BILL PLASCHKE

Stanford's old-school Rose Bowl win a welcome throwback trend

Cardinal, with old-fashioned pluck and postgame politeness, gets its first Rose Bowl championship in more than four decades, beating Wisconsin, 20-14.

Thousands of voices counted down the final seconds. When is the last time you've heard modern sports fans, in unison, actually counting down the final seconds?

"10…9…8..." chanted the band member in a purple wig, the sweatered man waving a frayed pompom, the elderly woman grinding her high heel into the sidelines as she wept.

On the first day of 2013, the Rose Bowl gloriously sounded like 1972, its championship being celebrated by a team from a different era with followers from a different world.

"7…6…5..." chanted the drum major dressed like the Greek monster Medusa, the little girl with the red-painted cheeks, the bespectacled couple swaying with each marvelously dwindling number.

A group that was supposed to be too smart to win this game was too tough to lose it, quaint Stanford outfighting giant Wisconsin, 20-14, Tuesday, to win its first Rose Bowl championship in more than four decades.

"4…3…2…1" chanted the linebacker smothered in eye-black, the kid playing a tuba painted with the face of a Chinese dictator, and the students who had suddenly pulled on celebration T-shirts.

"TREE-mendous" it read, and anybody who knows Stanford knows what that means, college sports' strangest mascot finally rooted — get it? — at the top of the football world.

"It's not always pretty, and it's not always perfect, but we never stop, and we finish what we start," said Stanford Coach David Shaw, and who thought one of their seasons would ever finish like this?

Who knew the elite Bay Area school had enough old-school fans to fill the Rose Bowl with a roar that even drowned out that Wisconsin beer cheer? Who knew that a longtime second-tier program could lose one of college football's best coaches and quarterbacks in a span of two seasons and not only survive, but triumph? Who knew that, 41 years after an infamous "Thunderchickens" defensive line gave Stanford its last Rose Bowl championship, the academic powerhouse could overcome an NCAA world filled with recruiting cheats and grade scams to return to football's most traditional throne?

From the shadow of USC and Oregon to the glorious winter shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, Stanford formally arrived Tuesday in a game that fit Cardinal culture perfectly. It was a bit thoughtful, a tad boring, but ultimately a real gas. The Cardinal scored twice in the game's first nine minutes, then spent the rest of the afternoon swarming and scheming and hanging on for history.

"We punched them in the mouth, they punched us back, it became a good ol'-fashioned bar fight," said redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, who was awful except when he was perfect.

He completed only a dozen passes, but three of them were on Stanford's first two touchdown drives. He threw for only 123 yards, but he rushed for nearly half of that while keeping Stanford's offense on the field just long enough to slow the steamrolling Badgers.

All this, and during the postgame celebration, the beard-stubbled kid with the messy hair actually apologized to reporters for rushing off to hug his teammates, who had locked arms and were swaying to the school alma mater played by the just-this-one-time-serious Stanford band.

"I'm sorry, I've got to go be part of them," he said, waving and disappearing into the crowd.

The Stanford kids play throwback, and behave throwback, even when they could be excused for swaggering. During Tuesday's postgame chaos, they stopped and politely addressed reporters as if they were talking to teachers. Zach Ertz, their giant tight end who caught 61 yards worth of passes, even put his hands behind his back during the interviews.

On the midfield podium, when defensive back Usua Amanam was announced as defensive player of the game, his teammates all chanted "Uuuuu" as if they were in a high school locker room. And when Amanam was asked about the game-clinching interception of Wisconsin's Curt Phillips around midfield during the Badgers' final drive, he barely included himself in his answer.

"Fortunately, the ball just fell in my hands," Amanam said. "I don't think one play wins any game. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time."

There was no bragging from a Cardinal defense that gave up zero points in the second half to a Wisconsin team that, in its last game, pinned 70 points on Nebraska.

"We had to pull out all the stops," said defensive end Ben Gardner. "This was about all of us."

There was no chest-thumping even from flashy running back Stepfan Taylor, who epitomized the Stanford attack by gaining 88 yards without a run longer than 10 yards. These are giants who win little by little, piece by piece, thought by thought.

"It's a process," said Taylor, and when have you heard a running back celebrate a championship by saying that?

In a bowl season when some traditional powerhouses have been soundly beaten — USC, you watching this? — it's nice to see success from a think tank whose Rose Bowl victory came just hours after Northwestern won its first bowl game in 64 years. Rice and Vanderbilt have also been winners this bowl season, which will be capped with a national title game appearance by Notre Dame.

"Everybody talks about Oregon and USC, and that's fine, because we just stick to our business," said Ertz.

Smart is cool again, and nobody was cooler on Tuesday than the team whose band performed a halftime show composed mainly of Wisconsin cheese puns, and whose players know exactly who they are.

"We show up every play, we keep grinding; it's what we stand for," said linebacker Trent Murphy.

The day ended, fittingly, with the Stanford band crazily blaring and dancing in front of several hundred remaining fans in the mostly empty stands. I had no idea what they were playing, but I loved the way it sounded.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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