A contrast to the usual Pac-12 model of dynamic offense and dubious defense, Stanford had won the conference title in 2012 by stifling the scoring of opponents while delivering timely scores behind running back Stepfan Taylor and play-action passes from freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan. The latter had not even begun the season as the starter, taking over those duties from Josh Nunes near the midpoint, and yet he claimed the MVP award of the Pac-12 championship game and led his team into the most prestigious bowl of the year outside the national championship game. There, Stanford faced a team similar in style with a sturdy defense and a focus on running the ball behind the NCAA record-holder for individual touchdowns in Montee Ball. While Wisconsin had needed a considerable amount of luck to reach their conference championship game, finishing third in their division, they needed no luck at all to thrash 16th-ranked Nebraska for the B1G title. Without their own version of Luck, could Stanford win its first Rose Bowl since 1972 and send Wisconsin to its third straight defeat there, avenging its loss to the Badgers in 2000?
Three possessions into the game, a rout by the favored Cardinal looked plausible when they piled up two touchdowns and nearly 160 yards on their first two drives while forcing Wisconsin to punt after only one first down. Showing no nerves, Hogan completed a 34-yard pass into the red zone on the first drive and a 43-yard pass to star tight end Zach Ertz into the red zone on the second. Normally a conservative play caller, Stanford coach David Shaw showed more imagination than usual by handing the ball to speedster Kelsey Young rather than Taylor for Stanford’s first touchdown, although Taylor delivered the second with a shorter run. Wisconsin soon trailed by two touchdowns in a game that many had expected them to lose by double digits, so they leaned on Ball to pile up yardage as effectively as Taylor had on the Stanford drives. Although less effective than his Cardinal counterpart, Ball balanced fellow running Melvin Gordon and James White in compiling a drive that lasted over eight minutes and extended into the second quarter.
Stanford 14, Wisconsin 0
Since Stanford had received the game’s opening kickoff, Wisconsin knew that they needed simply to close within a touchdown to essentially end the first half on even terms. They reached the shadow of the goal line on their epic drive that extended from the first quarter into the second quarter, and coach Barry Alvarez smartly chose the aggressive play of a fourth-and-goal conversion at the 1-yard line. Seven points would have meant much more to Wisconsin than three at that stage, but the Stanford defense stopped White in his tracks to force a turnover on downs. Unable to capitalize on that defensive stop, the offense nearly surrendered a safety on the next possession before settling for a short gain and a punt that gave the Badgers strong field possession near midfield. On the next drive, Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips threw a pass off the helmet of a Stanford lineman than receiver Jared Abbrederis improbably collected for a 22-yard gain. Positioned at the Stanford 11, Phillips simply handed off to Ball for a touchdown run that extended his record and sliced the deficit in half. Backup Stanford running back Anthony Wilkerson played a key role on the next possession by collecting 27 yards on two players before the drive stalled with two Hogan incompletions. The villain of last year’s Fiesta Bowl, when he missed a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation, kicker Jordan Williamson thrust those memories behind him when he narrowly made a 47-yard attempt.
Nevertheless, Wisconsin continued to claw back into the contest. When the teams traded punts, they found themselves pinned at their own 15 with two and half minutes remaining, a stern challenge for a team that relies on powerful runs more than big plays. Rising to the occasion, Phillips led them 85 yards in the waning moments, nearly half of the yards on an inspired scramble that caught the Stanford defense—focused on the running backs—by surprise. The Cardinal defense executed consecutive stops of Ball in and-goal situations for very short gains, however, leaving Alvarez with a crucial play call on third down. Rather than plowing ahead with his running game, he called a play-action pass that Phillips executed perfectly on the run under pressure. Confirmed by official review, receiver Jordan Fredrick secured control of the ball before sprawling across the end zone with nineteen seconds remaining. Despite the anticipation of a defensive showdown, then, both teams had demonstrated their ability to create offense in the early stages.
Stanford 17, Wisconsin 14
In a striking contrast to the first half, this period unfolded as a defensive clinic with seven straight punts. After they had compiled substantial yards in the first half, both Taylor and Ball struggled to produce positive yardage in this quarter as the defenses adjusted to them. The two quarterbacks also delivered less accurate throws, often resulting in drops or wild incompletions into the stands. Having looked poised and confident in the first half, the teams appeared to succumb to the pressure of the occasion as they recognized the magnitude of what they could accomplish in the next thirty minutes. Stanford never recorded a first down, while Wisconsin recorded no more than one first down on any possession. But the Badgers did move the ball across midfield late in the quarter, stalling on a fourth-and-one play when Alvarez curiously decided to punt rather than repeating his aggressive decision from earlier. That opportunity would prove as promising as anything that Wisconsin in the second half, so their coach may have regretted his caution in the end. A scoreless period ended with Stanford pinned deep inside its own territory again.
Stanford 17, Wisconsin 14
The string of unproductive possessions finally ended when a senseless personal foul by Wisconsin on the Stanford punt returner resulted in the best field position of the day for the Cardinal, just six yards from midfield. Determined not to squander this opportunity, Hogan led his offense on a laborious drive that strung together short runs by Taylor and Wilkerson. Among the most impressive plays on that possession, however, was a 12-yard scramble for a first down by Hogan himself. The drive took six valuable minutes off the clock and reached the Wisconsin 5, but a third-down pass by Hogan towards towering tight end Levine Toilolo fell incomplete to prevent Stanford from establishing a two-score lead with less than five minutes remaining. After Williamson converted a short field goal, Wisconsin earned one last opportunity to drive for the game-winning touchdown and end its recent span of Rose Bowl futility. Starting at their own 25 after a touchback, they marched across midfield with four successive rushes from their three running backs that found holes in the Stanford defensive line. Reluctant to let Stanford regain the ball with time to drive for a game-winning goal, Alvarez carefully let the clock run down to barely two minutes with the ball inside Stanford territory. On a pivotal second-down error, Phillips could not connect with either of his two preferred mistakes and underthrew the ball towards Stanford nickelback Usua Amanam, whose interception represented the game’s only turnover. When Taylor produced a first down with three consecutive runs, Stanford could move into victory formation for their first Rose Bowl victory since 1972.
Final score: Stanford 20, Wisconsin 14
In addition to keeping the Rose Bowl title in the Pac-12 for another year and bolstering that conference’s disappointing bowl record, the 99th Tournament of Roses marked yet another performance in which Stanford proved that it had joined the national elite. Even without coach Jim Harbaugh or quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal had recorded their second 12-win season and second BCS bowl victory of the last three years. While Wisconsin lamented their third consecutive Rose Bowl loss by a single score, their competitive effort had surpassed expectations of those who felt that a five-loss team did not deserve to play on New Year’s Day. Both Taylor and Ball finished their careers on a stage worthy of their talents, which surely will appear on Sundays before long.