Harbaugh has high hopes for 3rd season at Stanford

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STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- Jim Harbaugh turned Stanford from a laughingstock to a competitive program in the Pac-10 in his first two seasons on The Farm.

There were memorable upsets of Southern California and rival California in his first year and a near bowl bid in year two, derailed only by a couple of late-game collapses.

Harbaugh is ready for his team to take that next step this year, hoping to end a seven-season bowl drought.

"We will be better, I know that," Harbaugh said. "We had one of the best offseasons in the country and I hope that translates into victories. We've made methodical improvement in the program and we don't want to limit ourselves. If the ball bounces our way we could compete for the Pac-10 championship this season."

While that optimistic dream that Harbaugh has talked about since being hired to replace Walt Harris following a one-win season in 2006 still seems a bit farfetched, the progress that has been made the past two seasons is clear.

With heralded redshirt freshman Andrew Luck poised to step in at quarterback to provide a passing complement to the relentless running of Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal are in their best position since Tyrone Willingham left for Notre Dame following the 2001 season.

The biggest reason is the powerful Gerhart, who set a single-season school record by rushing for 1,136 yards and also ran for 15 touchdowns.

"He's a great football player. A man," Harbaugh said. "He's physical and more like a fullback. Sometimes the things that get lost in the game with him is how he can run away from linebackers after contact. He has good balance and vision. He's a prototypical back, the kind who can carry the ball up to 30 times a game and can run all the assortments of plays. He blocks like a fullback and catches like a wide receiver."

Gerhart, who shared time with Anthony Kimble last season, has lofty personal goals for this season, saying he'd like to approach 2,000 yards rushing and score 20 touchdowns.

He's just as optimistic about his team's chances.

"We're not just looking for the minimum six games, we're shooting for 9, 10, 11, 12 wins," Gerhart said. "Deep inside I feel that's an attainable goal."

If the Cardinal are going to come anywhere near that level of success, they will need big things from Luck. The son of former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck sat out last year behind Tavita Pritchard as the Cardinal struggled to generate a consistent passing attack.

But after throwing five touchdown passes in the spring game, Luck won the job and gives Harbaugh his first big-time quarterback since coming to Stanford.

The Cardinal have had the worst passing offense in the Pac-10 since the start of the 2002 season, throwing only 90 touchdown passes and averaging just 194.6 yards passing per game.

Stanford is counting on more than just Luck to end its bowl drought. The Cardinal have spent the entire offseason preaching "focus and finish" after a couple of blown late leads ended up costing them a bowl bid.

They allowed an 87-yard drive in the final minutes to lose 23-20 to UCLA and gave up the winning score to Oregon with 6 seconds left two weeks later.

A victory in either of those games would have sent Stanford to a bowl game.

"It's all about working and finishing the job," defensive lineman Ekom Udofia said. "I remember Oregon vividly. We were so close. We can beat them. UCLA too. Both of them came down to the wire. So many games were so close it became a point of emphasis to finish. I think it should show on the field."

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