It only took one play for the Christian McCaffrey show to pick right back up where it started — and this time, on the biggest stage in college football, the entire nation was definitely watching.
McCaffrey sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown on that first play and he didn’t stop running until he’d blown through the record books of the oldest bowl game in the nation and punched a Heisman-shaped hole in the heart of the fearsome Hawkeye defense.
In the end, No. 5 Iowa (12-2, 8-0 Big Ten) never stood a chance against Stanford’s superior talent and game plan in the 102nd Rose Bowl Game on Friday as No. 6 Stanford (12-2, 8-1 Pac-12) ran away with a dominant 45-16 victory for its second Rose Bowl win in four seasons.
“That explosion that you felt in the beginning of the game was these guys coming and just wanting to play so well and playing so hard and playing together,” said head coach David Shaw. “The guys wanted to go out with a bang, and they did.”
Stanford brought one of its finest performances of the season in all three phases of the game for a masterful finale to the team’s epic journey. McCaffrey stole the show on offense, but fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan threw three touchdown passes to wrap up a phenomenal career, a hungry defense led by defensive MVP Aziz Shittu exploded for a season-high seven sacks and a pick-six, and McCaffrey added a punt return touchdown for good measure.
McCaffrey, the game’s offensive MVP, played like a man with a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed for the Heisman Trophy a few weeks ago, and an Iowa defense that ranked 11th in the nation in rush defense going into the game was the final victim of his crusade for the record books.
McCaffrey’s 368 all-purpose yards set a new Rose Bowl record and he became the only player in the 102-year history of the Granddaddy of Them All to record 100 rushing and 100 receiving yards in the same game. In fact, with his 172 rushing yards, he also set Stanford’s single-season rushing record with 2,019 for the season — becoming Stanford’s first ever 2,000-yard rusher in the process.
“Great players always play with a chip on their shoulder no matter if they have a reason to or not,” McCaffrey said. “I’m someone who believes in having motivation at all times, win or lose in individual awards.”
“I think he was the best player in America before this game, so I think it’s just the icing on the cake for us,” Shaw said. “I do think it’s a shame that a lot of people didn’t get a chance to see him during the course of the year.”
“Apparently the games were too late.”
It wasn’t just a McCaffrey show, though: Everything was working for Stanford out of the gate as the Cardinal jumped out to the highest-scoring first quarter in Rose Bowl history and the highest-scoring first half in Rose Bowl history to put the game out of reach in a big hurry.
After the 75-yard touchdown pass from Hogan to McCaffrey to open the game — the second-longest pass play in Rose Bowl history — Stanford’s defense forced a quick three-and-out before the offense quickly drove 74 yards in eight plays for a Kevin Hogan rushing touchdown and a quick 14-0 lead.
Before the Rose Bowl, Iowa had never trailed by more than seven points all year.
“I think it’s something we’ve been building all year kind of for this and trying to get better each week,” Shaw said. “We started off fast, and our defense, you give our defense a lead and we feel good about closing the game out.”
The defense didn’t just hold the fort — it contributed to the cause as well. On the very next drive, Iowa managed to pick up some momentum and drive nine plays for 38 yards, but a bad decision from Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard allowed for freshman nickelback Quenton Meeks to jump a route and take his third interception of the year 66 yards for a pick-six and a 21-0 lead.
Meeks, who had spent all week studying Iowa film with renewed intensity, saw his work pay off — he said Iowa’s look on that interception was one he was intimately familiar with and he knew just where to look for the ball.
“From the formation, I knew exactly where he was going to throw the ball,” Meeks said. “I was actually surprised that he threw the ball.”
After yet another stop from Stanford’s defense, McCaffrey unleashed a 66-yard punt return touchdown — his first of the season — sprung by two monstrous jukes and two huge blocks from Ben Edwards and Brandon Simmons to stretch the lead to 28-0.
And finally, Stanford piled on with a trick play reportedly called “Hawkeye,” in which Hogan and McCaffrey faked a fumble by briefly touching the ball to the ground and miming diving for it before throwing deep to Michael Rector in the end zone to stretch the lead to 35-0 going into the half.
“That’s been in the works probably for about six years,” Shaw said. “That was one way we thought we could really get the safeties to suck up and isolate Michael Rector down the field, and it worked to perfection.”
Although Iowa mounted a small rally in the third and fourth quarters against Stanford’s backup defenders, the outcome was never really in doubt from that point on — it was only a matter of how the seniors would be sent off.
Hogan had a relatively quiet second half, but he ended his career with a bang by connecting with Rector one final time for a 42-yard touchdown with 1:54 left in the game, putting an exclamation mark on an era that saw him go 36-10 as a starter and 16-6 against ranked teams. He became the first quarterback in Stanford history to win two Rose Bowls. In his final game in a Stanford uniform, he was 12-of-21 for 223 yards with 3 touchdowns and an interception.
Shittu saved his best for last. The senior defensive end was a menace on the line and disrupted play after play, leading the team with a career-high 10 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
“It feels awesome just to see all your hard work come and you being able to walk away with some hardware is never a bad thing,” Shittu said. “But it’s really the whole defense played great today. Wouldn’t have been able to do it myself.”
The defense as a whole bullied Iowa at the point of attack all game through a combination of relentless pressure from the front seven and tremendous lockdown man coverage from the secondary to shut the Hawkeyes out in the first half for the first time all season.
And even though Stanford put in its backups for most of the fourth quarter, the Cardinal still held Iowa to 4.04 yards per play, which was the Hawkeyes’ second-worst output of the year.
In all, it was a complete performance that epitomizes what the Cardinal have been working towards all season: gutty play in the trenches, timely passing from Hogan, suffocating defense and, of course, history from McCaffrey.
“We talk a lot about not sending messages,” Shaw said. “We just talk about playing football. People can write what they want and say what they want. We know in our hearts how good we are. We put that on the field today.”
Four months ago, people around the nation were casting Stanford aside after the Cardinal started the season with a whimper against a Big Ten team.
On Friday, those very same people were singing the Cardinal’s praises as they finally got their redemption against the Big Ten with their most complete, dominant showing of the year.
With the dawn of 2016, Stanford football brought its epic journey full circle.