STANFORD — Stanford coach David Shaw sat his players down this week to make sure they understood this year's annual East Coast trip carries special meaning.
Not because it's crucial for the Cardinal to get coaches out on distant recruiting trips, which it is. Or because it will be the only time friends and families for some players can attend a game this year, which it will be.
No, it's because of the opponent: Army.
“We're playing against young men that are willing to do some of the things that we're not willing to do down the road,” Shaw said Tuesday. “Our freedom is in their hands. We love them, we appreciate them.”
And this week, they will try to beat them.
The matchup between No. 5 Stanford (1-0) and Army (1-1) at West Point on Saturday has a historical significance for the Cardinal and personal significance to Shaw.
In 1928, head coach and New York native Glenn “Pop” Warner took Stanford east of the Mississippi for the first time in a 26-0 loss against Army in front of some 86,000 fans at the old Yankee Stadium.
Shaw, whose father served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, also said about “10 to 12” of his current players — a roster with roots in 30 states — have a family connection to the service academies.
Shaw has a cousin serving overseas in the Army now, his grandfather was in the Navy and he has a couple of aunts and uncles who were in the military.
Willie Shaw, a former NFL and college assistant coach who is often around the Stanford team, said he enlisted in the Air Force out of his San Diego high school because he wanted to learn about electronics. He served from 1962-66, including stops all over Asia and the Far East, rising to the rank of sergeant.
The war in Vietnam escalated shortly after he enlisted, and the Air Force sent him overseas to fix computer systems in cockpits and other armored electronic instruments.
“You look down and see a 500-pound bomb strapped to a plane. We knew they were going to be dropped on people,” Willie Shaw said. “It'll make you grow up real fast.”
The most recent connection between Stanford and Army football came on the recruiting trail. Former two-way star Owen Marecic, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Cleveland Browns in 2011, chose the Cardinal over the Black Knights.
Wide receiver Devon Cajuste also is among several Stanford players with Army ties. His sister served in the Army and Black Knights linebacker Tyler McLees played for a rival New York high school that would always beat Cajuste's team.
“I was waiting for this game for two years because now it's my turn,” Cajuste said.
The visit to West Point this week will also include more than a game.
Stanford is taking a flight Thursday afternoon to New York to allow for an extra day to adjust to the time change, especially with a 9 a.m. PDT scheduled kickoff. Shaw has a bus tour organized around the gothic-style buildings on campus Friday for his players to learn about Army's history before playing near the banks of the Hudson River at Michie Stadium on Saturday.
“I'm going to be a tourist for a little bit,” Shaw said.
Stanford, which opened as a 30-point favorite by Las Vegas bookmakers, should have a distinct size advantage at the line of scrimmage. However, Shaw said Army should not be overlooked for the same reason he respects the academy: attention to detail and discipline.
The Black Knights led the nation with 369.8 yards on the ground per game last season behind a triple-option offense. While Stanford has been the Pac-12's best defense the last few years, especially against the run, Shaw said the physicality and organization Army plays with will present a unique challenge.
“I respect what they do. I really do,” Shaw said. “They're determined to do what they do and do it as well as they can do it. And they challenge you to stop it.”
NOTES: Stanford FB Ryan Hewitt will make the trip to Army but likely won't play as he recovers from a lower-leg bruise that's not considered serious. … Dallas Lloyd will continue to see limited playing time as a wildcat-style QB, but Evan Crower will remain the primary backup to Kevin Hogan, Shaw said. … RB Tyler Gaffney, who ran for 104 yards and two TDs in the season opener against San Jose State in his first game back after playing baseball in the minors last year, said he was a little sore but should be fine. “Last time I had hit someone,” Gaffney said, “it was a catcher.”