2012 Stanford's Top Five Unheralded Moments

The top 10 plays of Stanford's magical Rose Bowl run are coming. But the under-the-radar dirty work must be addressed first. Fittingly, the defense, which received limited award recognition despite its stellar season, dominates our list of unheralded plays.

The fascinating aspect of this list, a characteristic which also applies to the upcoming top-10 plays collection, is that the value of each play is dependent on the epic success of the others. Because of the year's shaky 4-2 start, Stanford had been fighting Rose Bowl elimination since midseason. The Cardinal strung together seven consecutive victories by the skin of their teeth in bar-fight fashion, so every pivotal moment proved central to the final result of three-peat BCS glory. In that way, this list is a reflection of the 2012 Stanford team, a refreshing sum of many contributing parts:

No. 5: Trent Murphy to the House (at Washington)
Stanford's jumbo-sized outside linebacker had barely finished talking about the time he outwrestled a cow back home in Arizona when he flashed an infinitely more nimble part of his skill set. To neutralize a Cardinal pass rush that had been tearing their offensive line apart like it was made of tin foil, Washington attempted a quick flat pass to running back Bishop Sankey.

Coming off the edge, though, Murphy wasn't fooled. He anticipated Keith Price's throw and paused in his path to the quarterback. No. 93's country-strong six-foot-six frame came in handy when it came time to tip the outlet throw, while his self-touted "hybrid wide receiver/defensive end gloves" were good for snagging the deflected ball before it hit the ground. From there, the Scottsdale Steer enjoyed 41 yards of daylight to the end zone, thrilling the national television broadcasters by outrunning Price and the fleet-footed Sankey to the barn.

The score put Stanford up 13-3 late in the third quarter, and while the Farm Boys would lose in gut-wrenching fashion, it firmly established the defensive prowess that would guide the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl: these guys were not only smart and strong; they were fast.

No. 4: Chase Thomas Overtime INT (vs. Arizona)
By a longshot, the day that the Stanford defense struggled most didn't come at Autzen Stadium. Instead, tough times occurred a week after the demoralizing loss in Seattle, at Homecoming against Arizona. The Wildcats had gashed the Cardinal for 617 total yards, but Derek Mason's vaunted front seven flashed its trademarked cohesion when it was needed most.

With the game tied at 48 in overtime, quarterback Matt Scott finally ran into the wall. After 491 yards worth of quick Arizona throws had gotten by him and his teammates all afternoon, six-foot-six defensive end Henry Anderson raised his hand to deflect the Wildcats' next attempt high into the air. Along the far side of the field, Chase Thomas circled under the wobbler and outmuscled his own teammates for the interception. Moments later, Stepfan Taylor crossed the goal line to seal Stanford's 54-48 victory.

The preceding interception remains the unheralded moment that announced Anderson's arrival. (He conquered Randy Hart's quandary of playing low and tall simultaneously, while becoming the team's Nick Fairley later at Oregon.) It also kept a precarious season from entering a downward spiral.

No. 3: Ronnie Harris Changes Course of Stanford, USC Seasons
It was Trojan arrogance (and Lane Kiffin mismanagement) at its finest: leading Stanford 14-7 halfway through the third quarter, USC had a chance to open a two-possession lead against the Cardinal's then-inept offense by kicking an easy field goal from the 13-yard line. Instead, Troy opted to run an end zone pass on fourth and two out of a tricky field goal formation that kept Matt Barkley on the field (but took Marqise Lee off of it -- splendid decision).

Reserve Stanford nickel back Ronnie Harris was not fooled. He tracked USC fullback Soma Vainuku to the side of the end zone. Even when Barkley's perfect pass planted its way into Vainuku's chest, Harris continued fighting. He ripped the ball out as both players hit the turf, saving his team from what likely would have been a fatal 14-point deficit.

What happened next was only possible because of Harris' play. The Trojans never again sniffed the goal line, Josh Nunes channeled his inner Tim Tebow, and Barkley became a rag doll. 21-14, Stanford: "unfinished business" would remain... unfinished.

No. 2: Times Have Changed, Oregon
The second spot on this countdown belongs to a duo of plays that emblemized Stanford's swap with Oregon atop the Pac-12. Early in the contest at Autzen Stadium, the Cardinal set the tone for what would be one of the finest defensive efforts in conference history.

Marcus Mariota burst out of the pocket, down the right sideline, open turf between him and first quarter paydirt. No team had come close to catching Oregon in the open field all season, and Stanford in particular had proven poorly equipped to do so in previous years. That's probably why the Ducks' De'Anthony Thomas didn't bother to block for his quarterback and instead began celebrating.

Finishing an epic headlong sprint that cut the field on a diagonal, Cardinal safety Devon Carrington ran down the fleet-footed Mariota to hush the home crowd's premature touchdown celebration. It was a stunning display of newfound Stanford back-end speed that gave the Farm Boys second defensive life on Oregon's drive.

The front seven punctuated the reversal the very next series, when Chip Kelly opted to go for fourth and two from the Cardinal seven. Shayne Skov stone-walled Mariota with a beautiful tackle in space at the line of scrimmage, extinguishing Oregon's chance at a score that would have been a lock just a year prior. Buoyed with confidence, Stanford's defense would ride the fuel of these two game-saving plays to a 17-14 upset that dethroned the country's top team.

The Ducks' 2012 scoring outputs: 57, 42, 63, 49, 51, 52, 43, 70, 62, 59, 14, 48. One of these is not like the others. Mason's unit achieved the extraordinary.

No. 1: Immaculate Recovery
Stanford's colossal win and Jordan Williamson's Shakespearean moment of redemption were a breath away from never happening. With overtime victory within touching distance following Oregon's missed field goal, Kevin Hogan committed a massive blunder. Ducks' linebacker Kiko Alonso stripped him from behind on a play-action scramble, leaving the football rolling with Stanford's Pac-12 championship hopes on the Autzen Stadium turf.

Oregon's Michael Clay had the first shot at the elusive prize. He fell on top of the ball, seemingly rescuing his team's national title aspirations. But it slipped away, and the ensuing scrum produced a legendary tale that Khalil Wilkes will relate to his grandchildren. Somehow, someway -- few know the exact details -- the Cardinal guard wrestled the fumble to himself, setting up the climactic moment no one will ever forget.

Williamson nailed the field goal, and the Road to Pasadena was cleared.

David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.

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