PASADENA, Calif. (GMC) -- The football landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade, and although it was wonderful to see the Stanford Cardinal playing in the Orange Bowl two years ago and in the Fiesta Bowl last year, for those of us who are above a certain age and remember a time when the Rose Bowl was the only thing that mattered for Pac-10 schools, Tuesday afternoon was special. It was more than just a BCS bowl game, after all. It was the Granddaddy. It was single greatest game in the history of the sport. It was the Rose Bowl.
Making it even more interesting, the team across the field from the Cardinal was Wisconsin, the same school that had beaten Stanford in the 2000 Rose Bowl, the last time the Cardinal had played in Pasadena on New Year's Day.
Stanford won the coin flip and chose to start with the ball as they always do. I'm guessing the first drive went exactly as David Shaw and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton drew it up. Stepfan Taylor ran up the middle three times for 17 yards, Kevin Hogan scrambled to convert a third down, and he hit tight end Zach Ertz for an easy nine-yard gain. It was just what everyone has come to expect from the Stanford offense: methodical, predictable, and effective.
But as methodical and predictable as the offense has been over the past four seasons, there has always been play action. When the coaching staff has sensed that the opponents' linebackers and even safeties are thinking run too much and are crashing towards the line of scrimmage in anticipation of the handoff, they've gone to play action to counter this aggressiveness.
And so on the sixth play of the game, on 1st and 10 from midfield, Stanford lined up in their typical wildcat look with Hogan on the bench, running back Anthony Wilkerson lined up behind center, and the lightning-quick Kelsey Young split out wide to the right. Young came sprinting down the line just before the snap went to Wilkerson and then took the handoff and looked to be continuing around the left end. But instead of completing the sweep, Young flipped the ball to senior wide receiver Drew Terrell, who was running towards him.
The double reverse is normally designed to take advantage of an aggressive defense that's first charging in one direction but then has to retreat immediately as the ball heads in the other direction, but Stanford was looking to do even more on this play. Terrell was clearly looking to pass as soon as he took the flip from Young, and his target was senior wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson (wearing the last name Holland-Patterson on his back to honor his deceased younger brother).
With all the film the Wisconsin defense must have studied over the past five weeks, you'd think all the defenders would've cheated up to the line of scrimmage as soon as they saw Wilkerson behind center and definitely when they saw Young take the handoff on the sweep. All season long, Stanford has done nothing but run out of the wildcat. I'm guessing that when the coaches drew this play up and thought about running it on the first series, they must have imagined that Patterson would be wide open, ten or twenty yards beyond the defense. But the interesting thing about this play was that the three Wisconsin defensive backs who had originally lined up ten to fifteen yards off the ball all refused to play the run. Patterson did his best to sell the deception by jogging through the middle of the field as the razzle dazzle was going on behind him, but when he broke into a sprint and Terrell looked downfield towards him, Patterson was definitely not open.
No matter. Wide receivers don't get the chance to throw the ball too often, and when they do, they almost never worry about the coverage. They just throw. Terrell just threw it, and Patterson just caught it, leaping high in the air to make a phenomenal catch in front of defensive back Shelton Johnson. It was an amazing play, both in design and execution.
Set up at the Wisconsin 16, the Cardinal took just one more play to score. The next play wasn't as spectacular, but it was just as creative in design and placement. Hogan was back under center, and Taylor was in the backfield, but after a fake to Taylor, again Young came across the field to take the ball on the jet sweep. This time he kept it, dashed around the left end, and followed the enormous Sam Schwartzstein who was pulling from his center position as the rest of the line was driving to the right to sell the initial fake to Taylor. Young scored easily, and Stanford had a 7-0 lead.
The defense came out on the field to face a Wisconsin team that seemed fairly one-dimensional on the surface. They'd surely run the ball, featuring Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball. But on their first play from scrimmage, they took a page out of the Cardinal's book and looked to make a splashy statement. Melvin Gordon (not Ball) took the handoff from quarterback Curt Phillips, but he was looking to pass. Safety Jordan Richards raced through the line to make the play, but Gordon threw the ball away to avoid taking a loss. Gordon was flagged for intentional grounding, however, and Richards was credited with the sack. The Stanford defense leads the nation in sacks, so it was no surprise that they recorded one on the game's opening play. What was suprising was that it would be the only sack they'd have all game long.
Ball ran for 24 yards and a first down on the next play, but the defense tightened after that and forced a punt.
Hogan and the offense came back out onto the field to start the next drive at their own 21, and they picked up right where they had left off. Hogan threw a strike to Terrell on a designed roll out for 19 yards, then Taylor carried twice for 14 yards to put the ball on the Wisconsin 46. After those two runs, they went back to play action. Hogan faked the handoff to Taylor, then dropped back to pass. With Badger defensive end Ethan Hemer bearing down on him, Hogan stood in and waited for Ertz to break free down field. Hogan released the ball a split second before taking a crushing hit, but his pass was on the money. Ertz hauled it in at the 3 yard line for a forty-six-yard gain. Hogan saw none of that, though, because he was on his back. After the game he casually explained, "The hit didn't feel as bad as it would've if it was an incompletion... You can never watch the rush. You've gotta stare down the barrel of the gun and trust your offensive line and trust that the receivers will get open down field, and that's what I did."
Stepfan Taylor scored on the next play, and Stanford was up 14-0. It was all so easy that there were thoughts of a blowout and a comfortable game for Cardinal fans. We should've known better.
After dallying with the pass on its opening possession, Wisconsin went back to basics on a 14-play drive (13 rushes) that ate up 8:17 on the clock and covered sixty-seven yards. (As it turned out, they could've used 68.) Montee Ball was featured heavily, as he had nine carries for 34 yards. It felt like the defense was doing a good job containing Ball (that 24-yard ramble on the opening possession would be his longest gain of the day by far). On this drive he was effective gaining yards after contact (and even scored what looked to be a touchdown before it was negated by a holding penalty), but when the Badgers found themselves at 4th and goal from the one yard line, a curious thing happened. Montee Ball was called to the sideline in favor of James White.
This is no knock on White, but when you have a player like Ball, who has scored more touchdowns than anyone in the history of the game, he would seem like option number one. But the Badgers went a different direction. They lined up with White in the wildcat, and the Stanford defenders, particularly defensive end Ben Gardner, a Wisconsin native who wasn't offered a scholarship by the Badgers or any other Big Ten team, were able to key on the run. Gardner shot into a gap and made the initial hit on White before the rest of his teammates joined in to finish the play.
The defense surged off the field, and again it seemed like the Badgers were simply overmatched. A 99-yard drive from the offense might've cemented that idea, but Hogan and company weren't able to earn a single first down and ended up punting from beneath the shadow of their own goal post.
Wisconsin took that punt and needed only 2:01 to cover 49 yards for their first touchdown of the game. In a drive that showed the diversity of the Badgers' offense, Wisconsin played two different quarterbacks (Joel Stave and Curt Phillips) and featured Melvin Gordon at tailback. Ball didn't get a carry until the drive's final play, an eleven-yard touchdown run.
Stanford answered that score with an impressive drive of its own, one that showcased what we'll likely see next fall. Anthony Wilkerson rumbled up the middle for nineteen yards on the first play of the drive, then took a direct snap out of the wildcat for eight more on the next play. The next three plays were all passes to sophomore wide receiver Ty Montgomery -- two completions totalling twenty yards sandwiching an incompletion. The drive eventually stalled at the thirty, but Jordan Williamson, whose last BCS appearance is finally fading away, nailed a 47-yard field goal to give the Cardinal a 17-7 lead.
After the two teams traded punts, Wisconsin's offense took over deep in their own territory with only 2:23 to play in the half. It certainly looked like Stanford would take that ten-point lead into the locker room, but it took only about a minute for that outlook to change. Ball snapped off runs of five and nine yards, then Phillips completed a pass to Jared Abbrederis for eleven more to move the ball out to the Wisconsin 40.
The Stanford defense has excelled all season long at getting their hands on passes, either for interceptions or deflections, but on this day the ball just didn't seem to bounce their way. Linebacker Chase Thomas had dropped back into coverage on the Abbrederis play, and although he was able to leap and get his hand on the pass, the ball still somehow fluttered into the receiver's arms. It wouldn't be the last time this happened.
Phillips dropped back to pass again on the next play. Stanford's defensive line brought some pressure, but Thomas and Trent Murphy were forced deep beyond the pocket, allowing Phillips to step up and scramble to his left. Initially it looked like he might only make it back to the line of scrimmage, but he picked up a few blocks and suddenly he was dancing down the sideline for 38 yards and the Badgers were in business at the Stanford 22.
Two plays later, the Cardinal defense got unlucky again. Phillips dropped back on 3rd and 4 and flipped a pass over the middle towards his tight end, Sam Arneson. The pass was delivered a bit late, and linebacker A.J. Tarpley read the play perfectly. Tarpley streaked across in front of Arneson, extended his hands... and simply missed the football. Tarpley and the defensive linemen who had turned to follow the flight of the ball were stunned. Two plays later the Badgers were in the end zone, and the Stanford lead was only three, 17-14.
The defenses took over in the third quarter, but the Stanford defense was just a bit better. Wisconsin's first three possessions of the second half saw them run only 10 plays for a total of 20 yards. The Badgers finally showed some signs of life on their third possession when Phillips opened the drive with a thirteen-yard scramble for the first first down of the half for either team. Two plays later it looked for a moment like Wisconsin would drive even deeper when Phillips saw wide receiver Chase Hammond wide open down the left sideline. He floated a perfect pass directly into his receiver's hands, but Hammond dropped it, probably because he saw a freight train heading in his direction. Safety Jordan Richards put his shoulder into Hammond's chest just as the ball dropped to the turf. It was a vicious hit, but it was completely legal.
Stanford managed their first first down of the half when Hogan picked up 13 yards on a rollout, but a holding penalty eventually doomed the drive and forced yet another punt.
The punting contest continued into the fourth quarter. Nine consecutive possessions ended in punts, and the mood in the stands was apprehensive, to say the least. With Stanford clinging to that three-point lead and the offense struggling, there was a fear that any slip by the defense could result in a score that the Cardinal offense might not be able to answer.
But as nerve-wracking as it was, it was impossible not to appreciate what the defense was doing. In forcing those five straight Badger punts, the Stanford defense had lined up for 19 plays and allowed just 56 yards and two first downs. Montee Ball had been effective in the first half and would finish with 100 yards rushing on the day, but the Cardinal absolutely dominated him in the second half. Coach Shaw revealed that the coaches had challenged the defense at halftime to eliminate Ball's yards after contact, and they succeeded. The Doak Walker Award winner gained just 13 yards on 7 carries after halftime. That's domination. (In fact, after his opening 24-yard carry, Ball rushed 23 times for 76 yards, good for just 3.3 yards per carry.)
A questionable personal foul gave the Cardinal an extra fifteen yards after punt returner Drew Terrell was run into after calling (incredibly late) for a fair catch, and that extra field position seemed to be just what the offense needed. Starting at their own 44 with 10:45 to play, the Cardinal finally looked familiar. Taylor ran up the middle for nine yards on first down, moving the ball into Badger territory for the first time since the second quarter. Taylor picked up the first down on the next play, then Hogan went to work, hitting Zach Ertz for nine yards, then picking up a crucial first down two plays later on a twelve-yard run up the middle off of a read-option.
With the Wisconsin defense looking tired for the first time in the game, the offensive line started imposing their will as Taylor and Wilkerson carried the ball for 23 yards over the next five plays, pushing the ball all the way to the Wisconsin 5. With all the momentum building and the Stanford crowd on its feet, it seemed like everything was pointing towards a game-sealing touchdown. Hogan took the snap and rolled out to his right with Ertz running with him along the goal line and Levine Toilolo sprinting across the back of the end zone. Both tight ends were open, and it seemed like Ertz was the easier option, but Hogan looked to Toilolo. An accurate pass would've ended in a touchdown and ignited a celebration, but Hogan rifled it hard and high. Incomplete.
Williamson nailed the chip shot for a 20-14 lead, but if felt like a huge missed opportunity. With only 4:23 left on the clock, a touchdown would have effectively ended the game. Now a Wisconsin touchdown might do the same thing for them.
But then I realized something. This was the way it was supposed to be. If this Stanford team was going to win the Rose Bowl, it would have to be the defense that would win it. I looked at the scoreboard and said out loud, "This is poetic."
One of the things you gain from watching a game in person is a deeper sense of a team's emotional state. During the long television timeout before Wisconsin's final possession, the Stanford defense stood out on the field waiting for the cameras to come back on, and they were ready, all eleven of them. They wagged their heads up and down and bounced on their toes like boxers. The message was clear -- this was the moment they had been planning for since the start of spring practice, and they couldn't wait to get to work. Their confidence was infectious.
The Badgers earned two first downs, then found themselves in Stanford territory for the first time since the first half at 2nd and 5 on the Cardinal 49. Phillips dropped back and fired a short pass towards tight end Jacob Pedersen over the middle. The Badgers had gotten lucky twice earlier in the game when deflected passes had still found their targets, but when Phillips's pass hit defensive end Josh Mauro's helmet as he leapt in the air, Wisconsin's luck ran out. Defensive back Usua Amanam dove in front of Pedersen to make the interception, and the Badgers were almost done. Stepfan Taylor bulled his way to a first down a few minutes later, and the clock ticked down to zero. Stanford 20, Wisconsin 14.
For the first time in forty-one years, the Stanford Cardinal were Rose Bowl champions. As red, white, and green confetti poured into the night sky, Shayne Skov wrapped Coach Shaw into a bear hug, not just to celebrate with him, but also to hold him still for a Gatorade bath from seniors Alex Debniak and Daniel Zychlinski. Closer to midfield another senior, Stepfan Taylor, accepted the final handoff of his Stanford career as a teammate pushed the game ball into his chest. They were champions, all of them.
But it wasn't until the next day when I watched the recording of the game that I saw the moment I'll never forget from this celebration. After all the confetti had settled to the ground and Coach Shaw and his family had posed for pictures in front of the Rose Bowl trophy, he climbed down from the stage and found his father, Willie Shaw. The elder Shaw had seemed ready to be named Stanford's head coach back in 1992 before Bill Walsh was hired, and David Shaw has spoken often about how much it means to his father that his son finally got that job. There were tears in the son's eyes as he embraced his father, and it was about a lot more than just football.
Next Shaw hugged his mother, and the microphones caught her saying what any mother would say to her child. "I'm so proud."
We're all so proud.
[Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images]