TEMPE, Ariz. -- The days of Plunkett and Bunce have been retold for so long in Stanford lore that those back-to-back Rose Bowls of 1971 and 1972 have taken on the status of legends.
But after its 38-14 rout of Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship game on Saturday, Stanford has reached consecutive Rose Bowls and is in the midst of a golden era that eclipses anything in school history.
Consecutive Pac-12 championships. Four consecutive BCS bowls. Four consecutive 10-win seasons. With the highest regards for the accomplishments of quarterbacks Jim Plunkett and Don Bunce during Stanford's most recent back-to-back Rose Bowls, it's hard to imagine anything better.
The Cardinal (11-2) never trailed Arizona State on the way to earning a matchup with Michigan State on Jan. 1 in Pasadena in the 100th Rose Bowl Game.
"This is unbelievable," said Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney, who ran for 133 yards on 22 carries and scored three touchdowns. "You can't describe it."
Kevin Hogan passed for 277 yards to lead a dynamic offense that kept the Sun Devils off-balance on the ground and through the air.
Stanford, whose 20-17 loss to USC on Nov. 16 largely dropped the Cardinal off the national radar, is back in the spotlight.
“We had a couple of bumps in the road, but our seniors never stopped believing,” said David Shaw, Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. “They said let’s keep our head up, win as many games as we can and see where we are at the end of the year.
“Here we are at the end of the year, and here we are going to the Rose Bowl.”
Gaffney and Devon Cajuste provided the game's biggest offensive plays. On the game's third play from scrimmage, Gaffney reeled off a 69-yard touchdown run to open the scoring. It was the first of his three first-half touchdown runs as the Cardinal built a 28-7 first-half lead.
“It was very important to take the lead early,” Shaw said. “Defensively, we can be really aggressive and we can run the ball. And when they drop their safeties down, we can make big plays in the passing game. That’s how this team’s built. We’re at our best when we play with the lead.”
After Arizona State (10-3) cut the deficit to 28-14 late in the first half, it nearly drew closer except that a 31-yard field goal try by Zane Gonzalez sailed wide right. After a Jordan Williamson field goal gave Stanford a 31-14 cushion, Arizona State drove to the Stanford 1-yard line.
On third down, Shayne Skov timed the snap count perfectly to leap over the pile and corral quarterback Michael Eubank, who came in for that play, for no gain. And, on fourth down, Zach Hoffpauir hit De’Marieya Nelson in the backfield to complete the goal-line stand.
“In the red zone and they have a tendency to run a power play or sneak,” Skov said. “The second they loaded the tight ends, we knew it was coming. Kudos to our D-line for establishing the line of scrimmage so we could make that play. We were locked in.”
Still, with Stanford facing a third-and-6 at its own 5, and with the Sun Devils threatening to shift the momentum, Hogan connected with Cajuste for a 78-yard pass play. With the safeties up and with Cajuste covered by a linebacker, Hogan let the ball fly to Cajuste, who caught the ball in stride as three defenders converged.
The catch -- Cajuste finished with two for 120 yards – allowed Stanford to continue a 99-yard scoring drive. A 24-yard Hogan pass to Ty Montgomery finished it off and put the Cardinal firmly in command with a 38-14 lead with 12:11 left in the game.
Stanford shut out the Sun Devils in the second half and outgained them, 517-311, overall.
“They dominated the game and beat us every way you can tonight,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.
The first half was Gaffney’s domain. His 107 first-half yards saw to that.
His opening score was Stanford's longest run of the season. It was set up when fullback Ryan Hewitt, receiver Kodi Whitfield and tackle Kyle Murphy sealed off the left side to allow Gaffney to break down the left sideline.
Gaffney followed with a pair of 1-yard runs. He scored the first by following Josh Garnett and David Yankey off the right side, and the next on a fourth-down play that gave Stanford a 28-7 lead. Gaffney now has 1,618 yards this season, moving past Stepfan Taylor for No. 2 in Stanford's single-season rushing list and trailing only Toby Gerhart's 1,871 in 2009.
“Tyler Gaffney’s been the heartbeat of our offense all year,” Shaw said.
“The O-line, they opened up the holes,” Gaffney said. “All they asked for me was speed to run the ball. We opened up the passing game from there on out, and that set the tone.”
The short touchdown runs sandwiched a 22-yard end-around by Montgomery that took advantage of a Sun Devil defense that began to pursue in the opposite direction when defenders bit on a play-action fake to Gaffney.
Hogan completed 12 of 18 passes and did not throw an interception, though he had a late fumble. With Arizona State crowding the box, Hogan went deep for completions of 35 yards to Jordan Pratt, and 42 and 69 to Cajuste.
“He’s got a big arm,” Shaw said. “He can make the big throws. We don’t win without those plays.”
Stanford scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, but Arizona State, which was missing top rusher Marion Grice to injury, got two long touchdown plays by tailback replacement D.J. Foster. The first, on a 51-yard run, tied the score at 7-7. The next, on a 65-yard bubble screen, cut the deficit to 28-14 with 3:52 left in the second quarter.
Foster, however, appeared to injure his knee in the third quarter and reappeared for only two plays thereafter, both after being fitted with a large brace.
As Arizona State was forced to take to the air down the stretch, the Stanford defense teed off, finishing with five sacks by five different players. Among them was outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who increased his national-high sack total to 14. Murphy grew up in Mesa, just minutes from Sun Devil Stadium.
On Sept. 21, Stanford beat Arizona State, 42-28, building a 39-7 lead along the way. However, the Sun Devils had not lost since, and were unbeaten at home, leading many to make them the trendy pick to win.
“They made changes,” Skov said. “But the way this team functions, it’s about us. We never want to adjust or have to adapt. We want to be the ones setting the tempo and force them to adjust to our style of football.”
Stanford, which beat Wisconsin, 20-14, in Pasadena last year, advanced to its fourth consecutive BCS bowl. Michigan State rallied past Ohio State, 34-24, to win the Big Ten championship game to earn the spot opposite the Cardinal.
The last time Stanford reached consecutive Rose Bowls, the then-Indians beat Ohio State, 27-17, behind the play of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Plunkett, and then edged Michigan, 13-12, on a late field goal by Rod Garcia.
“After the USC game, I told the players what was at stake -- their legacy, the legacy they were going to leave at Stanford, of going out as winners. They were just getting close as they came on board. Now, we’ve had four straight years of 10-plus wins. Four straight BCS bowl games.”
“It’s been an incredible ride,” Skov said.
And it’s not over yet. There’s another Rose Bowl Game still to come.