TEMPE, Ariz. — Stanford is going to the Rose Bowl. Again.
The Cardinal won its second consecutive conference title Saturday with a near-flawless performance, defeating Arizona State, 38-14, in the Pac-12 championship game with a devastating mix of big plays and rugged defense.
Stanford will face Michigan State, the Big Ten champion, in the 100th Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
“Last year, we came out of nowhere,” Cardinal coach David Shaw said. “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. They never stopped believing. They said, ‘Let’s keep our head down and win as many games as we can and see where we are at the end.’
“Here we are, going to the Rose Bowl.”
The Cardinal (11-2) is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the Bowl Championship Series but its first back-to-back trips to Pasadena since the 1970-71 seasons.
The return visit came as the result of seventh-ranked Stanford’s most impressive performance on the road this season.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” senior linebacker Shayne Skov said. “This is the by-product of the effort we put in all year round.”
Stanford won its 10th consecutive game against a ranked opponent by making No. 11 ASU pay for its ultra-aggressive defense.
The Cardinal quieted the crowd of 69,535 in Sun Devil Stadium by converting plays of at least 29 yards on each of its first four possessions. It scored on all four drives to take a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Unlike the September meeting with ASU, when Stanford backed off with a 29-point lead, the Cardinal kept the pressure on.
“This was the championship,” tailback Tyler Gaffney said. “We couldn’t let anything slip.”
Gaffney got things started with a 69-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage. The senior, who returned to school after a one-year hiatus to play pro baseball, finished with 133 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game’s MVP.
But contributions came from all corners of the Cardinal roster:
Quarterback Kevin Hogan completed 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown in his best performance in a true road game all season.
Receiver Devon Cajuste set up touchdowns with catches of 42 and 78 yards.
Reserve safety Zach Hoffpauir, who grew up a few miles from Sun Devil Stadium, made the key tackle on Stanford’s goal-line stand in the third quarter, which ended ASU’s last chance to make the game competitive.
“They beat us every way you can,” Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. “They’re a championship team “¦ Their defensive line was the story of the game.”
That, and Stanford’s big plays:
— Facing second-and-17 on the second play, Hogan handed off to Gaffney, running left, for what at first seemed a routine carry.
But the Cardinal had the play blocked perfectly, sealing off the outmanned right side of ASU’s defense to create a lane for Gaffney’s 69-yard run.
“The offensive line opened the holes and all they asked from me was speed,” Gaffney said. “Then we opened the passing game and that set the tone.”
— The Sun Devils countered with a long touchdown play of their own, but Stanford responded quickly.
Hogan hit Pratt for 35 yards on the left sideline to spark an eight-play touchdown drive that gave Stanford a 14-7 lead.
“We knew we’d have to make big plays in the passing game because they are so aggressive,” Shaw said.
— The Cardinal struck again late in the first quarter, when Hogan connected with Cajuste for a 42-yard gain.
Three plays later, receiver Ty Montgomery scampered 22 yards on a reverse to push the lead to 21-7.
— The spate of big plays continued on the ensuing possession when tailback Anthony Wilkerson charged 29-yard up the gut of ASU’s defense.
The run set the stage for Gaffney’s third touchdown of the half, which gave Stanford a 28-7 lead.
— The Sun Devils scored late in the second quarter and had a chance to make things interesting in the third.
But the Cardinal defense preserved a 17-point lead by stuffing ASU on third and fourth down from the one yard line.
“We were going to fight for every blade of grass at that point,” Skov said.