Stanford is the only program in the nation on an active four-game BCS bowl streak. No school has won more games this decade than the Cardinal, who have beaten more FBS teams during the past four seasons (45) than runners-up Alabama, Boise State, and Oregon (42). The Farm Boys are in the midst of their most spectacular stretch ever, one that has produced a handful of defining wins. Saturday's 38-14 triumph at Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship Game immediately joins this esteemed club of success.
At least one epic victory has highlighted each season of Stanford's wildly successful decade. The Orange Bowl throttling of Virginia Tech did the honors in 2010, while the 65-21 pounding of Washington (446 yards rushing) and 56-48 triple overtime war at USC vied for the top spot in 2011. The push for the 2012 Rose Bowl reached its peak at Autzen Stadium, where Stanford shocked the home team in overtime and finally put its "Oregon problem" to rest. That set up 2013. For BCS glory to return this year, the Cardinal needed to again deliver a defining moment. Shaw's troops came through when they absolutely had to at Sun Devil Stadium.
The tables had turned. Oregon was no longer Stanford's tormentor this year. The road had taken the Ducks' place. The Cardinal's offensive struggles away from Stanford Stadium had been staggering. Shaw's club had one last chance to purge them in the Desert, and they did so in astounding fashion. As a result, the 100th Rose Bowl is next. But the details of Saturday's breakthrough come first:
- Some theorized that Stanford might have amassed the greatest offensive line recruiting haul ever back in 2012. That much is still to be determined, but two of that group's stalwarts played a pivotal role in reversing the Cardinal's road fortunes with Sun Devil Stadium roaring on an early 2nd-and-17. Sophomores Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy both pounded the left side to clear a massive opening for Tyler Gaffney on the game's third play from scrimmage. No. 25 shot out of cannon to the edge and down the sideline, delivering a 69-yard touchdown strike that silenced the home crowd. The play was significant on a number of levels: Aside from settling Kevin Hogan down, it set the tone of the game by reminding the Sun Devils that they could not physically match Stanford up front.
- The Cardinal's muscle advantage in the trenches allowed them to run effectively behind the right side of the offensive line, too. One Gaffney first down run featured pristine execution from Kevin Danser and Cam Fleming at the point of attack. Fullback Ryan Hewitt blasted his assignment on the second level, while receiver Jordan Pratt also pounded away downfield. Stanford won the physical battle at every single position, and they did so decisively. This was most evident on fourth and goal in the second quarter, when Shaw elected to pound the ball across the goal line behind the right side of his offensive line. David Yankey delivered a monstrous pull from the left side to help out, but it was fullback Lee Ward's bulldozing effort in front of Gaffney that truly demoralized the Sun Devils.
- With the running game delivering machine-like productivity, Arizona State -- an extremely aggressive team to begin with -- was forced to take even bigger risks on the defensive end. The Sun Devils brought intense pressure to the box, relying heavily on cornerback blitzes in their desperate attempt to counteract Stanford's ground-and-pound assault. Hogan, though, was in firm command. In the Cardinal's earlier struggles on the road, it seemed that he was frequently receiving the call from the sideline with too little time remaining on the play clock. Many plays appeared rushed, and the Stanford offense never seemed to be in complete control of the situation. Timing was not an issue anymore on Saturday. Hogan commanded the pre-snap flow. He identified ASU's menacing blitzes and directed adjustments to account for them. Shaw said that Hogan actually changed the play twice before a snap at the line of scrimmage for the first time in his career: once when the Sun Devils showed their initial look, and once after they shifted in reaction to his first audible.
- The success of Hogan's offensive direction was apparent in his sparkling numbers Saturday (12-18, 277 yards). In my pregame analysis, I wrote that ASU's aggressiveness made for a 'boom-or-bust' type of defense. Hogan made it the latter by repeatedly roasting the home team whenever they crashed the box. Successful strikes to Pratt, Devon Cajuste, Ty Montgomery, and Michael Rector earned Hogan an eye-popping 15.4 yards per attempt. Pratt told me he was "licking his chops" during the game, and it's easy to see why: Stanford's quarterback was using the foundation of an excellent running game to deliver a spectacular throwing effort downfield. He only completed 12 passes, but he made all of those throws count in a huge way.
- With three catches and 56 yards to go along with his crisp run blocking, Pratt played the best game of his college career. It wasn't long ago that this receiver was a throwing partner with Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. On Saturday, he was an integral part of the aerial threat that allowed the Cardinal's offense to enter juggernaut mode again. The Farm Boys have been looking for an intermediate receiving threat on top of the deep attack, and Pratt provided some of both.
- After Stanford scored touchdowns on its first four possessions of the game, the Sun Devils responded with adjustments that yielded a pair of sacks. Todd Graham essentially told his defensive front to go after Hogan with reckless abandon, figuring such a rush wouldn't give the Cardinal's receivers the opportunity to get open with their usual downfield routes. Will Sutton actually beat Yankey for a sack on a critical rush, and Stanford's lead began to shrink. That's when Mike Bloomgren and Mike Sanford made their most noticeable counter-adjustment of the night. The brain trust's turn to the shorter passing game was the perfect medicine to combat ASU's pressure. Rector's 34-yard catch-and-run on second-and-20 in the third quarter delivered a prime example of this.
- Stanford's offensive game was excellent with the exception of its clock management at the end of the first half. Saturday marked the second straight game in which the Cardinal was forced to resort to a Hail Mary entering the locker room just moments after a makeable field goal try seemed very possible. With the ball near midfield, Shaw let several seconds go to waste before calling timeout. Points may come at a premium in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State, so Stanford might be wise to rethink their end-of-half approach and value every scoring opportunity they have against the Spartans.
- Don't forget that Arizona State entered Saturday's contest averaging over 49 points per game at home. The Cardinal's defense delivered yet another effort for the ages, holding the Sun Devils to just 14. In fact, ASU did not manage a single sustained scoring drive: Both of their touchdowns came on explosive D.J. Foster plays (which happened to be the two longest gains Stanford had surrendered all year). Derek Mason's unit firmly tightened the screws in the second half. Henry Anderson, Josh Mauro, and Trent Murphy dominated from their defensive line positions, while Shayne Skov and A.J. Tarpley (who suffered a concussion after colliding with Ed Reynolds but should be fine for the Rose Bowl) seemed to constantly be in five places at once. Of course, the goal line stand at the end of the third quarter has instantly become part of Stanford lore. Skov anticipated the snap count before flying over the line of scrimmage to stuff ASU's quarterback sneak attempt before Zach Hoffpauir blew up the Sun Devils' fourth down run.
- Skov has developed a reputation of successfully anticipating snap counts. He discussed the skill this weekend: "You just kind of get it over a period of time. You get a feel for certain situations: How much time left on the play clock, the quarterback's physical presence and whether or not he is anticipating the snap, motions. There are different things you take into account as a whole. It's an educated guess... I can give you a nice estimation of what I assume [the snap count] will be... On third and fourth down, there was no risk, high reward. A penalty [would have been] a few inches. We don't have anything to lose at that point. I read his lips as the snap was coming... It's a hitting percentage thing."
- Skov, by the way, reached the 100 tackle mark for the first time in his career. Tarpley is currently at 87 stops, meaning that the century mark is an unlikely yet possible milestone for him to reach at the Rose Bowl.
- Before the game, Trent Murphy told me that home was "a good place to be." He grew up in nearby Mesa and said afterward that a few dozen family and friends were in the stands. They enjoyed another another dominant performance from No. 93. This one registered seven tackles, one sack, and two tackles for loss. It pushed his season line further into the realm of ridiculous: 14 sacks, 21.5 TFL, 137 TFL yards, seven passes defensed, one interception, and one touchdown. Other Phoenix-area products also shined in front of family and friends: Hoffpauir delivered the aforementioned fourth down stop and a number of big hits, while safety Devon Carrington made a good play to defend an ASU sideline pass.
- Ronnie Harris received his most significant career action at cornerback, while Hoffpauir saw extensive time at nickel back. The Stanford secondary is growing effectively deeper as this year progresses.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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