Before the 2012 season began, Stanford identified its formula for success in the post-Andrew Luck era. The days of 50-plus point offensive explosions and blowouts would probably be few and far between. Instead, the Cardinal would rely on a consistent run game and stingy defense to win games.
And in the biggest Stanford football game in four decades, that's exactly what happened. Stanford succeeded in the Rose Bowl the way it had all year - by doing just enough on offense and playing suffocating defense to win a close game.
"For us, we wouldn't expect it any other way," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "This is the way we've played all year. We know it's going to be tight, and we know it's going to be close. At the end of the game, we're going to find a way to win. That's what our guys did."
Tip in Stanford's favor
Several times in the first half Stanford defenders tipped passes by Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips only to see Badger receivers catch the tipped balls. That's not to mention the interception linebacker A.J. Tarpley let slip through his hands late in the first half, which would have prevented a Wisconsin touchdown.
"You only have so many opportunities and when you don't start to capitalize on some of those opportunities, yeah, you worry a little bit," Stanford outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson said. "But these guys keep playing, keep competing, they keep creating those opportunities."
At the most critical juncture in the second half, Stanford indeed created another opportunity. And Bay Area native Usua Amanam capitalized on it. On 2nd and 5 from the Stanford 49-yard-line, Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips' pass was deflected by Cardinal defensive lineman Josh Mauro.
"It was a max drop, so basically (I was) just playing the quarterback," Amanam said. "I happened to see him go to the middle of the field, and I just pedaled to the right, and I think a D line man got his hand on the ball, and fortunately the ball just fell in my hands."
Script works to perfection
Stanford knew that it needed to show a few offensive wrinkles to move the ball against Wisconsin's stout defense.
"We knew that this was a really good defense," Cardinal running backs coach Mike Sanford said. "We went through and watched the explosive cut-ups, the plays that had big yards - 15-plus yards in the passing game and 12-plus in the running game, and it was a short, short cut-up the entire season."
In response, the Cardinal showed looks and formations that it hadn't before, including a deep pass by Drew Terrell out of the Wildcat formation and a reverse to Kelsey Young which went for a touchdown.
"We knew we were going to have to get those big guys up front running laterally a little bit. We knew we were going to have to use some misdirection," Sanford said. "That was Coach Shaw's big deal, and Coach Pep and Coach Bloomgren, when we were putting the first 15 scripted plays together we knew that was going to have to be a part of our identity to start the game out, to get these guys running laterally and hopefully pound them late."
The script worked about as well as Stanford could have imagined - the Card scored touchdowns on both of its scripted drives.
Defending the sweep
Stanford has been victimized by the sweep before. In 2009, Oregon State and the Rodgers' brothers gashed Stanford's defense in a 38-28 victory in Corvallis.
But the 2012 Cardinal defense is a different beast than it was in 2009. And with few exceptions, Stanford's defense did an exceptional job containing Wisconsin and freshman running back Melvin Gordon in the perimeter running game. Gordon did average 5.7 yards per carry, but never broke any runs of more than 20 yards.
"The big thing was making sure we set good edges, which we did for most of the game, but not every play, because there were some of those they had success with," Lance Anderson said. "And then getting everybody running to the ball, taking good angles and being able to tackle. And when we had breakdowns it was either we lost something on the edge, we missed a tackle we didn't take a good angle and they had a little success. When we did things right we defended it pretty well."
Stanford's defense did a fine job defending Montee Ball and the rest of the Badgers' run game, too. Leaving quarterback Curt Phillips' rushing total out of the equation, the Cardinal held the Badgers' running backs to 155 yards and under four yards per carry.
"They were doing some different things on the perimeter," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "They were doing some line stunts that we were having some problems with; and, quite frankly, they're a very good defensive front. We knew that coming in. They're one of the Top 5, I think, in the country against the run."
Sanford at home in Pasadena
Though this year's game was Stanford running back coach Mike Sanford's first Rose Bowl as a coach, he's intimately familiar with the Rose Bowl and its significance. Sanford attended two Rose Bowls as a coach's son when his father, Mike Sanford, Sr., coached at USC.
"This game is truly like none other," Sanford said. "You can tell how much this meant to the Stanford faithful and just to my family and just our heritage, both my parents being USC alums growing up down here in the shadow of the Rose Bowl, this is something that of course we all wanted to achieve. To be able to have a small part, if that, in a championship for this university means so much. I don't know if it's quite set in for all of us yet.
"This is the first time since, what, 1972. For me that's pretty significant. The fact that my dad was a part of the 1973 Rose Bowl championship team as a player, so that's a lot of time in between then. Very few of our coaching staff was even born then, so it's a really awesome achievement and it says so much about this senior class, what they've meant to us."
Sanford, Sr. is now the head coach of the Indiana State football program, but found time to make the trip to Pasadena to support his son and the Cardinal.
Oh, and Stanford's victory in the Rose Bowl elevated Sanford, Jr.'s winning percentage in the Grandaddy at 100 percent; a perfect three-for-three.
Big names soak in celebration
Several former Stanford players were spotted on the field during the postgame celebration, including Michael Thomas, Jonathan Martin, Johnson Bademosi and Chris Owusu. Martin even partook in the singing of the alma mater with the current Stanford players.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice also joined the celebration. She was surrounded by cameras and media members but still had a chance to share an embrace with Cardinal coach David Shaw.