PALO ALTO — Stanford Cardinal players wore Rose Bowl T-shirts and Rose Bowl caps, held Rose Bowl roses and watched Rose Bowl fireworks late on a Saturday afternoon absolutely loaded in symbolism, thereby removing all doubt and proving once and for all that they actually are going to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
That's where Stanford is going, all right, a destination it made possible with a 31-13 rout of California in the 102nd Big Game before 80,746 at Stanford Stadium. But no matter how you look at it, Stanford is going there, well, almost in spite of itself.
So all hail this season's Pacific 10 Conference champion. Try to control your enthusiasm.
It might be hard to get too fired up about a 7-3 Stanford team that will face Big Ten champion Wisconsin in Pasadena despite losing by 52 points to Texas, and despite giving up 44 points in a loss to lightweight San Jose State and 35 points in a loss to Washington.
Such criticism is mere piffle, according to Stanford Coach Tyrone Willingham.
"Whether people expected it or not, it doesn't make any difference," he said. "It's a great feeling to have at this moment. To be the undisputed Pac-10 champion and Rose Bowl representative, it feels great.
"You don't understand what it takes to take a team and do something of this nature. I don't think a loss at Texas or a loss anywhere makes it feel any less sweet."
Of course, if getting to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 28 years is the sweetest, beating up on the hated Golden Bears runs a close second. It's almost as if they're sort of obsessed with it: The phone number for Stanford athletic tickets is 1-800-BEAT-CAL.
Stanford did just that on a mostly dreary and sometimes drippy day, thanks to a crunching 94-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run by fullback Casey Moore and a defense good enough to take advantage of inexperienced Bear quarterback Wes Dalton.
The Bears didn't have regular quarterback Kyle Boller, who missed the game because of a separated shoulder, so fifth-year senior Dalton got his first start. Under constant harassment, Dalton was sacked six times, had two passes intercepted and wound up with 119 yards passing on 11 completions in 25 attempts.
And that was the biggest chunk of Cal's offense. The Bears had only eight first downs, 11 yards rushing and more yards in penalties (141) than total offense (130).
If it weren't for the two kick returns that squirmy Deltha O'Neal returned for touchdowns, Cal would have been shut out.
Stanford quarterback Todd Husak completed only 11 of 27 passes, but he still wrung 216 yards out of the passing attack. His 36-yard scoring pass to wideout Dave Davis gave the Cardinal the lead for good, 21-13, just before the half.
Meanwhile, Cal's impotent offense wasn't doing a thing, but the Bears were still hanging around, still trailing by the same eight-point margin early in the fourth quarter.
"What we were hoping for was one more touchdown to break their backs," Willingham said.
That's exactly what Moore did.
On second and nine from the Cardinal six-yard line, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound sophomore took a handoff from Husak, broke through the Bears' stacked line and ran all the way for a touchdown. He won a footrace with 5-9, 185-pound Cal defender Chidi Iwuoma, who tried and failed to trip up Moore with a diving tackle at the Bear five-yard line.
Moore's 94-yard run was the longest for a Stanford player since 1952 and the longest run ever in the Stanford-Cal series.
The first three minutes of the game were downright rollicking.
It took the Cardinal exactly four plays and 1:53 to score first, on a 22-yard run by Brian Allen.
The 7-0 lead lasted as long as it took for O'Neal to touch the ball on the following kickoff and then run like crazy for 100 yards.
O'Neal's fifth touchdown of the season--his previous four were all on returns of intercepted passes--pulled the Bears even at 7-7. It stayed that way until midway through the second quarter, when Stanford pulled in front again.
Stanford didn't even have to go very far to do it. The drive was set up when linebacker Marc Stockbauer recovered a fumble by Cal's Joseph Echema at the Bears' 45-yard-line. Husak completed passes of 15 yards to Davis and 19 yards to Troy Walters to the 11 yard-line to get Stanford close again. Two plays later, Moore pushed his way into the end zone from a yard out and Stanford led again, 14-7.
Then the Bears again turned to their biggest offensive weapon . . . a kick return by O'Neal. This time it was a punt return that covered 58 yards.
Mark Jensen's kick for the point-after was swatted away by Willie Howard and Stanford's lead was 14-13.
Just after a cold rain began to fall, Husak connected with Davis on a 36-yard scoring play to make it 21-13.
"Most magazines picked us ninth, some eighth," Howard said. "We used that as motivation to prove them wrong. We had a lot to prove."