PASADENA -- The formula that propelled Stanford to the 2012 Pac-12 championship powered the Cardinal to its first Rose Bowl victory in 41 years.

Using opportunistic offense, granite defense and big plays down the stretch, Stanford held on for a 20-14 victory over Wisconsin on Tuesday before an announced crowd of 93,359.

The win wasn't assured until defensive back Usua Amanam intercepted a pass by Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips near midfield with two minutes remaining.

Stanford ran out the clock for its eighth win of the season by a touchdown or less.

"We wouldn't expect it any other way," coach David Shaw said. "We know it's going to be tight. We know it's going to be close. At the end of the game, we're going to find a way to win."

The Cardinal (12-2) finished with 12 victories for the second time in three years and claimed its first Rose Bowl win since a defense dubbed the Thunderchickens led Stanford to a 13-12 victory over Michigan in January 1972.

This defense doesn't have a catchy nickname. But whether it's facing the spread (Oregon), a pro-style attack (USC) or a power running game (Wisconsin), the Cardinal slowly squeezes the life out of its opponent.

In the first half, the Badgers gained 219 yards and scored 14 points. In the second, they gained 82 yards and didn't score.

All-America tailback Montee Ball, who broke through the Cardinal defense numerous times early in the game, was held to 13 yards after halftime.

"We came in at halftime and were disappointed," defensive end Ben Gardner said. "We knew we were capable of stopping those guys. But we had some communication errors. We were beating ourselves, especially on third down.

"So we tried to simplify what we were doing."

At the time, Stanford held a 17-14 halftime lead that was the result of a sizzling start.

The opening possession featured a trick play: Receiver Drew Terrell completed a 34-yard pass to Jamal-Rashad Patterson, who made a leaping catch over a Badgers defensive back to set up Stanford's first touchdown, a 16-yard run by Kelsey Young.

The Badgers took over, gained 15 yards, then punted. Four plays later, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan hit tight end Zach Ertz for 43 yards. The completion led to a short touchdown run by Stepfan Taylor that gave Stanford a 14-0 lead.

But the Cardinal couldn't maintain the momentum, and Ball scored on an 11-yard run early in the second quarter that changed the dynamics. From there, the game morphed into the bruising defensive struggle everyone expected.

Stanford's 17-14 halftime lead held up through a third quarter in which the teams combined for 75 yards.

"We had a good first quarter, and then it got tough," Ertz said. "But it comes down to one possession at the end, whether our offense has the ball or the defense has to make a stop, we feel like we have enough playmakers to find a way to win."

The stretch run began when Wisconsin's Shelton Johnson interfered with Terrell, Stanford's punt returner. The resulting 15-yard penalty gave the Cardinal possession at its 44-yard line -- its best starting field position, by far, of the second half.

With contributions from a bevy of players — reserve tailback Anthony Wilkerson ran 8 yards on third-and-1 -- the Cardinal got close enough for kicker Jordan Williamson to convert a short field goal.

Trailing 20-14, Wisconsin took over with 4:23 remaining. Five plays and two minutes later, the Badgers were in Stanford territory. But Phillips' pass down the middle was tipped at the line of scrimmage and found the diving Amanam.

"I was basically just playing the quarterback," said Amanam, who attended Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose. "I happened to see him go to the middle of the field, and I just pedalled to the right.

"I think a defensive lineman got his hand on the ball, and fortunately the ball just fell into my hands."

A few minutes later, Stanford was holding the Rose Bowl trophy for the first time in four decades.

Mark Purdy: This Stanford team will be remembered because it won the Granddaddy. A1
notebook: Victory is especially satisfying for Wisconsin native Ben Gardner. page 6
Online extra: Scan for a slideshow from the Rose Bowl or go to www.mercurynews.com/pHOTOS. For Rose Bowl game coverage, commentary and more, go to www.mercurynews.com/sports.