Wednesday’s Rose Bowl is the grand finale for a senior class of Stanford defenders who leave a legacy as one of the top groups in Pac-12 history. A win over Michigan State would cement this defense’s place alongside such units as USC’s in the late 2000s and Arizona’s Desert Swarm teams in the 1990s.
Stanford won two consecutive Pac-12 Championships, adjusting misconceptions about West Coast football in the process.
The outgoing seniors—like linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy and 2012 Rose Bowl Most Valuable Player, defensive back Usua Amanam—were instrumental in that effort.
“It feels like we have the most fifth-year seniors in the country,” Skov said following the Cardinal’s 38-14 Pac-12 Championship Game win over Arizona State on Dec. 7, one of their gems on the 2013 season.
Six of Stanford’s nine fifth-year seniors are major contributors on defense. Another four fourth-year seniors are prominent Cardinal defenders. That's nearly 50 combined years of experience anchoring a group that deserves mention alongside the greatest ever.
Stanford's statistics are impressive, though not necessarily historic.
For a second consecutive season, Stanford ranks in the top 10 nationally for points allowed and comes into the Granddaddy of Them All as the No. 3-ranked rush defense.
Compared to USC in 2008, which held opponents to an average of nine points per game, or the 1992 Arizona defense that only allowed 30 rushing yards per game, this Stanford group may not get the same kind of historic credit.
“Numbers lie,” defensive coordinator Derek Mason said (subscription required) in his press conference Saturday. “We're one of the best run stop defenses in the country.”
Indeed, statistics don’t tell the whole story of just how dominant this Stanford defense has been. The Cardinal flourished in a conference built on offense—and not just offense, but uptempo offense predicated on disrupting defensive rhythm and creating personnel mismatches.
Programs around the Pac-12 retooled in recent years, following Oregon’s lead after the Ducks’ success with implementing a hyper-speed version of the spread in the late 2000s.
Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Washington and Washington State all joined Oregon to run versions of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense in 2013 and Stanford dominated them all—except Arizona, the only team of that group the Cardinal didn’t face.
A big and aggressive defensive front is the hallmark of Stanford's defense, and upperclassmen like Skov, Murphy and Henry Anderson are well-known for their exploits.
However, in his press conference Sunday, head coach David Shaw credited (subscription required) the progression of another unit—including some of the youngsters—for helping make this defense truly historic.
The biggest difference in our team has been the athleticism of our secondary. We've been good up front for years, but Wayne Lyons is coming along, our two safeties, one of the best safety combinations in the nation, use with a coming in and playing nickel for us, those guys are making the difference between being a good defense and a great defense.
Michigan State presents a different kind of challenge in the Rose Bowl—specifically, the kind that tripped up the Cardinal for their only two losses.
The Spartans mirror Stanford with outstanding defense and a power-based offense, much like Utah and USC.
But Murphy summed up Stanford's losses succinctly when addressing the media Sunday, saying the Cardinal simply didn't play their best football then.
A performance more indicative of those that won Stanford the Pac-12 should bring the program a second Rose Bowl championship. Talk about making history.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained firsthand.