PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It didn't matter to Stanford that everyone was handing the Pac-12 to either USC or Oregon in the preseason. But, of course, it did. It didn't matter to Stanford that many expected the Cardinal to take a significant step back after losing quarterback Andrew Luck, the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. But, of course, it did.
That's the twin engine that drives Stanford. It's contradictory only on the surface. Stanford doesn't pay attention to what you think because that chip is already on its collective shoulder. It's part of the program's culture. It doesn't care what you think but -- just in case -- it's certain you doubt them.
Yet here the Cardinal are, headed to the Rose Bowl as the Pac-12 champions after beating UCLA 27-24 on Friday, gutting out a victory over a foe that looked a lot tougher than it did six days earlier in a 35-17 defeat. The Cardinal is headed to a third consecutive BCS bowl game with a chance to finish a third consecutive season in the final top 10.
Surely that will convince the naysayers that the most elite academic institution playing FBS football is also elite on the gridiron?
"They probably still won't give us credit," outside linebacker Chase Thomas said. "They never have. They just don't get it. They counted us out before the season after Andrew left. They counted us out when [coach Jim] Harbaugh left. And when [running back Toby] Gerhart left."
While you might quibble with Stanford not getting credit -- it has finished ranked fourth and seventh in the final Associated Press poll the past two seasons -- you can't quibble with the facts: The Cardinal is now 11-2 and headed to the Rose Bowl after replacing one of the great college quarterbacks of the past decade, not to mention a handful of other early-round NFL draft picks.
This program has some legs.
But this one wasn't easy. The Bruins showed up for take two. It was only decided when Ka'imi Fairbairn missed a 51-yard field goal attempt with 34 seconds left.
After rushing for just 73 yards and giving up seven sacks in game one, the Bruins rushed for 282 yards and yielded three sacks. They outgained the Cardinal 464 yards to 323.
Said Stanford coach David Shaw, "They just played better."
But two plays changed the game. First, with UCLA leading 14-7 and facing a second-and-16 from the Cardinal 36-yard line, quarterback Brett Hundley threw his only interception on the night, but it was returned 80 yards by Ed Reynolds to the Bruins' 1-yard line. A play later, it was 14-14, and the Cardinal quashed early UCLA momentum.
Then, early in the fourth quarter with UCLA leading 24-17, Stanford faced a third-and-15 from the Bruins' 26-yard line. The Cardinal sent out four vertical receivers, with tight end Zach Ertz cutting underneath in the middle. The safety followed Ertz. Quarterback Kevin Hogan saw receiver Drew Terrell get some space along the right sideline.
"The corner sat a little bit," Hogan said.
Hogan found Terrell for a 26-yard touchdown to tie the score.
Said UCLA coach Jim Mora, "We busted a coverage."
Hogan won game MVP honors, and Stanford's transformation can be traced to him. The redshirt freshman made his first career start Nov. 10 against Oregon State, but now he has beaten four consecutive ranked teams, including the victory at Oregon that keyed the Cardinal taking the North Division title.
"It's been a good month," Hogan said.
Hogan is already notorious for two things: poise and a desire not to talk about himself. It's better to have others talk about him, a signal-caller who can do damage with his arm and legs.
"He's an impressive kid," Mora said. "He's very poised. He's careful with the ball. He makes good decisions."
Shaw said Hogan's "ceiling is very high" and that his poise is "innate."
"You don't train a guy like that," Shaw said. "You find a guy like that."
Hogan completed 16 of 22 passes for 153 yards and rushed for 49 yards on 11 carries. But the biggest number is this: No turnovers for the Cardinal offense. On a day when UCLA was statistically superior, that might have been the difference.
"You're a freshman?" Thomas joked with Hogan on the podium during a postgame news conference, then turning back to reporters. "He sure doesn't play like one."
Stanford hasn't played in a Rose Bowl since losing to Wisconsin after the 1999 season. Shaw is the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. The Cardinal has won at least 10 games in three consecutive seasons for the first time in their history.
There are probably a few folks who don't believe they will do it a fourth time in 2013. At least, that's what they hope in the Cardinal locker room. Not that they care what you think. But they know you think that.
Remember: These guys are nerds. They know things.
Said Shaw, "We expect to be good again next year."