Stanford proves it has staying power

Originally Published: January 1, 2013
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

PASADENA, Calif. -- Red, green and silver confetti covered the middle of the Rose Bowl field like a fresh coat of snow. Newly issued gray T-shirts that read "Tree Mendous" strained to cover the shoulder pads of several Stanford players.

[+] EnlargeCondoleezza Rice
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesStanford head coach David Shaw was congratulated by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who's currently a member of the Cardinal faculty.

Cardinal coach David Shaw, encircled by security personnel, slowly made his way toward a stadium tunnel when he was stopped by a slightly gap-toothed woman in a red down jacket. They exchanged hugs.

"Great job," said Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state who now serves on the Stanford faculty.

Moments later, the Stanford band, which prides itself on being cool, on being above it all, began chanting "Da-vid Shaw! Da-vid Shaw!"

This is what happens when a program that hasn't won a Rose Bowl in more than four decades, well, wins a Rose Bowl. Dignitaries appear. Players dance in confetti. Legacies begin to take form.

Stanford beat Wisconsin 20-14 on a shrimp cocktail-chilly Tuesday in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains. You could sort of see your breath and you definitely could see the Cardinal do what they usually do in wins: impose their will, play as physically as an older brother roughing up his younger brother, refuse to be intimidated by the moment.

"Let's just say to be in the same place as Jim Plunkett is pretty cool," Stanford guard Kevin Danser said. "It's definitely an accomplishment. It's something I'll always tell my kids, brag about with my kids, brag about to my friends. This is an experience that you can't replace."

The great Plunkett did lead the Cardinal to a Rose Bowl win in January 1971, but it was quarterback Don Bunce (bar bet alert) and the so-called "Thunderchickens" defense that won the January 1972 granddaddy of them all, Stanford's last Rose Bowl win.

And then a long, cold Rose Bowl winter.

Between 1972 and Tuesday, the Cardinal played in only one other Rose Bowl -- and lost. To Wisconsin and Barry Alvarez in 2000.

Alvarez came out of coaching retirement for this latest Tree versus Bucky matchup. Could you blame him? It's the Rose Bowl. And sorry, Oregon, it's the best team in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country.

What the game lacked in scoring and, you know, forward passes, it made up in grass stains and bruises. It was as old-school as Riddell cleats. If you played in the '70s, you know which ones I'm talking about.

"This is the purest form of football you can get," Danser said.

Oregon scores 20 points while getting its ankles taped. But remember, Stanford is the team that beat Oregon in Eugene in mid-November. It ended the Ducks' national championship hopes and revived the Cardinal's run for Pasadena.

So here they were Tuesday, rushing for 187 yards, running only 55 plays, punting six times. They're not interested in finesse. They're interested in trading helmet paint.

"I think it just shows Stanford is a powerhouse," Cardinal tight end Zach Ertz said. "Stanford is here to stay. It doesn't really matter what the writers say. USC, Oregon; we just to stick to our business."

USC was the AP preseason No. 1. The Trojans were last seen losing to a 6-7 Georgia Tech team in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. And, of course, USC lost to Stanford too.

Meanwhile, Oregon is 11-1 and faces Kansas State on Thursday night in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. But if not for Stanford, the Ducks would have been playing in the Discover BCS National Championship.

"We're good," Ertz said. "I think we're playing as well as anybody in the country. Unfortunately, the season's over, but it's a hell of a way to go out."

This is Stanford's third consecutive BCS bowl appearance. Last year they lost the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State with Andrew Luck as their quarterback.

[+] EnlargeStanford
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinal have been to BCS bowl games each of the last three seasons, but the Rose Bowl was the one they wanted most of all.

This year they started with Josh Nunes at QB and ended with Kevin Hogan. Now, all those who thought they'd also end up with 12 victories, raise your hands.

"But the thing that we knew is that we had a good team," Shaw said. "Andrew was as excited about this year coming up as anybody that we have."

It isn't often that a team loses a guy who will become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and win more games the following season. Then again, Stanford is used to this sort of thing.

"A couple of years ago we lost [star running back] Toby Gerhart," defensive back Usua Amanam said. "Couple of years ago we lost coach [Jim] Harbaugh [to the San Francisco 49ers]. This year we lost Andrew Luck. I think it's a testament to our program and how we train and how we prepare each and every season."

Yes, Stanford beat a five-loss (now six-loss) Wisconsin team. And yes, Alvarez hadn't coached since the 2005 season. And yes, Curt Phillips was the third quarterback Wisconsin started this season.

But the Badgers still had All-American running back Montee Ball. And a motivated, relaxed team. And the security net of Alvarez, who was 3-0 in Rose Bowl games.

It wasn't a game for the ages, but it was a victory Stanford will bear-hug for a very long time. If anybody understands that Rose Bowls don't grow on trees, it's Stanford.

Long after Shaw and his players had made their way into the locker room, the Stanford band collected near the end zone and began playing and dancing. Tuba players -- whose instruments featured drawings of Chairman Mao, Felix the Cat, The Riddler, among others -- bobbed up and down.

It was spontaneous. It was slightly uncool. It was wonderful.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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