Dec. 26, 2012
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Stanford's charter plane touched down in sunny Los Angeles at 10:35 a.m. on Wednesday. But the Cardinal did not truly arrive for the Rose Bowl Game until that afternoon when coach David Shaw and several players burst through the entrance to Sleeping Beauty's Castle.
To the strains of "All Right Now," played by middle-aged men in traditional band uniforms, the Stanford contingent was greeted by fans, executives, the Rose Queen, and even Mickey Mouse - whom outside linebacker Chase Thomas greeted with a bear hug.
It may not be chiseled in stone, not even at the Matterhorn, yet it seems to be fact that the Rose Bowl Game would not seem real without a trip to Disneyland.
For Stanford, this was its first such visit since 1999 and the second in 42 years. And, even though Stanford is playing in its third consecutive BCS bowl, there's nothing like the Rose Bowl Game. To Stanford, this is its Super Bowl - the game the team annually strives to reach.
"The fact that we earned this bowl based on winning our conference definitely makes it even more special," Thomas said.
"Just for the name - the Granddaddy of Them All - this is where you want to be," free safety Ed Reynolds said. "It's the biggest and greatest bowl you could want to go to for a college football player."
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The 99th Rose Bowl Game matches what may be the two best running backs in the nation in Stanford's Stepfan Taylor and Wisconsin's Montee Ball, the 2012 Doak Walker Award winner to the top collegiate running back and 2011 Heisman finalist.
Taylor, Stanford's all-time leading rusher, has not received the awards or honors of Ball, but has been just as impressive, and even more so, to many, including his teammates.
"Montee Ball's an incredible player," Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein said. "He's had one of the most impressive careers ever to grace the running back position. But I think Stepfan is the best player in the country: offense, defense, special teams, across the board.
"He does the seen and unseen things that make a great running back -- pass protection, catching the ball out of the backfield and he doesn't wait for anybody else to make the big play. He decides when the big play is going to happen."
Ball has more yards rushing (1,730) and touchdowns (21) than Taylor (1,499 and 14). But Taylor also has 38 catches to Ball's nine.
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Taylor refuses to get caught up in any personal challenge of trying to outplay Ball.
"I really can't think that way," Taylor said. "If I do that, I'm going to hurt my teammates. I'm not going to go out there and play for my stats. I owe it to my team to give then 100 percent of my focus and concentration to win this game."
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Wisconsin likes the power running game, and Stanford likes the power running game. Something has got to give.
"It's a matter of which team is going to execute better," Schwartzstein said. "We need to execute like we're performing surgery; you've got to have that precision. That's how we want to do it and that's how we're going to try to attack these guys."
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Thomas is willing to concede to Wisconsin - in the Beef Bowl on Thursday night at Lawry's Prime Rib in Beverly Hills.
"Wisconsin's got some big boys," he said. "They'll probably win that one."
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Is this the best defense in Stanford history? For a team that set a school record for sacks (56) and intercepted 14 passes while holding opponents to 17.5 points per game in an era of no-huddle, spread offenses, it could be true.
"If you ask any of us, we would take on any Stanford defense put in front of us," Reynolds said. "We do a very good job at what makes defenses great, which is sacks, causing turnovers, getting off the field on third down, and minimizing an offense's capacity to do what it does best."
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Despite the good feelings about winning the Pac-12 title and reaching the Rose Bowl Game, the work is not done. Last season's 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State at the Fiesta Bowl has not been forgotten.
"We've still got a chip on our shoulder," Thomas said. "It carries over from last year's bowl game, not being able to close that one out. We definitely know that feeling of losing. It doesn't sit well with us."
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There are challenges to playing Wisconsin that go beyond Ball.
"Montee is the Doak Walker Award winner, he's earned that right," Reynolds said. "But they have a couple of other guys that run their Wildcat and their fly sweeps. They get you focused on the run and then they get you with a play-action over the top. That's how they beat you. They kind of just grind you out.
"As a defense, we feel like we're built for that kind of game. Run right at us, throw some punches at us, and we'll throw some punches right back. It's going to be a great matchup on January 1."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics