LOS ANGELES — Stanford will take one of the grandest stages in sports Tuesday when it faces Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, with an estimated television audience of 17 million.
But the appearance would not have been possible without a season-defining sequence of events that took place far from the spotlight.
It was the middle of October, and Stanford was fresh off one of the most disappointing losses in school history — a controversial overtime defeat at Notre Dame. The loss dropped Stanford's record to 4-2 and carried such an emotional wallop that it threatened to derail the season.
Shaken to their core, the players staggered through two days of practice before coach David Shaw and a handful of seniors (tailback Stepfan Taylor, center Sam Schwartzstein and linebacker Chase Thomas) initiated a series of meetings that saved the season.
"That was the critical point," Shaw said.
Here is a recounting of the events that, along with the quarterback change a few weeks later (Josh Nunes out, Kevin Hogan in), propelled Stanford to its first conference title in 13 years.
Receiver Drew Terrell: "The hangover was strong. It was strong. On the plane ride home (from South Bend), nobody was talking. Monday was bad. Tuesday, for the first half of practice, people were like, &‘What's going on?'"
Schwartzstein: "The execution wasn't there. The guys (standing) in back weren't locked in. The guys who were playing would make a mistake, and there was no remorse."
Defensive end Ben Gardner: "In years past when we lost a game, we always come back with our best week of practice. It was really alarming to not see the intensity."
Schwartzstein: "Coach Shaw had to make a speech at the end. It was like, &‘This wasn't a Stanford type of practice. We just got our butts (whipped), but we need to have the same type of energy as when we win. We need to understand the season is on the line.'"
Thomas: "The fact that he had to mention that we weren't practicing hard after a loss, that didn't sit too well with a couple of us."
Shaw: "I told them &‘... we're all judged by how we respond to what happens, not on what happens. We could hang our heads, or we could say we had our opportunities to affect the game.' That was our litmus test."
Defensive coordinator Derek Mason: "We asked the guys what the season was going to be remembered for. &‘Are you going to be defined by that Notre Dame game? Because if you are, then let's shut it down now and give away the rest of the season.'"
Schwartzstein: "Coach Turley" — strength coach Shannon Turley — "brought Chase and Stepfan and I into his office during lifts (Wednesday morning) and told us: &‘This is your team. This is your senior year. You need to address the team and get (rid of) the sense of entitlement that just because we're the new Stanford — that's not going to work.'"
Gardner: "Then Chase and Sam and Stepfan got the team together. They said, &‘This not acceptable. We're not a 4-2 team, and it's going to change.'"