PASADENA -- From coaching staff to players, Stanford longed to seize this moment by staging a spectacular show on national TV to impress a nation of doubters and skeptics.

The Pac-12 champion Cardinal wanted respect. It has achieved enough to get it.

But an unexceptional aesthetic performance against an unimposing opponent Tuesday in the 99th Rose Bowl left Stanford putting on its best face and graciously accepting no more than it earned.

Victory, though mildly unsatisfying. Ultimate success despite visible flaws.

Stanford's 20-14 win over Big Ten representative Wisconsin won't silence those not ready to place the program among the nation's best. It won't keep folks from dismissing the Pac-12 as softer and slower and gentler than the heralded Southeastern Conference.

Moreover, it won't persuade the masses that the highly intelligent young men on The Farm belong in the same conversation as the "factory'' schools, particularly those hailing from the almighty SEC.

"We played extremely hard; we didn't always play smart,'' coach David Shaw said. "We missed a couple throws. And we had a couple guys that missed a couple blocks on offense. Defensively, we missed a couple tackles.''

Though this was Stanford's first Rose Bowl win since 1972, it was not the killer performance, the blowout that would have raised both eyebrows and consciousness and finally convinced one and all that Stanford football is for real.

Oh, it is. But a six-point win over unranked Wisconsin, the only five-loss team in Rose Bowl history, does not properly punctuate the assertion -- particularly after the Cardinal was so dominant in racing to a 14-0 first-quarter lead.

But the impressive beginning devolved into an ordinary final three quarters; Stanford gained 159 yards in the first quarter, 185 over the final three. Though running back Stepfan Taylor was typically productive (88 yards on 20 carries), quarterback Kevin Hogan, so solid since being promoted to starter after the ninth game, was inconsistent.

Even Stanford's defense, so punishing against the run, had far more lapses than usual. This game wasn't secured for the Cardinal until nickel back Usua Amanam stepped in front of a Curt Phillips pass for an interception with 2:03 remaining.

When I asked Shaw how his inner perfectionist reacted to this game, he was about as candid as a winning coach could be.

"I still have that in my gut,'' he said. "There are two of those third downs, I'm still upset about the calls I made. Some execution things that I know we could have done so much better.

"But right now, it's not the time for that. It's time for celebration. (I'm) really excited, really happy, and we'll go back and try to make sure that next year we play even better.''

That's altogether likely insofar as Hogan, who was 12 of 19 for 123 yards, is a promising freshman who started only the last five games, all victories.

Given an opportunity to strike a blow for West Coast college football as well as for ambitious young athletes around the world -- those who seek to excel on and off the field -- Stanford didn't take full advantage. It merely achieved its primary objective.

For those not paying close attention -- many apparently are not -- the Cardinal is making a habit of this. The school has been ranked in the Top 25 for an unprecedented 46 straight weeks. It has made three successive appearances in Bowl Championship Series games. It is 35-5 over the past three seasons.

More impressive, it is thriving in the face of change. Stanford went 12-1 in 2010, one year after Heisman Trophy candidate Toby Gerhart left for the NFL draft. It went 11-2 in 2011, one year after coach Jim Harbaugh left to join the 49ers. It went 12-2 this season, one year after quarterback Andrew Luck departed to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

"It served as motivation for us throughout the year,'' Amanam said. "It's a testament to our program and how we train and how we prepare each week and every season. Hat's off to the guys upstairs.''

By all indications, this program is here to stay. Stanford is making good on its ambitious quest of proving that a school with lofty academic standards can succeed at the highest levels of a sport rife with corruption and cheating and exploitation.

Yet the doubt remains.

Stanford is good, but not exceptional. It is Egghead U. making a nice little run, but not a program destined to sustain excellence or become worthy of national acclaim.

Though the overall numbers suggest otherwise, the specific numbers on Tuesday were not persuasive. Stanford won the game but not the moment.

So proof will have to wait until Stanford can "play even better'' in a high-profile game, until it submits a performance that truly satisfies itself and dazzles the skeptics.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/1montepoole.