Jan 1, 2013; Pasadena, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw celebrates with the trophy after Stanford Cardinal won the 2013 Rose Bowl game against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Rose Bowl. Shaw stands with Stanford University president John Hennessy and ESPN anchor Reese Davis and Pasadena Tournament of Roses president Sally M. Bixby presentsand two of his children. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Astounding Rise of Stanford Football

The 2012 Stanford football team may not be the best of the incredible three straight to play in BCS games. However, in winning 12 games, the Pac-12 Conference championship and the Rose Bowl, this year’s Cardinal planted its flag at a pinnacle the program had yet to reach.

Only one era in Cardinal/Indian history approaches the current, when Stanford reached three straight Rose Bowls during the Great Depression. Stanford also had great teams in the 1920s and a national champion in 1940. But since leather helmets were replaced with polymer, nothing compares to the current brand of Cardinal football.

For some perspective on how dizzying Stanford’s rise to college football’s apex is, consider just seven years ago it lost to UC Davis. Six years ago, the Cardinal finished 1-8 and in the basement of the Pac-10. Five years ago, the Cardinal’s October win over USC was so monumental, the athletic department commissioned t-shirts commemorating it.

Now? Beating the Trojans is old hat. Stanford has done it four consecutive times. SU’s reversed the conference standings, and beat a top ranked opponent. David Shaw is seeing to the completion of the job Jim Harbaugh started.

Tuesday’s Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin was hardly awe-inspiring. The Badgers exit the 2012 season the only six-loss team in BCS history, and bear the dubious distinction of automatic qualifier that finished third…in its division. The qualifiers surrounding the Rose Bowl outcome are plentiful, but should do little to diminish the season Stanford completed.

Wisconsin had a habit of playing opponents close in losses, including a 21-14 overtime loss to 12-0 Ohio State. Additionally, Stanford didn’t often rout opponents this season. The Cardinal’s offensive inconsistencies didn’t facilitate lopsided scores, which makes this year’s league and Rose Bowl championships even more astonishing.

Shaw was tasked with replacing perhaps the greatest quarterback in the history of a program that produced Jim Plunkett and John Elway. Were that not enough, Stanford also lost first and second round NFL Draft selections from the offensive line in David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. Thus, Stanford was well off the radar in the preseason.

“The thing that we knew is that we had a good team,” Shaw said in his post-game press conference. “The thing that Andrew knew was he had a good team around him. Andrew was as excited about this year coming up as anybody that we have. That is one thing we kept talking about. He was so excited because people gave him so much credit.”

This year’s Cardinal never met the production of the 2010 or 2011 squads — a testament to just how good this Stanford defense was throughout the campaign.

The Cardinal’s continuous ability to bottle up opposing offenses determined the 99th Rose Bowl Game. Montee Ball reached 100 yards rushing, but had to work for every yard — just like Kenjon Barner, Jonathan Franklin and Ka’Deem Carey before him. Most importantly, he and the rest of the Badger offense was shut out after halftime.

“Defensively, and that’s the thing, we talked about it early on when we started winter conditioning,” Shaw said. “We were going to win games differently than the way we won the year before. We’re not going to score 40 points a game. That’s just not how we’re built right now.”

It wasn’t pretty — it rarely was this season. But it got the job done. And for a team that succeeded with one style game completing changing its look and maintaining the same level of success is particularly noteworthy.

The bar’s now set high, and again, Stanford will lose quality players. Shayne Skov’s ball hawking ways and Road Warrior face paint are gone. So is stalwart running back Stepfan Taylor, a constant contributor whether playing behind Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck or occupying the spotlight solo. Chase Thomas is a senior.

Thomas was the heart and soul of the impressive Cardinal defense. His proclamation that Stanford’s defense was, by his estimation, the nation’s best at Pac-12 Media Day rang in my ears every time I watched Stanford play. What a case of walking the talk.

The work Harbaugh and now Shaw have done on the recruiting trail has this program in it for the long haul. The Cardinal’s 2012 signing class ranked No. 5 nationally, according to Rivals.com. Don’t expect a fall from this rise anytime soon.

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