The Sun Devils were hoping to be smelling roses by the time Saturday's Pac-12 Championship concluded. Instead, all Arizona State was left with was the scent of something far more putrid.
The Stanford Cardinal stormed into Tempe to secure the program's second straight Rose Bowl berth with a commanding 38-14 victory over the Sun Devils. The loss snaps Arizona State's seven-game winning streak and Saturday's theme was eerily similar to the last time these two teams met back in September.
"You've got to have 11, and their 11 were more physical and better than our 11," said head coach Todd Graham.
Once again, Stanford dominated both lines of scrimmage, allowing Tyler Gaffney to easily eat up both clock and large chunks of yardage with 22 carries for 133 yards and three touchdowns. Gaffney missed last season while playing minor league baseball but he more than made up for his absence with a Pac-12 Championship MVP award-winning performance.
"Tyler Gaffney has been the heartbeat of our offense all year," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "He loves playing the game of football; and he loves playing at Stanford. He's personified who we are all year."
With the ground game totaling 240 yards as a whole, Kevin Hogan unleashed countless play-action strikes en route to his finest game of the 2013 season. Hogan connected with his receivers for completions of 42, 34 and 24 yards as well as a 78-yard dagger to Devon Cajuste that set up Stanford's final touchdown of the game.
"When given the opportunity and games are on the line in big moments against ranked teams, he shows what he's capable of," Shaw said of his quarterback. "He could have well been MVP of this game as well...Kevin's got ice water in his veins."
As dominant as Stanford's offense played, it was the Arizona State series before that back-breaker that ultimately provided the turning point of the game with a 14-point swing.
After Taylor Kelly and the offense moved the ball 74 yards in 15 plays late in the third, coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell curiously decided to bring in backup quarterback Michael Eubank on Stanford's 1-yard line. The Cardinal had no trouble stopping an obvious quarterback draw on third down. One play later, Stanford overpowered Arizona State's offensive line for the umpteenth time, dropping De'Marieya Nelson for no gain and preventing the Devils from cutting it to a 31-21 game.
"We've got the best offensive coordinator in the country; I would never second guess or question him," said Graham. "I'm ultimately responsible, and I think when you're down there, you've got to be able to make an inch."
But it is the special team gaffes that will haunt Graham the most. Outside of a favorable roll that resulted in a 55-yard net punt, Alex Garoutte's other rugby kicks went for 16, 25 and 36 yards.
In the field goal kicking department, Zane Gonzalez hadn't missed an attempt since the Sun Devils last visit to Stanford, setting the Arizona State record by making 18 consecutive. On his only try Saturday, Gonzalez failed to connect from 31 yards out, leaving ASU empty-handed on its second-longest drive of the game.
Following the loss, Graham vented a season's worth of displeasure toward the Sun Devils' special teams:
"You know, just being honest with you, it's been the most frustrating thing I've ever dealt with in coaching," said Graham. "I think we rallied probably the best that we could, but that's absolutely unacceptable. We can't play special teams like that."
D.J. Foster provided Arizona State with its only offense of the day, taking a hand-off 51 yards to the house on the Devils' first possession and showcasing his shiftiness on a 65-yard screen pass score late in the third. In the third quarter, Foster suffered a leg injury and was fitted with a knee brace. He only received one carry after that and, in turn, Arizona State's ability to produce big plays was silenced.
"Obviously not having Marion [Grice] hurts but I think D.J. getting banged up hurt a lot worse," said Graham. "D.J. is a tremendous back."
The Sun Devils have plenty to be proud of this season but this game certainly wasn't one of them. At this juncture, it's currently looking like Arizona State (10-3) will be heading to the Alamo Bowl or the Holiday Bowl, largely depending on the BCS fate of the Oregon Ducks.
Yet at the end of the day, with a Pac-12 South title and the program's most wins since 2007, Arizona State players still found a way to hold their heads up high as they look ahead.
"I have seen the worst of teams here and the best of teams. This is the best team I've seen here in a long time," said tight end Chris Coyle. "Hopefully [we're] going to bring a lot of recruits in and create a dynasty here at ASU. That is definitely part of our goal, not just playing for ourselves, but also for the program's future."
Graham echoed that sentiment by ending his press conference with four simple words: "We're just getting started."
- One of the most underrated story lines of the game was the eight penalties called against the Sun Devils. Arizona State entered the game as the fifth least penalized team in the nation (3.67 penalties per game) but those flags cost the team a total of 70 yards.
- Arizona State has now registered a takeaway in 26 consecutive games. Since the Sun Devils managed to not turn over the ball, they now own the second longest streak in the nation, passing Stanford (hat tip to our editor emeritus Brad Denny on the find).
There's plenty of analysis to follow. But in the meantime, it's time for Arizona State fans to sound off.