John Elway flashed his familiar grin and Jim Harbaugh gave a jubilant shout from the sideline as Andrew Luck sprinted up the field to join a celebration in the end zone.
Nearly a quarter remained in the Orange Bowl, but the Stanford Cardinal were on the way to their first bowl victory in 14 years. And it was a blowout.
Now, the biggest question that remains about the Cardinal is whether their star quarterback and coach are coming back.
Luck, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns Monday night to lead fifth-ranked Stanford past No. 12 Virginia Tech, 40-12.
“It’s a wonderful way to cap off the season,” Luck said. “Couldn’t be happier for the Stanford community.”
The sophomore turned in a performance reminiscent of Elway, the former Stanford quarterback who is expected to become the Denver Broncos’ chief football executive this week. Elway served as honorary captain, and ex-Stanford QB Jim Plunkett also was on hand to lend support.
“As an alum, it’s the greatest — to be able to come down here and watch a great football team,” Elway said. “They’re well-coached, they played great. Some great players. A big thrill.”
When the game ended, two Stanford players lifted Harbaugh on their shoulders and he raised an arm in triumph. The Cardinal (12-1) likely will end the season ranked in the top 5 for the first time since the unbeaten 1940 team finished No. 2.
Their success comes only four years after they went 1-11 and hired Harbaugh as coach to lead a turnaround.
“They’ve bounced back from some terrible years and put Stanford back on the football map,” Plunkett said. “I’m very proud of them.”
Virginia Tech (11-3), playing in a bowl game for the 18th consecutive year, fell to 1-27 against top-5 teams.
Stanford threw a completion for a bizarre safety and blew two extra points, but overcame those mistakes with six plays gaining more than 30 yards. Two came in succession on a two-play, 97-yard “drive,” and the Cardinal outscored Tech 27-0 in the second half.
“They’re really good, and we helped them be good,” Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. “There were a couple of long plays against our defense, and then the game got away from us. The thing kind of snowballed.”
Tight end Coby Fleener caught scoring passes of 41, 58 and 38 yards from Luck, all in the final 21 minutes. Zach Ertz had a 25-yard TD reception, Jeremy Stewart scored on a 60-yard run and Stepfan Taylor added a 56-yard run. Fullback-linebacker Owen Marecic scored on a 1-yard run and had a sack.
Luck went 18 for 23 and was chosen the most valuable player.
“Andrew Luck is the straw that stirs the drink around here,” Harbaugh said.
“I don’t think there’s anyone better playing right now,” Plunkett added.
Fleener had six catches for 173 yards for the Cardinal, who outgained Tech 534-288.
“We came out in the second half and established a rhythm,” Luck said. “We were making some uncommon mistakes in the first half. We just went back to blocking, throwing, catching, and it worked out for us.”
The game might have been the last at Stanford for Harbaugh and Luck. Harbaugh is expected to be courted by NFL teams and perhaps alma mater Michigan after leading the Cardinal to a school-record win total. Luck is projected as the likely first pick in the draft if he turns pro this year.
“I don’t want to make an impulsive decision,” Luck said. “I’ll enjoy this as long as I can. I know the deadline is coming up, I’ll sit down with my parents, weigh the pros and cons and go from there.”
When Harbaugh was asked about the possibility he had coached his final game at Stanford, he said: “Oh please, please. Give me a break. Have some respect for the game.”
During the trophy ceremony, Stanford fans chanted, “One more year.” Elway shared the sentiment, saying he hopes Harbaugh and Luck are back next season.
“No matter what, they both had a great night tonight,” Elway said. “Andrew’s going to have a great career in the NFL, and Jim’s going to have a great career if he stays here or moves on.”
Stanford began to pull away by going the length of the field in 29 seconds in the third quarter. After Delano Howell made an interception at the 3 to snuff a Tech threat, Taylor busted loose and reached Hokies territory. On the next play, Luck threw deep to Fleener for a 26-12 lead.
Luck also threw for a safety that cut Stanford’s lead to 7-2. His pass was batted backward by Antoine Hopkins to 303-pound offensive tackle Derek Hall, who caught the ball rather than knocking it down and was tackled in the end zone.
“Football can be a very funny game,” Luck said. “No point in getting emotionally hijacked over it.”
The Hokies’ offense had trouble scoring. Tyrod Taylor threw for 222 yards but was held to 22 yards rushing, and Tech twice came away empty after driving inside the Stanford 35.
Taylor’s scrambling skills helped the Hokies score their only touchdown. On third-and-goal he rolled left, retreated, spun 180 degrees near the Stanford bench and threw to David Wilson for an 11-yard score.
After the play, Taylor asked Harbaugh if he had stepped on the sideline. Harbaugh told him he hadn’t.
Taylor moved the Hokies 60 yards in the final 47 seconds of the first half to set up a 37-yard field goal by Chris Hasley, but they netted only 109 yards in the second half.
“I’m still proud of my boys for this whole season,” Tyrod Taylor said. “We had a heck of a season, and it’s nothing to hold your head down about right now.”