The 11th-ranked Sun Devils entered as three-point favorites and were considered the hottest team in the conference, having won seven-straight games and seven in a row at home by an average of 28 points. Plus, both of seventh-ranked Stanford’s losses this season had come on the road.
So much for numbers. The Cardinal has proven to be a big-game team, and nothing illustrates that more than its record against top 25 teams this year. Stanford has now beaten six of them, the most of any school in the BCS.
Stanford joined elite company Saturday night, not just becoming the third team in program history to reach consecutive Rose Bowls, but only the fifth team in the country to reach four straight BCS games. Let that sink in.
The Cardinal accomplished it with offense, defense and special teams, trademarks of the program David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, has established. Just when you think stopping fifth-year senior running back Tyler Gaffney is the key to beating Stanford, junior quarterback Kevin Hogan guts you with deep passes.
“Kevin’s got ice water in his veins,” Shaw said.
It’s hard to argue. Hogan is now 16-2 as a starter and 10-0 against ranked teams.
Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham never expected to be crushed on his home turf, but the Cardinal scored on its first four possessions and the rout was on. Gaffney’s 69-yard scoring run set the tone, but the Stanford defense was its usual stingy self, holding an opponent to 20 or fewer points in 20 of its last 25 games.
And if you’re looking for game-changers, how about the season-long performance of Stanford’s special teams? Ty Montgomery has helped the Cardinal become the best kickoff return team in the county, and the coverage teams have consistently denied opponents good field position.
Blocked kick aside against Oregon, the unit has sparkled and much of the year and the credit belongs to special teams coach Pete Alomar.
* * *In you were looking for turning points Saturday night, search no further than the missed 31-yard field goal by Arizona State freshman Zane Gonzalez, who had converted 18-straight, on the first possession of the third quarter.
But the back-breaker for the Sun Devils came later in the period, and was the goal line stand by Stanford, that saw fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov perfectly time the snap from center and leap over the pile to stuff backup quarterback Michael Eubank on third-and-goal from the 1.
Plays like that are contagious, and sophomore strong safety Zach Hoffpauir, who grew up in nearby Glendale, denied running back De’Marieya Nelson for no gain on fourth down.
“It’s a group effort, we were locked in and ready to go,” Skov said. “We were going to fight for every single blade of grass at that point.”
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Gaffney, the game’s MVP, has now rushed for 1,618 yards this year, passing Stepfan Taylor for No. 2 on the single season list. Only Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart, with 1,871 in 2009, has gained more. Gaffney has eclipsed 100 yards rushing nine times this season.
“There is no question Tyler Gaffney has been the heartbeat of our offense all year,” Shaw said. “You just watch him play, and he gets stronger and stronger. He just drags guys.”
* * *Stanford moved up to fifth in the AP poll and seventh in the USA Today Coaches Poll on Sunday. Big Ten champ Michigan State, the Cardinal opponent in the Rose Bowl, jumped from 10th to fourth in the AP rankings and ninth to fourth in the Coaches Poll.
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Skov finished with a team-high nine tackles … The Cardinal defense has recorded at least one sack in 32 of its last 33 games … OLB Trent Murphy collected his 14th sack of the season … Stanford saw its streak of forcing at least one turnover in a game snapped at 36. It was the second-longest in the country … Former Stanford tight end Jim Dray, now a member of the Arizona Cardinals, served as the honorary captain.
Quotable: “Last year, we came out of nowhere. This year, we got everybody’s best game. We had two bumps – the losses at Utah and USC – and a lot of people wrote us off. But the seniors never batted an eyelash. The never stopped believing.” - Shaw on the resiliency of his team