offense. He leads the Pac-10 in passing efficiency and has completed 76 percent of his throws the past three games.
He also is a threat to run with 345 yards rushing and three touchdowns, including a 51-yarder last week at Washington.
“They want to talk about being physical, but it’s a game of manipulation when you play Stanford,” Stoops said. “They create so many formations. It’s more about manipulations than it is anything else. The thing that’s difficult about Stanford is that we can take away the run if we want to. Last year, they threw for 400 yards against us, though. That’s where your dilemma lies.”
(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)