Seasons change and new contenders rise in the Pac-12, but a constant Stanford stands as the conference’s standard. Its 38-14 rout of Arizona State in Saturday’s conference championship game sealed a fourth straight BCS bowl appearance and the program’s first consecutive Rose Bowl bids since 1970-1971.
“Four straight BCS games…wow, that’s a lot,” head coach David Shaw said in his postgame press conference.
That kind of sustained success in the ever-changing world of college football really is a lot and separates the Cardinal not only from other programs in the Pac-12 but also around the nation.
“Facts are three teams in the last four [regular seasons] have won 10-plus games: Stanford, Oregon and Alabama,” Shaw said.
Oregon is the team in that class by which Stanford’s been able to directly measure its progress. The Cardinal were a clear second fiddle to the Ducks the first two years of their four-year BCS run, but back-to-back wins have elevated Stanford to clear front-running status.
Saturday’s win was the Cardinal’s 11th on the season, the most in the Pac-12, and it was emphatic. They built a quick, 28-7 lead early in the second quarter on the strength of running back Tyler Gaffney’s three touchdown carries.
Gaffney returned to Stanford after a year playing professional baseball. Fittingly, he arrived to the postgame press conference wearing a baseball cap—only, it read “2013 Pac-12 Champions” rather than State College Spikes.
“This is what you ask for in college football, these opportunities,” Gaffney said.
Gaffney won Most Valuable Player honors for his three-score, 138-yard performance. He has an opportunity to put a cap on his career at next month’s Rose Bowl, a game he watched from the stands last year as a fan.
Though his path was different, Gaffney is part of a senior class that saw nothing but success at Stanford over the course of four years—the entire duration of a typical college career.
Linebacker Shayne Skov theorized that no team has more seniors—particularly fifth-year seniors—than Stanford. So with talent responsible for much success leaving the program, can the Cardinal possibly keep it running?
Count on it, said Skov.
“It’s all based on effort and being trained,” he said. “We’ve had the fabulous opportunity of watching other guys come before us: Dave DeCastro, Andrew Luck, Bo McNally…there are so many guys that I can look to and say not only are they great human beings, but they’re great leaders.”
Stanford embraces a kind of next-man-up ethos that transcends game days and is woven into the culture of the program. The mentality was on display Saturday, in plays like sophomore safety Zach Hoffpauir stuffing De’Marieya Nelson on a fourth-down stand at the goal line.
An Arizona State touchdown would have given the Sun Devils life at 31-21. Instead, the turnover on downs set up a backbreaking, 99-yard drive that showed off the full range of sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan’s skill set.
Hogan has gone through a season of ups and downs, but Saturday was a decided peak. He went 12-of-18 for 277 yards and a touchdown, a 24-yard strike to junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery at the culmination of that game-sealing, fourth-quarter possession.
“The funny thing is, this is Year 1-and-a-half for him as a starter. He’s got two years left,” Shaw said. “He makes a mistake, and he comes back fighting full speed.”
That’s two more years to refine the “big arm” Shaw touted Saturday and continue to put defenses on their heels with his mobility.
“He could have been MVP of this game, as well,” Shaw added.
Hogan lives in the very long shadow of Andrew Luck, the three-year starter, 2012 No. 1 overall NFL draft pick and most recognizable face of Stanford’s ongoing dynasty. But as Skov detailed, the bar predecessors have set within the Cardinal program fuels its continued success.
“You learn as a young guy coming in what that standard is and what that expectation is,” he said. “When it’s your time to lead, you follow in the footsteps of those guys.
“Hopefully those young guys, [the seniors] are demanding the same of them,” he said. “It’s a collective effort, and it’s one guy after the next.”
All quotes obtained firsthand.