I went about it all the wrong way.
In the days leading up to the 100th Rose Bowl, I constructed a lot of mental scaffolding and fallback devices to soften the blow of a defeat that I suspected, somehow, was coming. My brain had watched this team over the course of the year, had observed a steady curve of improvement, had seen the single-minded determination in the interviews, and knew that with the players and coaches we had, no opponent was unbeatable.
But my heart was scared. My heart remembered having been here before- on New Year's Day three years ago, in Indianapolis in the punt block formation. And I remembered- it HURT. To be so close, so very close, to have the eyes of the country on your team only to see the latest incarnation of that hated construct. Sparty. No.
And then the game started, and it all fell away. No more thinking about what a good season it has been, win or lose. No need to rationalize, to point out how far Connor Cook had come in the last four months, the light-years this offense had traveled. There was only this game, my team in the all-green unis they'd first broken out on an immensely satisfying day in early November, the opponent a mass of giant football nerds in all white.
Strangely enough, watching Stanford march down the field and score on their first possession didn't revive my anxiety- it just reminded me of every game I'd watched this season. "Nothing out of the ordinary there. Couple bad tackles. Watch Narduzzi's adjustments on the next drive," I told the friends I was watching with. "Waynes won't lose inside leverage like that again, I'll guarandamntee it." In fact, Waynes would later commit petty larceny on the field by stealing the ball right out of the hands of the same receiver who beat him deep. Darqueze Dennard will be very hard to replace, but Waynes sure looks like a good candidate, I say out loud to no one in particular.
Cook lobs a horrific pick-six with a couple of minutes left in the first half. I heave out a sigh-grunt. "Welp, that's kind of what you get with him. Sometimes when you unleash the dragon you get burned, but watch. Connor Cook's checked all his pockets and I'm tellin' you, he ain't got no fucks to give right now." A tableful of grunts and nods in agreement.
On 3rd-and-goal, Cook takes the snap out of a run formation, hops in place a couple times, then (as it felt like he was all game) scoots away as Trent Murphy (I think) comes around the edge with violence in his heart. Fires a missile into the endzone. Touchdown for a jump-kicking Trevon Pendleton. I shout, "THAT'S A FULLBACK RIGHT THERE BOYS." I later discuss with another group of friends how Pendleton probably did the little jump-kick as he caught it in the hopes some Stanford defender would be close enough to catch an "unintentional" cleat to the face. Trevon Pendleton had himself an ideal Pendleton game; threw a couple of nice blocks, blasted a dude after the whistle for a dumb penalty, then sneaked away and caught a touchdown.
Halftime. The three glasses of Coke and moderate game-induced tachycardia are catching up to me, as I've got the double leg-twitch going into overdrive. At the close of the halftime show, Desmond Howard blurts out his expectation that Stanford will pull away in the second half. "Aw, fuck you, Dez," I yell at the TV. Three tables' worth of laughter. Jokes about him not being able to watch his team at B-Dubs because of the UFC fight are exchanged. None are that clever, but we feel pretty good about them.
Down the field we go. Field goal. Activate the Geiger Counter. Tie game. This one's really starting to look like the wrestling watch it was supposed to be, and basically since that first drive, every time Stanford gets the ball I start calculating our starting field position when they are forced to punt from their current position. Every time Tyler Gaffney's stats are posted, his YPC figure dips, the one long run in the first half only doing so much to buoy it.
I notice Pendleton again, standing next to Cook in the shotgun, a rather odd formation I thought until Pendleton picks up an edge blitz on 3rd and 8 as Cook steps into a throw, right on the money to Tony Lippett, the same receiver about whom I spent most of last season demanding a permanent exile to the bench for his stone hands, and of course the firing of everyone involved in his training. My, how times have changed, I mused as he wound his way through the Cardinal secondary and reached the ball over the goal line as he was brought down.
Stanford gets close enough to put a field goal through the uprights with about 5 minutes left. I tell myself two things: Stanford is going to get the ball back, and we're going to make them wish they hadn't. Well, broken clocks are right twice a day.
The Cardinal move up the field. 3rd and 2. They're going to try to run straight up the middle for this, because that's who they are. Never mind that it hasn't worked since the first quarter. They're the PAC-12 champions, dammit, and this rabble of hicks and ghetto-dwellers from the Midwest can't stand up to Stanford when the chips are down, there's no need for creativity or tricks. As they've been told by the media for a month, when strength meets strength, Stanford's strength will be stronger.
Gaffney's short of the sticks. Well, that's odd. But there's really no decision but to go for it here with less than two minutes left, trailing by four. And dammit if it isn't time to double down on MANBALL. No pretense this time. There will be no need for dainty little receivers. 22 guys within 5 yards of the ball when the whistle blows. The offensive line grubs. Fullback Ryan Hewitt takes the handoff.
And, in a moment that will soon be memorialized in poster form on my wall, former walk-on Kyler Elsworth, making his first career start in his last career game in place of a suspended captain, leads the charge over the top. He, Darien Harris, and Shilique Calhoun meet Hewitt on the Stanford side of the pile. A quick review confirms what everyone watching knew to be the truth: this game was over.
Sparty No! isn't just dead. Sparty No! just got its skeleton ripped out by this team. Mark Dantonio wins. Fatality.
The bar I was in might as well have exploded. I saw 70-year-old men on the verge of tears, talking about how they thought they'd never see another Spartan Rose Bowl in their lifetimes. If there were any New Year's hangover fumes still hanging around, they were boiled away in an instant. I fired up the fight song with 80 strangers, and can't remember singing it as loudly.
The title of this article is Mark Dantonio's response to how he would describe the feeling of winning this game. And listening to him, I marveled at how one word could do a decent job of summarizing where he and the team were, and yet fail so miserably at capturing the extent of the ecstasy he had to be feeling. Here's what I mean by that:
Since the CCG, some of my friends have developed a habit of bringing up what might have been if we had been able to pull out that late September game in South Bend. If I hear anything more along those lines after last night, I will physically assail the speaker of such thoughts. If you can look at Mark Dantonio's face in these postgame interviews and not realize that this team has arrived, and dwell instead on the little shit like whether we could have beaten Notre Dame with fair officiating, you have completely missed the point. We are there. Right now. This is it. And while Dantonio's right that this team has finally achieved completion, that word comes up a bit short in one sense: this is only the beginning.