TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State was one of the nation's hottest teams heading into the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford. It had won seven in a row, the longest winning streak in the conference. Further, it was playing at home, where it was 7-0 with a 28-point average margin of victory. The Cardinal's only two losses came on the road.
That was reasonable grounds to believe that the 11th-ranked Sun Devils would fare better against No. 7 Stanford than in their Sept. 21 meeting, a 42-28 Cardinal whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggests.
Stanford did its smashmouth Stanford thing, and Arizona State was pretty helpless to do what it wanted to do in a 38-14 victory that will send the Cardinal to its second consecutive Rose Bowl, this time opposite Big Ten champion Michigan State.
"They dominated the game -- beat us in every way you can," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.
And how does Stanford dominate? Said Graham, "They destroyed the line of scrimmage."
That's Stanford's thing. While many teams are spreading out defenses and outflanking them while going up-tempo, Stanford just lines up and tries to knock you over. It's not always pretty. But when Stanford is playing its best, it often renders all schematic complexities used against it irrelevant.
Arizona State had a plan, one that it thought would make things different this time. But it couldn't get started because, as Graham said, Stanford was destroying the line of scrimmage.
"I mean, they've made changes, but the way this team operates and the way we function, it's about us," Cardinal linebacker Shayne Skov said. "Offenses will change, but what matters is what we do defensively and offensively. We have to set the tone. We never want to adjust or have to adapt. We want to be the ones setting the tempo and forcing people to adjust to our style of football."
The Cardinal is now 11-2 after playing one of the nation's toughest schedules. How good are they in big games? Stanford is 10-0 in its past 10 games versus AP-ranked opponents, including 6-0 this season.
It's fair to ask how Stanford lost two games, to Utah and USC. But you won't get many excuses from the Cardinal.
"We bring the effort every week, but we didn't get the results we wanted," Skov said.
Stanford doesn't only grind it out, however. It got its first of nine plays of longer than 20 yards on its first possession when running back Tyler Gaffney slipped around the Sun Devils defense and ran 69 yards for a touchdown.
Gaffney would go on to rush for 133 yards on 22 carries with three touchdowns, earning game MVP honors. When the Cardinal went to the Rose Bowl last year, he was a professional baseball player watching from the sidelines in Pasadena. His return to the team, spurred in large part because of that game reigniting his football itch, is a big reason he's going to play in the Granddaddy himself.
"This is exactly why you come back," he said. "This is what you play for."
He now has rushed for 1,618 yards and a Pac-12 high 20 touchdowns this season.
"There is no question that Tyler Gaffney has been the heartbeat of our offense all year," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Gaffney, you just watch him play, and he gets stronger and stronger. He just drags guys."
While Gaffney was the offensive star, junior quarterback Kevin Hogan's performance was perhaps more notable. He has been up and down this year, but he was decidedly up against the Sun Devils, completing 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a score with no interceptions. He also rushed for 24 yards.
"With some of those step-up in the pocket throws and runs, those are huge plays, and we don't win without those plays," Shaw said. "Kevin's got ice water in his veins."
Of course, in contrast to many Pac-12 teams, the Cardinal is defense-first. Stanford held an opponent to 20 or fewer points for the seventh time in as many games. The Cardinal has held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 20 of its past 25 games.
Stanford outgained the Sun Devils 517 yards to 311 and outrushed them 240 to 138, with the Sun Devils getting more than a third of their yards on the ground from a 51-yard first-quarter touchdown run from D.J. Foster. The Sun Devils' other score came on a short pass that Foster turned into a 65-yard touchdown play.
Shaw admitted there was some big-picture, retrospective thinking in his locker room leading up to the game. Stanford, which went 1-11 in 2006, is on an unprecedented run of success, as it becomes the fifth -- and final -- team to go to four straight BCS games.
"I told the players what was at stake," Shaw said. "What was at stake is their legacy."
That legacy is a very specific set of skills. It's simple. And just a bit brutal.
Explained Skov: "We're going to come after you offensively, defensively and attack the line of scrimmage. It's what we do, and we were successful today."
Today and for four consecutive seasons that featured 46 victories, most of which looked a lot like the 2013 Pac-12 championship game.