There was joy, excitement, back-slapping, hugging, high-fives, group pictures, a sense of accomplishment and smiles all-around in the noisy Stanford locker room after Saturday night's 41-22 win against No. 24 USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.
The victory secured Stanford's third title in four years under Director of Football David Shaw. And for the third time in four years, the reward is another trip to Pasadena, to play Iowa in the 102nd Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. It will be the teams first meeting.
"There aren't a lot of teams out there that have won three championships in anything," said offensive guard Joshua Garnett, an Outland Trophy finalist.
Inside linebacker Blake Martinez, the Pac-12's leading tackler, called it an incredible feeling.
"Unreal," he said. "I feel like this is the greatest one in my career because we seniors set out in January to end with this goal. We put the work in this whole off-season, and knew the season would be hard, and pulled it together as a group, from the freshman to the seniors."
Players echoed the same sentiments, often glancing around the San Francisco 49ers' locker room and soaking it all in.
"I feel on top of the world," said wide receiver Devon Cajuste, who came in the locker room and chanted, 'Three! Three! Three!' I don't know how else to word it. It's the best feeling there can be. But we're not done. We've got to the Rose Bowl and win another one."
Defensive lineman Aziz Shittu, who celebrates every win with a locker room dance, couldn't stop beaming.
"It means so much," he said. "This is a goal we have from the start of the season. To accomplish it with some of my best friends -- I never had a brother -- all these guys are my brothers. It's awesome."
Cornerback Ronnie Harris, who missed the last two games gutted it out through the first half against USC, was emotional about what the team has done.
"It's mind-blowing," said Harris, a fifth-year senior captain. "You come here with a group of guys that devote themselves to being great. You get to see the finished product, but you don't see the work, sweat, tears and blood that goes into it. I couldn't be prouder of the guys."
Harris didn't know if he would play until Friday night. He made three solo tackles and provided leadership and stability in the secondary.
"Coach (Lance) Anderson came into my hotel room last night and told me I looked good enough in practice on Friday to go out there and compete," he said. "I wanted to be able to help my teammates any way I could."
Prime time McCaffrey
Sophomore running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey produced one of the most electrifying performances in program history by recording 461 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in prime time on national television.
For the second time in a game this season, he surpassed 100 yards rushing (207) and receiving (105). McCaffrey threw an 11-yard scoring pass to quarterback Kevin Hogan, caught 28-yard touchdown pass from Hogan and tacked on a 10-yard run.
"That's ridiculous," Garnett said. "And against a great USC team. That speaks for itself. He's a guy who comes in every day and just works and works and works, and doesn't complain. You see him out there taking some of the biggest shots you've seen, and he gets up and boom, breaks off a 60-yard run."
Said Cajuste, "You watch in awe, but it's more in happiness because that's your brother doing it. You know you're part of his success. He doesn't fight for himself, he fights for all of us. He does it every day and leads by example. I'm so proud of that kid."
Shittu admits to watching him from the sideline when the defense is resting.
"What he does, it's disbelief," said Shittu. "He's a sparkplug. I'd rather have him on my team than anybody else's team. He's a great player and a great competitor. I love the kid."
Junior tight end and Mackey Award finalist Austin Hooper agreed.
"He's a big-time football player," Hooper said. "He does stuff that no one else in the country can do. People are starting to see that now."
Teammate Barry Sanders was among the first to congratulate McCaffrey after the game, hugging him on the field. McCaffrey eclipsed his father's single-season record for all-purpose yards set in 1988 while playing for Oklahoma.
"Young man did his thing tonight," Sanders said on social media.
McCaffrey was all the rage on Twitter before, during and after the game.
"That Boy is BAD!!!!" said former Stanford standout and current Seattle Seahawks all-pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
Former Cardinal tight end and current star on the Indianapolis Colts Coby Fleener posted, "Looks like McCaffrey is winning the Heisman!"
Former Stanford great and current Major League pitcher Mark Appel simply wrote, "Heisman ... "
Kelley O'Hara, who starred on The Farm and helped the U.S. capture the Women's World Cup in soccer, chimed in, "If McCaffrey doesn't win the Heisman, I'm boycotting college football."
And Chiney Ogwumike, one of the top women's basketball players in school history and now a standout in the WNBA, posted a photo of a woman walking away from a burning car with an angry expression on her face. "This is gonna be me if McCaffrey doesn't win the Heisman."
Granted, all have Stanford roots.
Heisman finalists will be announced Monday.
McCaffrey now ranks second in the country in rushing behind Derrick Henry of Alabama, 1,986 to 1,847, but the latter has 20 more carries. McCaffrey's all-purpose yardage is 1,000 more than second-place Tyler Ervin of San Jose. McCaffrey ranks first in FBS with an average of 268.92 all-purpose yards per game, while Henry averages 160.23.
"There's no one in America doing what he's doing," said Garnett.
Keep calm and win
Late in the game, Garnett came off the field and knelt down near the end of the bench to compose himself.
"I was trying to keep myself locked in," said the senior captain. "Crazy stuff happens and it's not over until it's over. I was trying to make sure the guys on the sideline were not getting too excited when there was still time on the clock."
2012: A very good year
Much was expected of the 2012 recruiting class, ranked among the best in the country. That makes winning even sweeter, insisted Shittu.
"There was a lot of hype from the get-go," he said. "Leaving here as one of the winningest classes ... I think we lived up to the hype."
Shittu can't wait to return to Pasadena.
"The mecca of college football," said Shittu. "Disneyland, I'll see you on Dec. 26. I know the schedule pretty well."
Loss spurs victory parade
Martinez said the opening-season loss at Northwestern fueled the team.
"We brought it up every week," he said. "Right after that game, we as captains pulled the team together and each said one thing. We told them, 'Hey, this is what we need to do,' or 'This is what we weren't doing.' At every meeting we said, 'Remember that Northwestern game. You never want to feel that feeling again because we let one slip that day.'"
Martinez made a game-changing play in the closing seconds of the third quarter against USC by sacking quarterback Cody Kessler and forcing a fumble. Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas alertly grabbed the ball and coasted 34 yards for a touchdown to extend Stanford's lead to 27-22.
"The center tried to wall me off," Martinez said. "I fought around him and saw the quarterback with the ball said, 'All right. Time to go make the play.' "
Thomas said Martinez deserves full credit for the play.
"I was going in to contain and Blake did all the work," he said. "I was in the right position at the right time. I just scooped and scored, something we work on every practice, and was just fortunate to take it to the house."
Told that he showed good speed, Thomas laughed, "I'm way faster without pads."
Thomas also made a key tackle for loss on a two-point conversion attempt early in the fourth quarter that could have pulled USC within three points. Running back Tre Madden ran right and looked like he wanted to throw back to Kessler until Solomon arrived.
"We knew they were going to try something," he said. "I pursued and tried to break up the pass."
A defender too
For the first time at any level of football, Hooper blocked a kick, leaping high with his 6-foot-4 frame to smother an extra point.
"I took three steps on the ground and jumped up and got my hand on it," he said. "I was happy to take points off the board."
Stanford held its post-season awards banquet on Sunday. Honorees were:
MVP: Christian McCaffrey
Al Masters Award: Kevin Hogan
Jack Huston Award: Ronnie Harris
Outstanding Senior Award: Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy
Special Teams: Conrad Ukropina and Craig Jones
Scout Team Players: Patrick McFadden (offense), Denzel Franklin (defense) and Calvin Chandler (special teams)
Outstanding Freshman: Bryce Love
Outstanding Sophomore: Christian McCaffrey
Outstanding Junior: Austin Hooper
Team Technician Award: Kevin Anderson
Big Game Awards: Christian McCaffrey (back) and Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett (line)
Vardell Award: Johnny Caspers
Hogan now ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency at 170.1 . . . Martinez has 132 tackles and is tied for 13th nationally, averaging 10.2 tackles/game . . . Former Stanford All-America quarterback John Elway served as the honorary captain. He is now the general manager and executive vice president of the Denver Broncos . . . Elway, former wide receiver and teammate Ken Margerum, and quarterback Jim Plunkett, the school's lone Heisman Trophy winner in 1970, were honored before the game as part of the Pac-12's All-Century Team. Elway was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Century.
"We're going back, boys! We're going back!" - Kevin Hogan, who will return to start in his third Rose Bowl Game.
"Best linebacker in college football. Never successfully blocked him." Joshua Garnett on facing Blake Martinez in practice for four years.