Stanford strode out onto the exquisitely manicured Rose Bowl field under magnificent Pasadena sunshine and stepped into an iconic masterpiece of a setting. That they carried with them chips on their shoulders they’d acquired in Evanston 14 weeks ago did nothing to dampen the glory and splendor of the pregame setting as kick-off approached. The all-white Cardinal uniforms blended seamlessly with the Cardinal red half of the Rose Bowl stands, and looking up from the field it was as if you’d stepped into a masterpiece.
And then the Cardinal crafted a masterpiece of its own.
Fueled by season-long disrespect manifested in countless callbacks to that disappointing Saturday over Labor Day weekend, the circle of this 2015 came to a close where it began, against a Big Ten team on national television. Unfortunately for Iowa, all that angst had been channeled into a season-long joy that drastically transformed this team from tepid to transcendent, and it was expressed in a magnificent paroxysm of athleticism, poise, and execution that left the massive black and gold throng inside the Rose Bowl devastated and defeated before the game was ten minutes old.
Stanford continued to compile evidence that as spectacular a running back as Christian McCaffrey is, he is as lethal as stricnine as a receiver. McCaffrey diagonaled out of the backfield on the game’s first play, then slanted back in and up just as he had done on the defining play of the Pac-12 Championship. Kevin Hogan, throwing the first pass of his final game as Stanford’s quarterback, hit him on time and in stride, and McCaffrey scorched the Rose Bowl turf for 75 yards and a touchdown.
After Stanford’s defense held Iowa to a three and out, the Cardinal administered slightly more measured but no less lethal doses of McCaffrey. Runs of 5, 22, and 19 yards put Stanford into Iowa territory, and then a 12-yard reception brought the Cardinal into the Red Zone. With the entire state of Iowa now focused on McCaffrey, Hogan savily kept on a read option two plays later, and waltzed into the end zone. After not being down double digits at any point all season long, Iowa was down 14 points.
And then the carnage continued.
Stanford’s defense allowed Iowa to matriculate the ball to the Cardinal 36, when quarterback C.J. Beathard dropped back and radar locked to his right on an out route. Quentin Meeks jumped it, snagged, and then blazed yet another scorching trail to the end zone, and any question of the outcome was put to rest.
The game ended as spectacular punctuation to McCaffrey’s historic season and Kevin Hogan’s historic career, but the source of the Cardinal’s dominance was once more unyielding control of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, an outcome that had to shock the coaching staffs on both sides of the ball.
Coach David Shaw said postgame that Stanford thought they’d have a speed advantage on the Hawkeyes, but everybody presumed that the battle at the line of scrimmage would be essentially a stalemate. However, McCaffrey on the day averaged 6.1 yards before contact per carry, and Azis Shittu led an unbelievable defensive charge which held Iowa to 4 yards per play, 1.3 yards per carry, and sacked Beathard 7 times for a loss of 51 yards. It was as thorough a domination of the line of scrimmage as they’d had all year, and defensive coordinator Lance Anderson agreed after the game that it was as fine an effort as he’d seen from the front seven all season long.
Michael Rector said that coming into the game, Stanford needed only look at the Rose Bowl’s corporate sponsorship for a motivating reminder of the Cardinal’s opening week disappointment. He said it fueled the team all through bowl prep, and it really pointed to the leadership of the team.
There is no coach in America who relies more on chips on the shoulder than Coach Shaw. It’s a testament to his program and his players that perceived slights don’t just get put on bulletin boards for temporary motivation, but rather transformed into resolutions that lead to season-long excellence. Christian McCaffrey talked about the need for great players to find slights, real or imagined, and that’s part of what fuels him and this Stanford team. In a season where Coach Shaw took visible steps to be more emotionally celebratory with his team, it's ironic that the team's embracing of his slow burning desire to overcome slights ended up the catalyst for his most masterful coaching performance yet.
Way back at Pac-12 Media Day, Kyle Murphy sighed resignedly that Stanford had been passed over, and would probably continued to be passed over in terms of pre-season hype and respect. Turning slights into success has become one of the hallmarks of this program, and it all came to a head under a picture perfect Pasadena tableau that reminded the country once more just how lethal a slighted Stanford team can be.