PASADENA, Calif. -- Through all the unhealthy amount of football I have watched, and all the January days I have spent in torpor and malnutrition, and all the half-naked football players to whom I have listened at their lockers, I never once thought about the significance of the offensive linemen's fingers.
But then on New Year's Day at the Rose Bowl, I went into one of the American harbors of rugged defenders, and I spoke to some rugged defenders, and forevermore I shall try to keep a sporadic eye on offensive linemen's fingers.
Now, you might not think of Stanford as any bastion of ruggedness. When you bother to think of Stanford, you might think of an otherworldly university, of four of the 13 Supreme Court justices who have served in this century, of the place where Benjamin Harrison once taught some law after preparing through his previous job: the U.S. presidency. You might think of the occasional glam quarterback from Plunkett to Elway to Luck. You might think of a football team that every now and then bobs up into the American consciousness.
Boy, do you need an update.
Not only has Stanford gone 35-5 over the last three seasons, and not only has it suffered Andrew Luck's departure by going merely 12-2 with a Pac-12 title and its first Rose Bowl win in 40 years, but it has just slaughtered a stereotype. The Stanford that won the Rose Bowl on Tuesday leaned on a hard, hard defense that spent the day making its narrow leads seem not-all-that-narrow.
As the linebacker A.J. Tarpley helpfully noted, it had a defense that just spent the back half of the season showing uncommon range, holding Oregon to 14 in Eugene and Wisconsin to 14 in the Rose Bowl, one the scariest Pac-12 spread, one the prototypical Midwestern brawn. "One game speed, one game power," Tarpley said. And while it's more fun to play power -- these people do love to hit -- he said, "We wanted to prove we can also run, because if we played power teams all the time, we would prove that we're strong, but we're also really fast."
The Cardinal won a game of swiftness in the middle of November, and they won a game in January of which head coach David Shaw said, "Every play, you could hear the pads popping." They embodied the words of the stalwart linebacker Shayne Skov: "We don't care. We play football." They lived up to coordinator Derek Mason's post-Luck challenge, retold by nickel back Usua Amanam: "We're going to carry the team." They bolstered the decree of Shaw, who reminded us on Tuesday, "I'm a social psychology major," when he said to them after the galling overtime loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 13: "We can sit and sulk about what would have been, or from now on we can finish."
They finished their way from 4-2 to 12-2, allowing 14.0 points per game on that path.
They were strong and fast and, as a bonus, observant of offensive linemen's fingers.
That really helps, you know.
Very early in the second quarter of the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin scored an apparent touchdown on a third-and-goal from the Stanford 10-yard line. The officials reviewed the play, and the touchdown vanished, Jacob Pedersen's knee having touched ground a yard too soon. So Wisconsin lined up at the 1 on fourth down.
If you cling to outdated Stanford images and check in only irregularly, you might have presumed that Wisconsin would have an advantage there. The Badgers would have that Midwestern straight-on thrust. Stanford would have that Californian frivolity, and even though that frivolity long befuddled the Big Ten on New Year's Day, on fourth and one you take the power. You might not know what Tarpley said: "I think the whole culture has changed. From the moment I got on campus it was clear we're not going to bow to anyone."
So the Badgers took stances to snap the ball directly to James White, as they do, and as the Cardinal defenders had studied all through the week, Cardinal defenders being good studiers and all. But also, defensive end Ben Gardner, a redshirt junior who nowadays fields stay-or-leave NFL questions, noticed something. "Just judging by the guard's stance," he said, "I just had a hunch and I adjusted my stance."
In this decision to commit, Gardner confessed, "I probably didn't do my job." He reckoned he would have absorbed a yelling if it didn't work out. But, he said, "Sometimes, you're at the line of scrimmage and you just kind of get a feeling from the offensive line."
So Gardner did some basic-football teaching to a football-besotted stranger at his locker. He said, "It's just sort of where the weight's distributed by the offensive line." Sometimes, you see them way up on their fingers, "and that's when they're going to fire out. Sometimes, you feel like they're leaning back a little bit." The difference might be infinitesimal or less, except to those who spend their lives in vicinities of offensive lines.
Fourth and one, and the guard did not go up on his fingers. He leaned "a little to the left," Gardner said, "so I had a feeling." The snap went to White, Gardner materialized in the backfield, Gardner wrapped up White for no gain. But then, in the year 2013, that's what Stanford defenders tend to do.