After a 14-point flourish to start the game, the Stanford offense went stagnant in the 99th Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.
But the Cardinal leaned on its most reliable commodity to secure its first Rose Bowl victory since 1972.
The Stanford defense, which came into the game as the third-best in the nation at stopping the run, held the Big Ten Conference champions scoreless and to 81 yards of total offense in the second half to seal a 20-14 win.
The knockout blow came on Wisconsin’s final drive, after a 22-yard field goal from Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson extended the Cardinal (12-2) lead to six points with 4:23 remaining. With the Badgers (8-6) at the Cardinal 49-yard line, Stanford defensive back Usua Amanam intercepted a pass from Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips.
Three plays later — all rushes from Stepfan Taylor, who ran for 88 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and was named the game’s offensive MVP — the Cardinal got their final first down and kneeled to wind the clock out.
“For us, we wouldn’t expect it any other way,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, who became the first black coach to win a Rose Bowl. “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."
Amanam was named the game’s defensive MVP, but as well as the Stanford defense played, the Cardinal offense’s inability to score touchdowns the first quarter kept the Badgers close.
After Stanford took a 17-14 lead into halftime, the two teams punted on the first nine possessions of the second half and the game was nearly ground to a halt until Williamson’s field goal, which was the the only score after the break.
During the series of scoreless possessions, Stanford didn’t advance the ball into Wisconsin territory and the Badgers only got the ball past the 50-yard line once.
Four of Stanford punter Daniel Zychlinski’s six punts came in the exchange, and the fifth-year senior’s three punts in the third quarter equaled the combined total of first downs by both teams in the frame. Zychlinski averaged 45.5 yards per punt and pinned the Badgers inside the 20-yard line twice.
“I just went out there and did the job the best I could to help this team win,” Zychlinski said. “I know my job is under-appreciated, but at the end of the day, the results showed in the field-position game, and it’s so huge, especially tonight.”
The first two Stanford drives of the game, however, made the Cardinal look like an offensive juggernaut.
It only took the Cardinal seven plays to score on the game’s opening drive, capped by a 16-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman running back Kelsey Young, then Stanford immediately pushed the lead to 14-0 after a Wisconsin punt on a five-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard score by Taylor.
“We started out fast,” said Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, who had a game-high 64 yards receiving on three catches. “We got up 14-0 and [Wisconsin] made some very good adjustments, especially defensively. Their linebackers were flowing very fast to the running game and when we get negative plays on first down, it sets us up for failure."
The Stanford defense wasn’t short on impact plays in the first half either, most notably when Wisconsin running back James White was stopped at the Stanford 1-yard line on fourth and goal early in the second quarter. White took a direct snap and ran straight forward, but Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner sliced through the Wisconsin line all alone to make the stop.
Sitting on the sideline during the crucial play was standout Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who finished with a game-high 100 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
“I’m always upset that I’m not in the game. It’s just the competitive nature that I have,” Ball said. “But I had a lot of — we have a lot of faith ... That play has been working leading up to this game and we were very confident that it was going to work, but the [defensive] line did a great job of clogging the holes.”
In the modern Goldan Age of Stanford football, for a team heavy on BCS experience — it’s the Cardinal’s third BCS game in a row — the feeling of winning a Rose Bowl ultimately felt supreme for the players.
“The last two years, we’ve been in the BCS games, but neither of those mean as much as this one did,” Ertz said. “This is the one we play for every year and it kinda just shows Stanford is here to stay.”