By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 2, 2015
One of the greatest seasons in Stanford football history ended on Jan. 1, 2016, with a resounding victory in the most hallowed of all college football venues — the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The Cardinal demolished the Big Ten’s runner-up, the Iowa Hawkeyes, with a 45-16 steamrolling of the type that most Pac-12 teams came to know well in 2015. During the game, Christian McCaffrey set several Rose Bowl records and made a significant fraction of Hawkeyes defenders and Heisman Trophy voters look foolish.
The night before the Rose Bowl, Heisman winner Derrick Henry finished Alabama’s 38-0 embarrassment of the Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans with 20 rushes for 75 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and one catch for minus-two yards.
McCaffrey outdid Henry with his first touch of the game. On the 102nd Rose Bowl’s initial play from scrimmage, Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan threw McCaffrey a short pass in the flat that the super sophomore took to the house for a 75-yard touchdown reception. McCaffrey went on to amass 172 yards on 18 carries (9.6 yards per cary) and 105 yards receiving on four catches.
McCaffrey also got two opportunities on special teams — a 28-yard kickoff return and a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown that put the Cardinal ahead, 28-0, early in the second quarter. Add it all up and the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up finished the day with 368 all-purpose yards. Not only was that good for a Rose Bowl record, it made for the fourth-highest total of any bowl game in the history of college football.
The records didn’t stop there. McCaffrey became the first player to have at least 100 rushing yards and at least 100 receiving yards in the same contest in the history of the Rose Bowl. He surpassed fellow Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart’s school-best mark of 1,871 single-season rushing yards, set in 2009 when the Stanford back finished second to Alabama’s Mark Ingram in the closest vote in Heisman history. By the time all was said and done, McCaffrey was Stanford’s first 2,000-yard rusher, having amassed a grand total of 2,019 yards over 12 regular-season games, a conference title game and a bowl game.
The best part about the 102nd Rose Bowl for Stanford fans may have been that it didn’t involve the Cardinal football team doing anything particularly extraordinary. Instead, for the most part, the effort just involved members of the team playing at a level they’d previously proven themselves capable of reaching.
Take McCaffrey, whose impressive all-purpose yardage total was actually only his fourth-best of 2015-16. (He had 369 all-purpose yards against UCLA and set new school records of 389 vs. Cal and 461 against USC in the conference championship game.) McCaffrey’s 172 rushing totals were his fifth-highest tally of his sophomore season, following games of 200 or more yards against Oregon State, UCLA and USC and a 192-yard effort vs. Cal.
Or take Hogan, who finished 12 of 21 for 223 yards with three touchdowns, an interception and an eight-yard rushing touchdown that gave the Cardinal a 14-0 advantage. Hogan had thrown for two or more touchdowns on nine other occasions this season, and his completion rate of 57.1 percent was actually tied for the third-lowest of his senior campaign. Hogan had at least one rushing TD and at least one passing TD for the 10th time in his career and the fourth time this season.
The offensive line did a stellar job of protecting its quarterback — Hogan was sacked just once — and opening up holes for McCaffrey. This was in character: The line had allowed multiple sacks just six times on the season. And the receiving corps made big plays time and time again. Five of their receptions went for first downs, while both of Michael Rector’s catches went for touchdowns.
The first of those came on a fantastic play in which the quarterback and McCaffrey pantomimed losing a fumble before Hogan straightened up and threw a perfect strike to Rector as he crossed over the goal line. That came with 8:22 to play in the second quarter, and it gave the Cardinal a 35-0 lead.
The Cardinal had never scored so many points in one half of a bowl game, but the tally was significant for many reasons besides that. Stanford held a five-touchdown lead against an Iowa team that had gone undefeated over its regular-season schedule, that had entered the Rose Bowl with a 12-1 record, that had only once in the season surrendered more than 30 points and that had never trailed by more than seven points at any time in the season.
Iowa wouldn’t score its first points until Marshall Koehn hit a 39-yard field goal with 3:36 remaining in the third quarter, and it only managed that after the Cardinal’s long snapper sent the football flying over the head of the punter. Even so, the Hawkeyes needed to convert fourth and 8 from the Stanford 23-yard line in order to score. Iowa started the possession at Stanford’s 25, mind you; the abysmal summary numbers for the series were eight plays and four yards gained for the Big Ten runner-up over three minutes and 52 seconds.
Iowa wouldn’t score its first touchdown until early in the fourth quarter. Because Koehn’s point-after-touchdown kick doinked off the right post, the Hawkeyes needed a second touchdown in order to break the nine-point barrier.
That touchdown left the Hawkeyes trailing by a 38-16 margin. But if anyone in Iowa — or Carly Fiorina, for that matter — enjoyed seeing the deficit reduced from a high of 38 points to a more manageable 22, those positive feelings were almost immediately blunted. Rollins Stallworth recovered the black-and-gold’s onside kick, and 50 seconds later, Hogan and crew got their only second-half touchdown on a 49-yard quick-strike drive.
The possession required just two plays. Hogan threw to McCaffrey for seven yards before unleashing a bomb that Rector caught for a touchdown. That left the score 45-16 with a minute and 54 seconds left to play.
But plenty of time still remained, it soon became apparent, for Iowa to embarrass itself. As Stanford’s first- and second-string defenders congratulated their teammates on the sideline, Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard dropped back, unsuccessfully searched for an open receiver, tripped over his own feet and fell down for a loss of five yards. The play wasn’t a sack because for once in the game, no Cardinal defender managed to get anywhere near Beatheard.
Six plays later, Beatheard was pressured by the Cardinal, and he fumbled. Lane Veach, a sophomore enjoying his first-ever collegiate action, recovered the ball with 11 seconds remaining in the game. The only reason that Stanford celebrations couldn’t begin in earnest then was because Hogan had to be summoned one last time to kneel in victory formation.
Veach was playing because the Cardinal players ahead of him on the defensive depth chart had done such an outstanding job. The team notched seven sacks, not including that Beatheard stumble, besting its previous season high of four. Aziz Shittu recorded a game-high 10 total tackles, of which eight were solo; he had 1.5 sacks and two other stops behind the line of scrimmage. Solomon Thomas, Peter Kalambayi, Brennan Scarlett, Kevin Palma each had solo sacks while Blake Martinez, Ronnie Harris and Mike Tyler combined to help down Beatheard.
Martinez finished with nine tackles, marking only the third time on the season he didn’t lead the team in that category. Quinton Meeks made the defense’s biggest play of the game by intercepting Beatheard in the opening period and taking it 66 yards to give the Cardinal a 21-0 lead. And after allowing more yards per rush than any defense since 2006 — the team entered the Rose Bowl surrendering an average of 4.6 yards on each rushing attempt — Martinez and crew limited the Hawkeyes to 48 yards on 38 carries. That averaged out to a measly average of 1.3 for an Iowa squad that had run for more than 4.8 yards a pop in the regular season. The 2015 Stanford defense was not the team’s most ferocious, but it stepped up in big situations, and Friday in Pasadena was the biggest of them all.
Last year, Hogan became the first Stanford quarterback to record multiple bowl game wins. On Jan. 1, 2016, after becoming the first Pac-8/-10/-12 quarterback to start in three Rose Bowls, Hogan finished his career with a 3-1 mark in bowl games and a record of two wins and one loss in the Rose Bowl. (He is 4-1 in games played at the Rose Bowl, having beaten UCLA there during the 2012 and 2014 regular seasons.)
Cardinal head coach David Shaw now has a 3-2 record in bowl games in his five seasons, a level of gridiron consistency and success that is unparalleled in the university’s modern era. Shaw is the first Stanford coach to lead the squad to three Rose Bowls since the Great Depression. The 45 points that Stanford posted in each of its last two bowl games — the 2014 Foster Farms Bowl and the 2016 Rose Bowl — both represent the highest bowl scores in school history.
In other words, this was the best overall team fielded under David Shaw, who is arguably the greatest Stanford football coach in history and is inarguably the most successful Stanford football coach since World War II. The Cardinal ruled this season, and the 102nd Rose Bowl reflected that domination.
Hail, Stanford, hail. And thank you, David Shaw, Kevin Hogan, Christian McCaffrey and all the other players and coaches who made this season such a magical one.