When Stanford clinched its berth in the 2014 Rose Bowl, it owed some gratitude to the Arizona Wildcats, which knocked off Oregon in the second-to-last week of the season to allow Stanford to win the Pac-12 North and advance to the Pac-12 Championship game.
This time around, though less obviously, Cardinal fans can send thanks up north to Pullman, Washington, to the Washington State Cougars for twice pushing events in the Cardinal’s favor and allowing Stanford’s dominant conference performance to end in a Pac-12 Championship game.
Let’s take a chronological look back at some of the key events that allowed Stanford to reach the Rose Bowl.
Jan. 15, 2015: Kevin Hogan announces his return for fifth season
For the Cardinal, the journey to the 2016 Rose Bowl started on Jan. 15, 2015, when quarterback Kevin Hogan announced his return to Stanford for his fifth and final season. At the time, given Hogan’s mediocre play for much of 2014, the announcement didn’t seem to have too much of a bearing upon Stanford’s 2015 fortunes. However, there’s little doubt that Stanford would have faltered short of the Rose Bowl if not for the record-setting play of the All-Pac-12 second teamer.
Sept. 19, 2015: Stanford upsets then-No. 6 USC 41-31
After losing at Northwestern, Stanford was unranked and forgotten. This win put the Cardinal back on the map and cleared the way for what looked like an easy road schedule the rest of the way. It also gave the Cardinal the confidence and affirmation they needed to chug out six more wins in a row.
Sept. 26, 2015: Utah hammers Oregon 62-20 in Eugene
The Stanford-Oregon game had been the de facto Pac-12 North title game every year since the conference’s expansion in 2011. With Oregon’s loss, Stanford gained a leg up on the Ducks, and Oregon no longer had any room for error. It also made the Cardinal, just three weeks after losing at Northwestern, the favorite to win the North.
Oct. 10, 2015: Washington State upsets Oregon in double overtime
The aforementioned Cougars should have been second – behind Stanford, of course – on every Cardinal fan’s list of football-related things they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, considering that if Washington State lost this game, Oregon wins the Pac-12 and plays Iowa in the Rose Bowl, and Stanford goes to the Alamo Bowl. And this game finished in quite dramatic fashion.
With 1:58 remaining, Washington State trailed 31-24 and took over at its own 30-yard line. A sack and an intentional grounding quickly backed the Cougars up to face a third-and-21 at their own 19-yard line. Washington State converted and managed to march down the field but then faced a fourth-and-3 at the Oregon 30 with just 13 seconds remaining. The Cougars gained 22 yards through the air, converting the first down, and with no timeouts left, hurried up to the 8-yard line to spike the ball. On its next play, Washington State scored with just one second remaining to tie the game and force overtime, where it would go on to win.
If any of those events unfolded differently, Stanford doesn’t play in the Pac-12 Championship game and heads to San Antonio, not Pasadena.
Oct. 15, 2015: Christian McCaffrey bursts onto the stage
Stanford’s 56-35 win over then-No. 18 UCLA obviously helped a great deal in pushing Stanford to the Rose Bowl, but it was a game in which Stanford was largely expected to win. More importantly, sophomore sensation and AP Player of the Year Christian McCaffrey stepped up with his first truly transcendent performance of the season: He notched a school-record 243 rushing yards, tied a school record with 4 rushing touchdowns and finished just 10 yards short of the school record for all-purpose yards in a game. As we all know, McCaffrey would go on to have arguably the best season by any player in Stanford history – and statistically gain the most yards in college football history.
Including kickoff and punt return yardage, McCaffrey gained 50 percent – FIFTY PERCENT – of Stanford’s total yards this season. He led the team in rushing, receiving, kick return and punt return yards. He’s likely going to set the school record for most rushing yards in a season in the Rose Bowl. McCaffrey is undoubtedly the team’s most valuable player and, at least according to the Associated Press, the nation’s most valuable player.
Oct. 31, 2015: Stanford beats Washington State as the Cougars’ last-second field goal goes wide right
Yet again, the Cougars helped the Cardinal remain atop the Pac-12. But this time, it was due to something the Cougars couldn’t do.
Stanford trailed by 12 at two different points in this game, including a 22-10 deficit late in the third quarter. Thanks to lifesaving performances by Hogan and freshman cornerback Quenton Meeks, who twice intercepted Cougars quarterback Luke Falk to set Stanford up in scoring position — including a pick with under four minutes to go and Stanford trailing by one — the Cardinal fought their way to a 30-28 lead. But with four seconds remaining, it sure didn’t seem like Stanford would come away with the victory.
Junior kicker Erik Powell had already had a career day, going 5-for-5 on field goals, including a 46-yarder and a 47-yarder. Now, Powell only needed to nail a 43-yard field goal – with the wind and rain having calmed down significantly from earlier that night – to give Washington State the victory and the lead in the Pac-12 North. Additionally, a Cougars’ win would have opened the door for Oregon, which ultimately would have won the division should Powell’s kick have sailed through the uprights.
Stanford’s playoff and Rose Bowl dreams lived on against the odds and the Cardinal remained two games above Oregon in the conference standings.
Nov. 14, 2015: Oregon beats Stanford to mostly end the Cardinal’s playoff hopes
No team should ever be disappointed with a Rose Bowl season, but until the Ducks vanquished Stanford, the Cardinal knew they had a legitimate shot to make the Playoff should they win out. It wasn’t meant to be, as Stanford’s furious rally from a 12-point deficit fell just short due to two fourth-quarter mishandled snaps resulting in fumbles and an incomplete pass on a 2-point conversion that would have tied the game with 10 seconds to go.
Yet, unlike previous seasons, this game did not serve as the Pac-12 North title game. Due to Oregon’s two prior conference losses, Stanford hanged onto control of its Pac-12 destiny, just not its Playoff hopes.
Nov. 21, 2015: Cardinal clinch Pac-12 North with win over Cal
Make no mistake, Stanford remained the heavy favorite to win the North. And yet, the loss to Oregon opened the door slightly for the Ducks.
Stanford quickly shut the door, retaining The Axe for the sixth consecutive season and clinching the Pac-12 North behind yet another otherworldly performance from McCaffrey, who set a then-school record with 389 all-purpose yards.
Dec. 5, 2015: Stanford pounds USC 41-22 to win the Pac-12
McCaffrey drove the Cardinal’s season and delivered in his best way on the biggest stage, churning out over 200 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards to go along with a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown on his way to the fifth-best all-purpose yardage performance in college football history. Though Stanford trailed 16-13 midway through the third quarter, it owned the first half and the final 20 minutes to clinch the conference championship win. As the only two-loss conference champion, the committee left Stanford out of the Playoff the following day, officially booking Stanford’s ticket to its third Rose Bowl in four years.
Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.