Trailing Stanford 31-14 late in the third quarter on Saturday night, Arizona State finally seemed ready to mount a rally. Behind quarterback Taylor Kelly, the Sun Devils marched 74 yards in 16 plays, all the way to the Cardinal's one-yard line. But Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov stuffed tight end De'Marieya Nelson on fourth-and-goal. The Cardinal then closed the book on any sort of comeback attempt with a 99-yard scoring drive, capped by a 24-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan to Ty Montgomery. Stanford routed the Sun Devils 38-14 to win their second consecutive Pac-12 crown.
At times this year, the Cardinal have looked like one of the best teams in the nation: They beat Oregon 26-20 on Nov. 7; throttled UCLA 24-10 on Oct. 19; and whipped the Sun Devils twice. Stanford plays with a nasty streak, and it is physically relentless.
But losses to Utah (27-21 on Oct. 12) and USC (20-17 on Nov. 16) -- games in which Hogan did not play well -- will keep the Cardinal out of the BCS championship game. If this were 2014, perhaps they would be the fourth team to qualify for the College Football Playoff. Instead, they’ll play in the Rose Bowl.
Stanford is at its best when it can establish its offensive identity early. The Cardinal want to run the ball, and they want to force opponents to stop them. On Saturday it quickly became apparent that Arizona State wasn't up to the task. Stanford tailback Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 22 times -- the ninth game this season that he has surpassed 20 carries -- for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
Gaffney has quietly turned in one of the most dominant seasons of any player in 2013. With 1,618 rushing yards, he is inching closer to the school single-season rushing record held by Toby Gerhart (1,871 yards).
Coach David Shaw and the Cardinal can take pride knowing they won college football's version of Game of Thrones. The Pac-12 was a bloody struggle for supremacy. No one made it out unscathed. But at the end of the day, Stanford will fly its flag. The conference was the nation's deepest, and the last week has already ensured that it will get even tougher: Washington hired former Boise State coach Chris Petersen after USC hired former Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian.
Shaw's name will come up in plenty of coaching rumors – he’s already been mentioned in connection with the Houston
Texans' gig – but even if he chases an NFL job, the Cardinal are in a stable place. They have repeated as conference champions. In today’s college football landscape, that’s about all anyone can ask for.