Arizona State was favored to win by most experts on Saturday night, and it's not hard to understand why. The Sun Devils had used their high-powered offense to win seven consecutive games, their fan base was foaming at the mouth for a Pac-12 championship, and Stanford had been decidely mediocre on the road leading into this game. Even though Stanford had manhandled ASU back in September, things had changed for the Devils, and they felt they had a plan that woud give them a victory and a trip to Pasadena for the 100th Rose Bowl.
I've dropped this Mike Tyson quote before in this space, but I have to use it again. "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
The Cardinal punched Arizona State in the mouth early, and then they just kept on swinging. After Tyler Gaffney was dropped for a two-yard loss on the game's opening play and Cameron Fleming was called for a false start before the next snap, igniting the Tempe crowd, Stanford faced 2nd and 17 from their own 31. Hogan handed the ball to Gaffney again, but this time it was evident that a big gain was coming even before Gaffney got to the line of scrimmage. The play was designed to go out to the left, and every Stanford blocker (particularly Ty Montgomery, Ryan Hewitt, and Kyle Murphy) picked up their assigned blocks perfectly, completely sealing the Sun Devil defense to the inside. Gaffney sprinted outside, came incredibly close to stepping out of bounds (in the post game presser he would remind reporters that "close only counts in horse shoes"), and ran the rest of the way untouched for a career-high 69-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Stanford lead.
Undaunted, the Sun Devil offense came out onto the field for the first time and got to work immediately. Like every other team in the conference -- or so it seems -- Arizona State runs an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, and they've been one of the most prolific scoring teams in the nation this season. So it wasn't much of a suprise when quarterback Taylor Kelly found wide receiver Jaelen Strong for eighteen yards and an early first down. The surprise came two plays later when running back D.J. Foster took a hand off up the middle and ran through the Stanford defense as if it weren't there, turning a simple play into a 51-yard touchdown. It was the longest gain given up by the Stanford defense all year.
Stanford's next possession was a bit more typical -- steady running from Gaffney, play action and zone reads from Hogan. On 2nd and 12 from the Stanford 38, Stanford showed its first play action look of the game. One safety jumped towards the line immediately, leaving the other to choose between helping on Jordan Pratt or Devon Cajuste who were running routes on the left side of the field. Hogan saw Pratt on the sideline, lofted it to him perfectly, and the receiver hauled it in for a 35-yard gain. Three plays later, though, the Cardinal faced 3rd and 7, and it looked for a moment as if the drive had stalled. Hogan looked for all the world to have handed the ball to Anthony Wilkerson, and when ASU's defensive end wrapped up Wilkerson four yards behind the line of scrimmage, the Tempe crowd exploded -- but Hogan had made the read correctly and was already scampering past the first down marker for a twelve-yard gain. This is just one example, but his improvement in the zone read game has been remarkable over the second half of the season.
Four plays later Gaffney finished the drive with a one-yard plunge into the end zone, and Stanford was back out in front, 14-7. It felt like the game might develop into a shootout, but the Stanford defense would have something to say about that.
Kelly and the Sun Devils put together a nice drive (though it was aided by a Wayne Lyons pass interference penalty on a critical 4th and 2), but it came to an end when Trent Murphy pressured Kelly and the quarterback slipped and fell for a seven-yard loss, forcing a punt.
The Cardinal took over on their own eleven, and the playcalling was aggressive. After an eleven-yard pass to Pratt for some breathing room and a first down, Hogan went to play action and dropped back again. Gaffney picked up the blitzing defender nicely, giving his quarterback an extra second to set his feet in the pocket, and Hogan then rifled a perfect ball to Cajuste for a 42-yard gain.
The quarter ended with Stanford on the Arizona State 22, looking to score again, and the second quarter would open with an easy touchdown. The scoring play started with a typical power look, with Gaffney and fullback Ryan Hewitt in the backfield and Montgomery lined up in the right slot. Hogan faked the hand off to Gaffney, pulling the defense to the right, and then handed the ball to Montgomery, who was sweeping through the backfield to the left. By the time Montgomery got around the left end, there were only two defenders left on that side of the field, along with two Stanford blockers. Montgomery simply turned up field, hurdled a tackle attempt, and cruised into the end zone without being touched. Stanford 21, ASU 7. We were only nine seconds in to the second quarter, but there was already a distinct scent of roses in the air.
And then things went from bad to worse for the Sun Devils. A quick three-and-out for the Stanford defense forced a punt, and it was awful, squirting out of bounds after covering just sixteen yards. The first play of Stanford's next drive is only worth mentioning because I predicted it in yesterday's game preview. Gaffney took the direct snap in the wildcat and was clearly looking to throw as he rolled tentatively to his right. Hewitt was open, but Gaffney pulled the ball down and took a one-yard loss. Here's what I wrote yesterday:
I have a feeling we'll see something exotic on Saturday night -- possibly a pass from someone other than Hogan, maybe Gaffney or Ty Montgomery. Wouldn't that be fun?
Yes, it would've been fun, but Gaffney spoiled it all. No matter. After Wilkerson powered up the middle for 29 yards and Gaffney pounded it three more times before eventually getting into the end zone for his third touchdown of the night, the Cardinal suddenly had a 28-7 lead. That was fun enough.
After the two teams traded a few empty possessions, D.J. Foster struck again for the Sun Devils, and again it was on a play that seemed rather inocuous as it developed. Foster flared out quickly to the right and received a pass from Kelly behind the line of scrimmage. Safety Jordan Richards, as sure a tackler as there is on the Stanford defense, raced in and had a shot at tackling Foster for a loss, but he overpursued a bit and Foster wriggled free. He then quickly found the sidelines and raced the rest of the way untouched for a 65-yard touchdown. Now that was the longest play from scrimmage against the Stanford defense.
With the lead now trimmed to 28-14, there was some mild concern, but that concern only came from the scoreboard, not the game on the field. Yes, the Sun Devils were only one score away from being back in the game, but they were also only two plays away from being on the wrong end of a shutout. D.J. Foster might have been playing well, but the game was still under control.
Looking back at the game now, it's obvious that it was over early in the second quarter, but the victory was sealed with the first four possessions of the second half. As expected, the Sun Devils came out of the locker room bent on getting back in the game, and it certainly looked like they'd accomplish that with their first drive. Using an efficient mix of runs and passes, Kelly moved his team to the Stanford 13 before he was pulled down for a one-yard loss by Josh Mauro on what looked to be a designed run. That brought up fourth down. ASU coach Todd Graham has a tendency to be aggressive, but he couldn't afford that here. His team needed points, and since kicker Zane González had made a school-record 18-straight field goals, sending him in for the 31-yard attempt was the obvious choice. Except that he missed it wide right.
Hogan and the Stanford offense made the Sun Devils pay for that missed opportunity as they marched down the field and picked up a field goal of their own, stretching the lead to 31-14.
But the Devils would not go down quietly. Kelly led them on another long drive which eventually earned ASU a first and goal at the Stanford 9. (There was an odd sequence during this possession that must be mentioned. On first down at the Stanford 33, ASU tailback Deantre Lewis fumbled, and there was an immediate scramble for the ball. After the officials untangled the bodies, the referee emerged from the pile and made an emphatic signal in Stanford's direction. The defense raced off the field in triumph, but a few seconds later -- probably thirty seconds after the initial signal -- the officials changed their minds and gave the ball back to the Sun Devils. ESPN commentator Brad Nessler speculated that perhaps the official had just pointed in the wrong direction, but this makes no sense. If he had thought ASU had retained possession, he wouldn't have pointed in either direction, he simply would've held up two fingers to indicate second down. The replay offered no clarity, as the last shot we saw was Mauro lying on top of the ball. It didn't really matter, except that it was the closest the Stanford defense would get to a turnover; their school-record streak is now over.)
But back to the Sun Devils. They seemed poised to score to cut the lead to either ten or fourteen, but instead the Stanford defense ripped the team's heart out and held it up still beating beneath the desert moon. Here's how it happened. Trent Murphy, the best defensive player in the Pac-12, knifed into the backfield on first down and pulled down Lewis for a three-yard loss. On second down Kelly hit receiver Kevin Ozier over the middle at the five, and Ozier turned up field looking to score. He was met by Ed Reynolds and Usua Amanam, however, and the three players teetered on the precipice of the end zone for just a split second before the Stanford defenders pushed him backwards.
No matter. The Devils had two plays to gain thirty-six inches, right? They brought in quarterback Michael Eubank and his 6'6" and 246-pound stature on third down, a sure sign that they'd be running a sneak, but Shayne Skov destroyed it. Skov just might be the greatest linebacker in Stanford history, and one of his greatest talents, especially this season, has been his uncanny ability to anticipate the opposing team's snap counts. He could not have timed this play more perfectly. He lined up just a yard behind his defensive linemen, and at the exact moment that the center snapped the ball, Skov leapt over the line of scrimmage and landed on Eubank's back. Negligible gain. Pure Skov.
On fourth down, with only about eighteen inches separating the Devils from a look at the game, I thought back to the Cardinal's goal line stand in last year's Rose Bowl, and then I immediately thought of the injured Ben Gardner. It would have to be someone else to make the play here. Eubank was still in the game at quarterback, but this time he handed the ball off to De'Marieya Nelson. Just as Wisconsin native Gardner had made the huge play against the Badgers in that Rose Bowl, here it was Arizona native Zach Hoffpauir turning back the Sun Devils. He had lined up just outside the tackle, but he was quick enough to get into the backfield and wrap up Nelson even before he got to the line of scrimmage. (Please check out sad Sun Devil fan next to his sad girlfriend at the end of the clip. I can't get enough of it.)
If the game wasn't over then, it would be soon enough. Operating from his own one-yard line, Hogan handed the ball to Ryan Hewitt, who plowed ahead for three yards on the final play of the third quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Hogan went for the kill. Instead of another conservative running play, the call was smartly aggressive. Hogan lined up in the shotgun with Gaffney and Hewitt along side him for extra protection. This gave him time to sit comfortably in the pocket as the play developed. Devon Cajuste eventually ran away from his defender, and Hogan hit him in stride at the thirty-five. He ran another forty yards before he was pulled down at the ASU 17 after a 78-yard gain, another big play on a day of big plays for the Stanford offense.
A personal foul penalty on Kyle Murphy on the next play pushed the ball back to the 32, but two plays later Hogan hit Montgomery with a strike for a 24-yard touchdown and a commanding 38-14 lead. The Sun Devil fans began streaming for the exits at this point, and you couldn't really blame them. After those two long third-quarter drives had netted zero points for Arizona State, the Devils finally packed it in, gaining just one first down on three fourth-quarter possessions.
Not only had the Cardinal clinched their second consecutive Pac-12 championship and fourth straight BCS bowl berth with this 38-14 win, they had done so in absolutely dominant fashion. If I were to guess, I'd say that this game, on offense and defense, closely matched the vision that most Stanford fans had when they thought about what would be possible for this team back in the summer.
The offense was balanced, producing 240 yards on the ground and 277 through the air, and there was balance even within those categories. Gaffney ran for 133 yards, but his workload was about half of what I had expected. He had only 22 carries, while Wilkerson, Hogan, Montgomery, and Hewitt combined for 22 more and 107 yards.
Hogan was phenomenal, playing perhaps the best game of his Stanford career. Not only was he an efficient runner, gaining 50 yards on an assortment of scrambles and designed runs, but he was lethal in the downfield passing game, averaging more than 23 yards per completion. Montgomery remains his favorite target, but it was his three big throws -- one to Pratt and two to Cajuste -- that set the tone of the game.
I know that there will be a tendency in some corners of the fan base to look back with regret at the losses to Utah and USC, but there can be no good in that. No season that ends on January 1st in the Rose Bowl can ever be a disappointment, and it will be an absolute pleasure to salute this group of seniors -- a group which knows nothing but Axes and BCS bowl games -- as they take their final bows in Pasadena.
I, for one, cannot wait.
[Photo Credit: Christian Peterson/Getty Images]