PASADENA -- Ever wonder what a football team looks like after it rams into a brick wall? You should have been here Wednesday night after Stanford lost the Rose Bowl.
There were brick scars all over the bodies of Cardinal players after they lost to Michigan State, 24-20. Many of those scars belonged to Tyler Gaffney, Stanford's top running back.
"Everywhere I looked," Gaffney said, "there was a green defender."
Which, if you happen to be wearing a white and red uniform, causes lots of problems unless your team is perfect in every other way. But on a perfect California afternoon here, Stanford's football team was far too imperfect. On a beautiful 78-degree day, the Cardinal could not make enough ugly yards.
For the first time all season, the Stanford offense scored just one offensive touchdown -- and it happened in the game's first four minutes. After that ... hello, green brick wall. After rushing for 67 yards in the first quarter, Gaffney gained just 24 yards on 18 carries the rest of the way.
Two plays defined the Cardinal's offensive day, really. Both were fourth down plays. Both are bound to be much discussed between now and next season's opening kickoff.
In the third quarter, score tied at 17-17, Stanford faced a fourth-down-and-three situation at the Michigan State 36-yard line. After a timeout, Cardinal head coach David Shaw decided to dial up Gaffney's number behind the same stout offensive line that had helped Stanford convert eight of 12 fourth down situations during the regular season.
This time, there was nothing. Negative nothing, if that's possible. Gaffney lost three yards. Spartan tacklers swallowed him up.
"They get in the backfield right away," Gaffney said, explaining the play in present tense. "And that immediately disrupts the run, leaves myself no space to figure something out. They're big and strong. So when I lower a shoulder, I'm not getting too much."
Minutes later, early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State took a 24-17 lead. Stanford made it 24-20 by kicking a field goal, then regained possession with 3:06 left on the clock and one timeout. The Cardinal huddled up, ran three plays and, after taking its final timeout, faced another fourth down situation on its own 34-yard line with 1:46 remaining. They needed a single yard to make a first down and keep the drive going.
Shaw ordered up another run between the tackles, this time by fullback Ryan Hewitt. Again, brick wall. Hewitt was stopped for no gain. Michigan State took over on downs, knelt down and clinched the victory.
Afterward, Shaw was questioned about whether his strategy to huddle up on the Cardinal's last drive rather than run a two-minute drill had shown enough urgency.
"There was enough urgency," Shaw answered. "We just didn't get a first down."
He also confirmed that the interior running plays were called on both fourth downs because they've been Stanford's strength all season long and for the last several seasons.
"Absolutely," Shaw said. "Because when I don't do that, everybody goes crazy -- we should have done this, we should have done that. So I don't worry about any of that stuff. I'm going to put the ball in the hands of our guys and put it on the offensive line. ... We got beat today by a really good football team."
That realization didn't make the loss sting any less for the Cardinal. Some of Stanford's players, frankly, seemed stunned at how Hewitt was stopped -- and how their season ended.
"We were ready for the two-minute drill after we made that first down that I knew we were going to make," said wide receiver Devon Cajuste. "I was kind of shocked. I had no emotion."
Gaffney had that same feeling. On the last fourth down play, he was lined up deep and followed Hewitt into the line, trying to help push him the necessary yard.
"Fourth and one is what we preach on, what we do," said Gaffney. "It's what Stanford football is all about. You have to give it to Michigan State for stuffing that. Because everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming. A run was coming up the middle. And it was a test of wills. And they got the better of us."
Of course, one way to open up more space inside is to loosen up the defense with some long pass plays. Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan completed a couple of them, including a 51-yarder to Cajuste. More often, the throws just missed, often owing to Michigan State's physical defensive backs.
"To beat a team like that, you've got to hit more than a couple deep balls," Shaw said, "because it's one-on-one outside, there's a lot of contact on some of those."
Officials did let a lot of bumping go -- but that was true for Stanford's defense, as well. The Cardinal defenders probably played well enough to win, causing two turnovers and scoring a touchdown. They just didn't have the offense to push them over the finish line.
Even so, Stanford concluded one of the school's better football seasons, with an 11-3 record, losing to a Big Ten champion with a 13-1 record. Those who excoriate Shaw for calling two interior rushes on the two fourth down plays are missing the whole point. When you build a team to implement power football, you want to play power football. And the Spartans were happy to engage.
"Push came to shove, we started shoving back a little bit," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
It might be that simple. In a matchup of two brawny defensive units who had carried their teams throughout the season, Michigan State was brawnier. And the Spartans built a brick wall when it mattered.