MIAMI, Florida (AP) — Andrew Luck threw seven interceptions and 97 incompletions during the regular season. His knowledge of the NFL is less than encyclopedic – more on that shortly – and he settled for a B in the most difficult class he has taken at Stanford, a course on mechanics called Engineering 14.
Yet coach Jim Harbaugh is disinclined to find fault.
“Andrew is the real deal,” Harbaugh said. “He is the best player I’ve ever been around, and he’s even a finer young man. There’s nothing about him where I say I wish he could do this, or I wish he didn’t do this. He is just like my wife: He is perfect. You wouldn’t change a thing about him.”
Stanford’s passing paragon will take the national stage Monday evening in the Orange Bowl, when No. 5 Stanford (11-1) faces No. 12 Virginia Tech (11-2). It could be Luck’s final college game – although only a sophomore, he’s touted as the likely No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in April if he turns pro.
The BCS game matches two teams climbing in the polls since early in the season. Virginia Tech opened with losses to Boise State and lower-tier James Madison, then regrouped and went undefeated in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Stanford lost in October to Oregon, then swept its final seven regular-season games, the latest surge in a remarkable turnaround under Harbaugh after going 1-11 in 2006.
Luck was a high school junior in Houston when Stanford hired Harbaugh, who spent 15 seasons as an NFL quarterback.
“I did not really know his name, to be honest,” Luck said with a sheepish laugh. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
Soon enough, Luck accepted a scholarship offer from Harbaugh, and now the coach and quarterback have led the Cardinal to their first January bowl since 2000. Like Luck, Harbaugh might be bound for the NFL this year.
“He’s got to do what’s best for him,” Luck says, “and I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”
First there’s the matter of beating Virginia Tech, which happens to have a pretty good QB, too. Senior Tyrod Taylor was chosen ACC player of the year, and he’s often compared with one of his predecessors at Tech, Michael Vick.
Taylor seeks his third bowl win in his final college game.
“He’s a stud,” Luck said. “When the play breaks down, he’s making guys miss and making things happen. You hate to go against guys like that, because you’ve always got to be on your toes. You never know when they’re going to score.”
While Taylor’s mobility makes him dangerous, he needs to prove himself as a pocket passer to succeed in the NFL, and he’s confident he can do it.
“I believe I can play in any offense,” Taylor said. “Early in my career I was more of a runner. As I got older, I think I proved I can be a dropback passer. I can also use my feet, but I always keep my eyes downfield looking for a receiver.”
Taylor will leave Blacksburg as the school’s career leader in passing yards, rushing yards by a quarterback and total offense. He’s 34-7 as a starter, and like Luck, he wins raves for his leadership.
When the Hokies were 0-2, Taylor led a seniors-only meeting that stabilized the situation.
“His legacy is that we’ll always be talking about Tyrod Taylor,” offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. “That’s probably the best compliment I can give somebody.”
Luck reaps similar praise, although it’s possible he won’t leave in 2011. The son of former West Virginia and Houston Oilers quarterback Oliver Luck said he’s trying not to think a lot about his future until after the Orange Bowl, but no one seems to doubt he’s ready for the NFL.
“It’s a tough decision for Andrew, I’m sure,” said Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who coached in the NFL for 24 years. “But when he does come out, I’ll be shocked if he’s not a very good NFL quarterback.”
Luck will face a Tech defense ranked second in the nation with 22 interceptions. But in two years as a starter, Luck has been intercepted only 11 times while throwing 41 touchdown passes. He threw for 3,051 yards this year, completing 70 percent of his passes, and finished second to Auburn’s Cam Newton in the Heisman Trophy race.
Luck is 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds but mobile enough to run for 438 yards this season. And he’s tough: Scrambling against California, he threw a forearm into the chin of a safety and knocked him head over heels.
“Andrew looked at him for a second and then kept running,” associate head coach Greg Roman said. “It’s one of the best moments I’ve ever had as a coach, to witness that.”
How often do Luck’s coaches get mad at him? Roman pauses for 10 seconds, trying to recall the last time it happened.
“Hmm. Mad at him? Hmm,” Roman said. “It doesn’t happen very often.”
That’s partly because Luck rarely makes mental mistakes. A B-plus student majoring in architecture, Luck is interested in building stadiums when he’s done playing in them. He has mastered Stanford’s complicated offense – his wristband supposedly lists 350 plays – and Harbaugh has talked of letting him call plays next season.
Like Harbaugh, his players make Luck sound too good to be true.
“If there is any pick higher than the first pick, he would go there,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “When he gets to the next level, it will be amazing. I don’t think people realize how good he is.”
That may be partly Luck’s fault; he’s hardly one for self-promotion.
Luck’s a big reason Stanford has a shot at its first top-five finish since 1940, but teammates say when his image comes on TV, he turns it off or changes the channel.
“He’s so humble, sometimes it’s really painful to hear him talk,” senior Owen Marecic says with a laugh. “It’s absolutely genuine. But that’s what makes him so great. He has all this talent, but it doesn’t satisfy him in the least. He’s always trying to get better.”
So while Luck’s not really perfect, he is a perfectionist, hoping for a win Monday evening to complete Stanford’s near-perfect season.