Stanford 20, Wisconsin 14. This Rose Bowl was so good, so satisfying that even the Big 12's commissioner graced the Stanford sideline by game's end, beaming from ear to ear.
It was so important to former Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby, one of the early architects of the Cardinal's remarkable turnaround, that he came back to see his work finished. He shared a hearty handshake with his successor, Bernard Muir, below a screaming mass of over 50,000 fans. He then turned to congratulate David Shaw, but was blocked by the throng of photographers swarming an embrace between the head coach and Condoleezza Rice.
It was a quintessentially Stanford moment: this flurry of rapid-fire camera shutters, this mayhem headed into the Rose Bowl tunnel, this sheer joy that was 41 years in the making.
"It's been a personal journey for all of us. We have such a great amount of unity on this team," fifth-year senior Alex Debniak reflected afterward in the locker room. "The Rose Bowl is the pinnacle of everything we wanted to do. It was a battle tonight. It's been a hell of a journey, man."
A journey indeed, one ages in the making. The last time the university won the Rose Bowl, its sports teams were called the Indians, Richard Nixon was President, and gas cost 36 cents per gallon. But this first day of 2013 felt so much like the one that kicked off 1972. The famous "Thunderchickens" defensive front dominated Bo Schembechler's undefeated Michigan Wolverines on that day, holding an elite power running offense to 12 points en route to ultimate victory.
A Heroic Defensive Effort
This time around, four decades later, the new age Farm Boys front administered pain again. Wisconsin, a team fresh off a 539-rushing yard, 70-point performance, mustered only 87 total yards in the second half. Stanford shut them out over the game's final 30 minutes.
"Montee's hurting right now," Ben Gardner, the Wisconsin native once snubbed by his home state school, smiled in the immediate postgame chaos.
Despite the beating he took, all-time NCAA touchdown leader Montee Ball was not even on the receiving end of Stanford's most vicious hit. That distinction would belong to to wide receiver Chase Hammond, who was brutally shaken up by Jordan Richards' massive third quarter contact that dislodged the ball and jolted Pasadena.
Time and time again, a different Cardinal defender would seize the spotlight to stymie another Wisconsin drive. Once, it was Josh Mauro who ripped through the line of scrimmage to destroy the Badgers in the backfield. David Parry threw a similar party, all part of an effort that set up 17 combined tackles on the interior for A.J. Tarpley and Shayne Skov.
The Stanford secondary then sealed the deal in the same way that the unit completed the team's 2012 defensive surge. Usua Amanam, the nickel back not expected to play all that much against the Badgers' jumbo-sized attack, intercepted Curt Phillips to seal it. Not surprisingly, the Cardinal's ultimate clinching highlight was the sum of more than one individual effort: Mauro re-directed the pass at the line of scrimmage.
"We're so deep, we've known that all year long. Everywhere you turn, there's a new guy making a play in a crucial situation," Gardner said. "We're not a team of star players. We're a team in the true sense of the word."
Even the secondary's eye-popping work extended beyond Richards' mini-earthquake and Amanam's heroics. True freshman Alex Carter -- the guy who certainly doesn't look like one -- provided stiff run support, tossing aside a block and freezing the momentum of Phillips a yard short of the first down marker on a crucial conversion attempt down the stretch.
Skov was punishing in his own right, muscling his way out of an open-field block to make a superb touchdown-saving tackle on a screen pass in the second quarter. It was a play that represented Stanford's remarkable progress over the years: It wasn't long ago that fly sweeps and open field screens sliced the Cardinal defense like a hot knife knife gashed through butter.
Not anymore. Wisconsin's only points -- and only offensive success -- came in the second quarter, when four tipped passes somehow found their way into the hands of Badgers' receivers. In the game's three other frames, Barry Alvarez saw his squad complete only three throws against Stanford's defense, a statistic that suffocated the Badgers' mighty rushing attack.
Offensive Ingenuity: A Table Setter
Early on, the Cardinal seized New Year's Day with offensive creativity not seen since the days of No. 12. The game's two opening drives resembled a juggernaut that looked like a hybrid of the Andrew Luck era attack, Oregon, and what USC's offense should have looked like in 2012.
With center Sam Schwartzstein paving the way 20 yards downfield, blocking was seamless. With Jamal-Rashad Patterson (wearing the name Holland-Patterson on his jersey in memory of his brother, who was shot and killed last year) and Zach Ertz snatching deep floaters in traffic, receiving was spectacular. With Kelsey Young and Stepfan Taylor playing an effective speed-power combination, Stanford's scheme was flawless.
And then, of course, there was the redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, hanging in the teeth of a smearing hit to unleash his perfectly-placed downfield bomb to Ertz that made it all click.
"You can never watch the rush. You've got to stare down the barrel of the gun," Hogan told me after. "It didn't hurt as bad as it would have if it was an incompletion."
The Cardinal shocked the Badgers en route to their early 14-0 lead, highlighted by a 34-yard reverse pass from Terrell to Patterson, Young's subsequent sprint to the end zone, and the aforementioned 42-yard Ertz connection. All these plays were part of an early-game offensive script that meticulously crafted Stanford's first two touchdown possessions. Most significantly, the Cardinal made it a point to run out of passing formations and pass out of running formations -- the bomb to Ertz came out of a goal line package with no wide receivers.
Enough for the Kill
This offensive creativity, fueled by unpredictably, would elude Stanford the rest of the way. It left when Young disappeared from the action and unimaginative, poor play calls from inside the five yard line took over on the team's third possession.
But two touchdowns were enough for the Farm Boys' defense to work with, particularly after Jordan Williamson nailed two perfect field goals -- including a nasty 47-yarder that hooked right down the middle -- to provide the Rose Bowl difference and officially push last year's Fiesta Bowl nightmare by the wayside.
Punter Daniel Zychlinski, Williamson's holder, also delivered a hero's performance after the Cardinal offense stalled down the stretch. As shadows overtook the Rose Bowl's field and the temperature plummeted in the Arroyo, the game turned into a battle for field position. Zychlinksi finished with an average of 45.5 yards per boot over the course of his six punts, an eye-opening figure on the very same field where he was hurt just over a month prior.
The defense would handle the rest before handing the keys to Stepfan Taylor for one final Rose Bowl-clinching clock bleed. In the huddle, the senior promised his teammates that he would deliver his career's hardest run on third down with one yard separating the Cardinal from glory.
Taylor plowed forward for five behind an offensive line that had finally broken the will of Wisconsin's defense. Kevin Danser's solid pull blocks and Andrus Peat's rumbles into the second level had taken a toll on the Badgers. Even young receiver Devon Cajuste contributed to the tireless physicality that eventually beat Wisconsin into submission.
"We preach body blows in the beginning. We'll hit them in the stomach, we'll hit them in the ribs. Body blows, body blows," freshman guard Joshua Garnett said. "You'll see them at the end of the game, we'll hit them with the knockout punch, because they're so tired from those body blows, they just quit. That's when we capitalize."
A Bright Future
Character and cruelty iced it, just the way the visionaries who resurrected Stanford from the dark ages in 2007 drew it up. Back then, "Rose Bowl" was used as a rallying cry to break up practice huddles. Those on the outside only chuckled, unaware of the physical beast that the Farm Boys were patiently growing.
Now, the monster has arrived to the tune of 35 wins in three years and physicality that has been used as a model for elite college football programs across the nation. Prior to 2010, Stanford had never won 11 games in a single season. Now, buoyed by a pair of 12-win campaigns, they've recorded three such years since. Sights are reasonably set on 14 victories next season, a journey that can potentially end up back at the Rose Bowl -- not for the New Years' Day game, but for the National Championship.
"We don't necessarily recruit people based on the talent that they have, but rather on the character that they have at the end of the day," Debniak explained while predicting sustained future success for the team. "So keeping good, high-quality character people in here that can play our style of football, that's what's going to keep this program going. It's a very bright future for us."
It's definitely bright enough to keep both January 1 and January 6, 2014 open on the calendar.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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