The tears and hugs in Stanford's locker room after its 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the 100th Rose Bowl were about far more than just the gut-wrenching defeat. The game marked the end of an era, the final stand for the most heralded class of seniors in program history.
The future remains bright for Stanford football, but the Cardinal will have to succeed without the group that played an instrumental role in turning the program from cellar-dweller to top-25 mainstay.
"I even got emotional coming over (to the Rose Bowl Stadium) on the bus," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said. "I was thinking about my last time with Khalil Wilkes and Kevin Danser and Conor McFadden and then the decisions that lie ahead for a David Yankey or a Cameron Fleming. Knowing what Tyler Gaffney's meant to me this year and meant to our team. Those things kind of hit me on the bus when we pulled into the stadium and I was like, 'Damn, it really is the last game.'
"The emotion you see is pure. A lot of love for these guys. Really proud of what these guys have accomplished. What Coach Shaw said was (that this was) the most decorated senior class in Stanford history, (and it's) absolutely true. Love them all."
In the locker room, Bloomgren spent several minutes engaged in one-on-one conservations several of his seniors. Across the room, senior center Conor McFadden embraced several of his coaches, thanking them for the time they had spent together and the relationships they had built. The last player to leave the locker room was Shayne Skov, the heart and soul of Stanford's team and one of the best and most impactful players - regardless of position - to ever wear a Cardinal uniform.
And though the loss was still fresh in the minds of all Stanford's players, several of the Cardinal's seniors were able to share some perspective on all that they had accomplished in the moments following the game.
"The brotherhood I've formed with these guys, how we work, how we grind with them. That's something I'll never forget and I'll always cherish for the rest of my life," Kevin Danser said.
"I remember coming in when Stanford was 5-7 the year before and telling schools that I wanted to go to Stanford," Khalil Wilkes said. "They didn't believe that we were going to be able to do what we've been able to do. I just have a blessing to be with this senior class, to be able to get four straight BCS bowl games, it was an unbelievable honor and something that I'm definitely going to always remember. The sky is the limit for these news guys. they're very talented and I'm sure they're going to still have that hunger in them to get to this part and hopefully the national championship."
"Obviously it's a painful loss and guys in here are disappointed," fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner said. "But I'm proud of what we've done over the years and proud of what our senior class has accomplished. We've really changed the landscape of Stanford football for the better and that's all you can ask to do as a class coming in as freshmen. It's been a great ride. I love these guys."
The next step in the journey for Gardner, Josh Mauro, Shayne Skov Trent Murphy, Tyler Gaffney is the NFL. Center Khalil Wilkes also plans to give professional football a shot. Guard Kevin Danser is considering trying his hand at the NFL, but could also return to Stanford for a co-term program.
For many of the Cardinal's redshirt juniors, a major decision remains. A.J. Tarpley, Henry Anderson, Ed Reynolds, David Parry, Cameron Fleming and David Yankey all have one year of collegiate eligibility remaining. But each is also an NFL prospect, and could choose to forgo his fifth year. Those players must make their decisions by the January 15th deadline.
Shifting gears, several Stanford players and coaches addressed pressing Rose Bowl questions after the game.
How did Michigan State's defense do such a good job slowing Stanford in the ground game? "Same thing they've done all year," Mike Bloomgren said. "And what I mean by that is their safeties fit things in credibly well and incredibly fast. And they didn't miss many tackles."
How much did the absence of the intermediate passing game hurt Stanford? "I don't think we planned on having a lot of intermediate passing game in this plan," Mike Bloomgren said. "We wanted to take shots. We felt like that was what the defense probably gave us more of, more opportunities for. That's what we were trying to do, kind of like what we always do: Take calculated risks and the shots were the things that looked great to us on film."
Stanford scored 10 points on its first three offensive drives but only three points on its last nine possessions. Did Michigan State make any defensive adjustments to slow the Cardinal? "I think it was more of what we did," offensive lineman Cameron Fleming said. "I think we took our foot off the gas a little bit and they caught up with us and from there on, they kind of had our number. We tried to fight back but they matched our intensity the whole time."
"Not really," Khalil Wilkes said. "I'll say as a whole they just played better, held their gaps longer and fought harder than they did the first half. Usually a lot of teams against us, they kind of feel the ground and pound and usually start to falter. They didn't do that."
On those 4th downs, that's your strength, that's why you wanted to run the ball there? "Absolutely, because when I don't do that everybody goes crazy, we should have done this, we should have done that, so I don't worry about any of that stuff," David Shaw said. "I'm going to put the ball in the hands of our guys and put it on the offensive line, we're going to go for it on 4th down in that situation, because we'll put it back on our defense. We'll go for a field goal down by four, because we put it on our defense to get the ball back, and that's what they did. I think our coaches did a phenomenal job. We got beat today by a really good football team."
What was the call on the final 4th and 1, and what do you remember from that play: "It was a fullback dive," Khalil Wilkes said. "Felt like we did pretty well on the defensive linemen but the linebacker jumped over top and made a great play on Ryan Hewitt. It was just hard to get that yard with everybody crashing down and linebackers jumping over top."
From your vantage point, were there one or two things schematically or in terms of adjustments that they made that really tipped the scales in their favor?: "They did a good job exposing us in the seams in our pass coverage," Ben Gardner said. "They hit us with a couple of posts on the back side and really opened up the field for them. And then they started to push the tempo a little bit with the run game."