Nothing really has changed. Three different quarterbacks have started in the school's past four bowl appearances, the running backs have been different, the offensive line has changed and defensive schemes have been reinvented. There also have been numerous coaching changes, including at the top.
The results have been the same, though. The Cardinal continued to win, continued to progress in ways unexpected four or five years ago.
Thus, Tuesday's 20-14 victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl did not feel like some culmination of things well done but instead had the feel of success yet to come.
David Shaw took over a program already lined with high expectations and did the only thing he could: raise those expectations to improbable heights.
This Rose Bowl victory began the day after last year's Fiesta Bowl loss. What happens next year is just starting now.
"We'll enjoy this. We'll have a great time and we'll get back to winter conditioning," Shaw said. "I've reminded the young men in the locker room how hard it was to get to this point. It's not going to be any easier. In our conference, we beat each other up throughout the year, so next year is not going to be easy. Every team is going to be back, bigger, and stronger, and it's our job to be the same way."
Over the past four years Stanford has won 43 of its 53 games. In the previous four years the Cardinal went 15-32.
Between 2002 and 2008, the longest stretch of losing seasons (7) in Stanford history, the Cardinal went a combined 25-55.
Appearances in four straight bowl games, three a BCS affiliate contest, has given Stanford some cache. The Rose Bowl victory gives it swag.
Redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan is 5-0 as a starting quarterback, all against teams that qualified for a postseason bowl game. He was not alone, though. He had the support of an offensive line that dug in and refused its opponents to step over the line drawn in the sand.
Senior Stepfan Taylor utilized his strengths and the strengths of the Cardinal offense to rush for 88 yards against Wisconsin, 39 of them coning in a punishing fourth quarter that may have shown, finally, that when it comes to finishing Stanford may have no equal.
Taylor was named the Rose Bowl Offensive MVP, a fitting honor for Stanford's all-time leading rusher and scorer. It was also a tribute to All-Americans David Yankey and Zach Ertz, and the rest of the offensive unit.
"It's not about playing perfect," said Shaw. "It's about finishing strong. I knew the unity, the way we play together would give us a chance to win."
Usua Amanam was named the Rose Bowl Defensive MVP, mostly for his clutch interception with just 2:03 left to play. He too had help in the form of All-American Trent Murphy and guys like Ben Gardner, Henry Anderson, Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov.
Stanford's defense showed up, checked in and did its job. Despite allowing 218 rushing yards, the Cardinal put a strangehold on Wisconsin's Montee Ball (the most prolific running back in NCAA history in terms of scoring touchdowns) in the second half and shutting out the Badgers the final 30 minutes of play.
Stanford improved to 11-12-1 all-time in bowl games in front of 93,359 fans. Amanam's interception with 2:03 to play was the only turnover of the game.
"Fortunately, the ball just fell in my hands," Amanam said. "I happened to see him go to middle of the field. I just happended to be at the right place at the right time."
Taylor scored once, a three-yard run in the first quarter. It was his 45th career touchdown, a school record. He had been tied with Toby Gerhart entering the game. Taylor finished his career with 4,300 rushing yards, also a school record.
Stanford is now 35-5 over the past three seasons, has made three straight appearances in BCS games and finished the year ranked among The Associated Press Top 25 for an unprecedented 46 weeks.
"Nobody was talking about our running game. Nobody was talking about our offensive line," Shaw said. "Nobody was talking about our front seven and how special those guys were, last year and this year. Our guys knew if we played smart and played together and played hard, we'd give ourselves a chance to be right here."
Clinging to a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, Stanford caught a break in field position when Drew Terrell was hit while catching a punt. The Cardinal took over at its 44 and finally moved into Wisconsin territory for the first time since the first quarter.
That led to a a 22-yard field goal by Jordan Williamson, who kicked a 47-yarder in the second quarter to give Stanford a 17-14 lead and providing the Cardinal with the winning points — just one year after missing crucial field goals in an overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.
"This feels a lot different, in a great way," Williams said with a smile.
Ah, redemption is sweet.
Hogan was 12 of 19 for 123 yards. He rushed for another 54 yards, doing just enough to become the first Stanford quarterback to win a Rose Bowl since Don Bunce in the 1972 game.
The triumph also avenged Stanford's loss to Wisconsin in the 2000 Rose Bowl.
Shaw is now 23-4 in his two years as head coach.
"First and foremost, as a coach, the thing you do is surround yourself with the right people," Shaw said. "I love my staff. I love the way the guys work. We've recruited great kids, kids that are tough. They're smart, and they're great kids to be around. So the environment is one of competitiveness, that we push each other and we work together."
It was a fitting end to perhaps Stanford's finest season yet, with standouts emerging at every turn.
Hogan was not a starter at the beginning of the season but as Shaw is fond of saying, it's not who starts but who finishes.
Hogan threw for 105 yards before the Badgers completed a pass but the tide changed afterward. Stanford (12-2) went up 14-0 with 6:35 left in the first quarter and outgained Wisconsin by a 159-15 margin.
"A couple of years we lost Toby Gerhart and coach Harbaugh," Amanam said. "This year we happened to lose Andrew Luck. It gave us motivation. It's a testament to our program and the way we train and prepare."
Stanford drove the length of the field to score on its first possession. Hard-nosed running from Taylor and Hogan set up a razzle-dazzle play in which wide receiver Drew Terrell threw a 34-yard completion to Jamal-Rashad Patterson, who made a leaping grab on the play. Kelsey Young scored on a 16-yard sweep the next play.
Hogan went right back to work on Stanford's second possession, hitting Ertz with a 43-yard completion just as Hogan took a hit. Ertz made an acrobatic catch to set up Taylor's 3-yard touchdown run.
After that, Williamson provided the points and the Stanford defense took over. Amanam provided the icing on the championship cake with his interception and it was time to celebrate. But, only for the moment. Shaw already is mentally looking ahead to a new year filled with promise.
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