For 101 years, generations of young football players have woken up on the morning of Jan. 1 to watch tradition and excellence collide in the ultimate masterpiece of college football — a game that’s intimate yet imposing; stately yet vibrant; historic yet progressive.
Most would be lucky to experience the Rose Bowl Game for themselves even once.
Three times? That’s an honor that precious few could have even dreamed of, let alone accomplished. That means Stanford, as the rugged veterans of this corner of college football history, will enter rarified air on Friday when some of its players take the field on New Year’s Day for the third time in their careers.
So in one corner of the 102nd Rose Bowl, Stanford is the old guard, having been here before and experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows for themselves. And in the other corner, Iowa is the newcomer, for whom many of its players hadn’t even been born the last time the black and gold of the Hawkeyes last painted the north end zone of the Granddaddy of Them All.
Those two worlds will collide on Friday when the No. 6 Cardinal (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) and No. 5 Hawkeyes (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) clash in the 102nd chapter of the Rose Bowl Game, and even though Stanford will be finding itself on familiar turf, the significance of the experience will never fade.
“The Rose Bowl is a completely different environment,” said head coach David Shaw. “There’s an energy in the air. There’s an excitement in the air. There’s still nothing like running on the field at the Rose Bowl.”
“You can never treat this like an everyday thing,” added fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan. “It’s so special. It means so much. We’ve been here a couple of times, but I still have that same mindset of being a little kid on Christmas morning, being down here.”
It’s not as if things are the same every time around, either. Stanford’s players know better than anyone else in the country exactly how much better it feels to win a Rose Bowl than it does to lose a Rose Bowl, and that knowledge has fueled an extra push that has the team seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with a renewed dogged determination.
“It keeps you focused, knowing what it feels like to lose that Rose Bowl and the difference between the mindsets after the game,” said senior offensive lineman Joshua Garnett. “That definitely keeps you focused and keeps that chip on your shoulder to really try to experience what it feels like to win again at the Rose Bowl.”
With that in mind, it’s really helped the team that most of the senior leaders have been here at least once before. This time around, they have a much more workmanlike attitude — instead of staying around Disneyland until 11 p.m., they were on the first bus back. Instead of going out on the town late at night, they’re recovering in the hotel hot tub.
“The focus has been a lot different,” Garnett said. “When it’s time to practice, guys are really motivated to practice. We tell the young guys, ‘Hey, man, we’re here for the game.’ We’re here to have fun, but we’re also here to win a game.”
All of that preparation is in the name of sending off a memorable group of seniors — from Hogan to Harris and everyone in between — the right way, with a win in the stadium that’s become almost a second home to them over their postseason careers.
But that win won’t come easily.
As has been the case in the last two Rose Bowls for Stanford, it’s going to be man-ball on man-ball and beef on beef: Two of the most physical, run-heavy teams in the country vying for the title of biggest, baddest bully in the playground.
Iowa’s front seven might very well be the most talented unit Stanford’s talented offensive line will face all season, as the Hawkeyes’ simple yet well-executed scheme is the 11th-ranked rush defense in the country and has only allowed 10 rush touchdowns all season.
“They just do everything well,” said offensive tackle Kyle Murphy. “You can tell they’re coached well. One thing I’ll commend them for is that they’re never giving up. They’re nonstop motor and never giving up.”
“They don’t do a whole lot because they’re so good at what they do,” added sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey.
Granted, Iowa hasn’t faced a top-25 rush offense all season, and it certainly hasn’t faced a Heisman Trophy candidate like McCaffrey, but the unanimous consensus among Stanford’s offensive players is that the Stanford running game is up for one of its biggest challenges of the season.
Hogan will also face one of his stiffest competitors of the season in Iowa cornerback Desmond King, the Power Five’s leader in interceptions with eight picks on the year. But for the program’s all-time win leader and the first quarterback in Pac-12 history to start three Rose Bowls, expect nothing less than the quiet, poised confidence that’s been the hallmark of his time under center on The Farm to cap off the best season of his career.
“[King is] definitely a great player, but we’re not going to shy away from him,” Hogan said. “We’re going to go through our reads, go through our progressions, and they haven’t seen a receiving corps like ours all year. So it’s going to be an exciting challenge.”
Stanford’s defensive line, having been deprived of the ability to lay wood against some passing-heavy offenses over the last few weeks, is also licking its lips at the challenge of Iowa’s very Stanford-esque offense, because for both teams, the challenge seems quite clear: Stop the run to win the game.
“It’s definitely going to be something I look forward to,” said senior defensive tackle Aziz Shittu. “It’s going to be smash-mouth football. Game is scheduled for three and a half hours; it’s probably going to end in three the way both teams are going to run the ball.”
But coming off of arguably the unit’s best game of the season, Shittu is confident that the defensive line can bring the fire that they brought to the Pac-12 Championship to the Rose Bowl against Iowa and go out in a blaze of glory.
“The energy has carried through,” Shittu said. “We’re just looking forward to getting this game one last time together and finishing it right.”
Finishing it right is also another emphasis of the team going into this Rose Bowl, because in the end, the meaning of this game far transcends just the final score on Jan. 1 — it’s the culmination of five hard years of sacrifices, heart, toil and brotherhood for this year’s group of seniors.
The book of their careers is about to come to a close, and it’s flipped open to its last page. The pen is in their hands, and they’re the ones that have the ability to write the perfect storybook ending and bring things full circle where it all started: at the Rose Bowl — the biggest stage in college football.
It all comes down to one more game.
“All the work you put in together, the friendship and brotherhood that you build, you want to do everything in your power to send them off the right way,” said junior tight end Austin Hooper.
“Do you want to remember things as sweet or sour? I’ll do everything in my power to make sure they have good memories.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.