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2016 ROSE BOWL: HOW STANFORD GOT HERE

A Stanford fan gives us the scoop on how the Cardinal got to the Rose Bowl.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the interest of better understanding our opponent in the 2016 Rose Bowl, the mighty Stanford Cardinal, we enlisted some help from the good folks at Rule of Tree, SBN's blog for all things Stanford.  RoT contributor ToneFernSports (@ToneFernSports on Twitter) was gracious enough to fill us in on the key moments in Stanford's 2015 season and just how they got to the 2016 Rose Bowl.

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Every year there are certain events that define a season for any team.

One play here, an injury there, can all determine how a team will react and either progress into greatness, or regress into obscurity.

This year, the Stanford Cardinal Football program had five key moments that defined their season, and propelled them into their 3rd PAC 12 Championship in 4 years, and their 3rd Rose Bowl appearance this decade.

Here are 5 moments that changed the course of the season for the Cardinal:

1. The opening day loss to Northwestern: Many will argue that this loss was a deterrent; however Head Coach David Shaw used it as a learning tool for his program. Coach Shaw will be the first to tell anyone that you can never underestimate your opponent, and that teams will put forth their best effort to try and knock you off your pedestal. The Cardinal were bullied on both sides of the ball by the underdog Wildcats, and just seemed out of sorts the entire game. Coach Shaw will also point to the loss of Harrison Phillips along the defensive front as a major point in this game. Phillips was poised to have a breakout season, but instead Coach Shaw's theme of "next man up" came into play, and we were able to see Azziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett put up solid numbers along the defensive front.

2. The halftime adjustments against Central Florida: Stanford began the game against Central Florida in much the same way that they played against Northwestern - lethargic and disappointing. Then all of a sudden, the Cardinal came out of the locker room at halftime a different team as the offense just began to click. The Cardinal just steamrolled Central Florida for 21 2nd half points with 3-monster offensive drives. This offensive explosion is what fans were expecting from this high-powered offense all season, and was a precursor of things to come for the Cardinal.

3. The victory over the "Sons of Troy": This victory over the Trojans of Southern California was important for several reasons. One, this victory showed that the Cardinal were going to be a solid force in the PAC 12 this season as they beat the Trojans in every facet of the game. The Trojans were a vogue pick by several members of the media in the preseason to represent the PAC 12 in the annual College Football Playoff, and boasted a very talented roster. The Cardinal fell behind early, did not panic, and posted a statement victory. Senior QB Kevin Hogan of the Cardinal had arguably one of his best games under center, as he was a true leader on the field posting a solid 279 yards in the air with 2 TDs. This victory showed the country that the Cardinal were on the prowl again in 2015.

4. Wide Right in Pullman: The battle between Washington State and Stanford was one of the ugliest, yet most intriguing matchups in the PAC 12 all season. This was a slugfest. Stanford was down several players in the defensive backfield due to injury, and the Cougars of Washington State took full advantage of the injuries. Stanford employed the infuriating to fans strategy of "bend, but don't break" defense, and were able to keep close with the "air raid" attack of the Cougars. Everyone watching the game knew it was going to come down to the last second. At the end of the game, there was a very highly disputed call that should have given the Cardinal the ball with just seconds remaining, but the referees saw differently. This is when the "football higher powers" intervened, and the Cougars were not able to convert a 5th field goal that sailed wide right. Sometimes you need a little luck to keep on track for a winning season.

5. Christian McCaffrey blazes past the UCLA Bruins into the record books: To say that Sophomore Christian McCaffrey had a breakout season is an understatement. McCaffrey torched his opponents for all-purpose yards records that have stood for over 26 years, was the AP Player of the Year, and runner up in the Heisman Trophy balloting. His true coming out party was on the national stage against UCLA where he blew past the Bruins for a school record 243 yards on the ground, 369 all-purpose yards and 4 TDs. The Bruins could not stop the young man at all. This magnificent performance propelled McCaffrey into the national spotlight, and gave the nation a glimpse of the talent that this young man has to offer.

There were several other moments including the phenomenal catch made by WR Francis Owusu, or the monster flat-back block by Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett that also garnered much deserved attention and were key moments that propelled the Cardinal this season.

Cecelia Ahern is famous for the quote that "Life is a series of moments." This season for the Cardinal has been chock-full of series of memorable moments, and there will surely be a few more on New Year's Day in Pasadena that will put their stamp on the 2015 season for the Stanford Cardinal football program.

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Thanks again, Tone Fern Sports and Rule of Tree!