PASADENA, Calif. -- On Friday, with a 45-16 romp over fifth-ranked Iowa in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, Stanford made its case as the nation's most improved team from start to finish this season.
Billed as a battle of similar, physical styles between the Pac-12 champion and the runner-up from the Big Ten, this 102nd edition of the Granddaddy of Them All quickly spiraled into an epic mismatch.
The Cardinal led 35-0 at halftime and 38-3 after three quarters.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, second in the Heisman Trophy voting, took a short pass from Kevin Hogan on the first play from scrimmage and raced 75 yards to score a touchdown 11 seconds into the game.
The No. 6 Cardinal (12-2) drove 74 yards on their second drive, and the rout was on.
Stanford scored a Rose Bowl-record 21 points in the first quarter before McCaffrey returned a Dillon Kidd punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first minute of the second quarter.
Powered by steady if unspectacular play in winning its first 12 games, Iowa (12-2) stood no shot to overcome the big deficit. Before Friday, the Hawkeyes had trailed in five games this season. Since Week 2 against Iowa State, when the Cyclones led by seven in the second quarter, Iowa never trailed by more than three points before this New Year’s Day debacle.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard was rattled early, and Stanford sacked him seven times.
McCaffrey rushed for 172 yards and totaled 368 all-purpose yards to break a Rose Bowl record previously set by Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin in 2012 against Oregon.
Hogan threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns in his career finale and his third Rose Bowl start.
Just how far has Stanford progressed in four months? Consider it opened the season with a 16-6 loss to Iowa’s Big Ten West rival, Northwestern, a team the Hawkeyes beat by 30 points in October.
What the win means for Stanford: With a dominant performance, the Cardinal secured their third 12-win season in the past six years; in the history of the program, they had none before 2010. Consecutive victories over rivals Cal and Notre Dame, followed by a Pac-12 title-game win over USC and the Rose Bowl rout Friday stamp this season as a huge success. It is likely David Shaw’s best coaching work in five seasons, after he directed Stanford’s rebound from the loss at Northwestern to open the season. How, again, did that happen? Regardless, the Cardinal, with McCaffrey back in 2016, are positioned to generate positive energy through the offseason.
What the loss means for Iowa: It was a good year for the Hawkeyes -- a very good year, in fact, with a school-record victory total. But even this 12-win Iowa team isn’t built to stop an athlete such as McCaffrey. Undoubtedly, this loss will send Kirk Ferentz and his staff back to the drawing board ahead of the coach’s 18th year and provide fodder for critics of the Big Ten. But this is not the time to question Iowa’s methods. What the Hawkeyes did this season worked well. Still, the offseason in Iowa City opens with an icy blast.
Top play: There are so many from which to choose for the Cardinal, and it feels almost wrong to not select a McCaffrey gem. But in the spirit of team play, Stanford cornerback Quenton Meeks gets the honor. The freshman from San Diego stepped in front of Iowa receiver Matt VandeBerg on third-and-3 from the Stanford 36-yard line and took Beathard’s ill-advised throw to the house for a 66-yard interception return. Iowa, stunned but still standing, had gained a pair of first downs and moved 38 yards on the possession. Meeks’ third interception of the season put the Cardinal ahead 21-0 and all but ended the Hawkeyes’ hopes.
Stat of the game: Iowa rushed 38 times for 48 yards -- 144 yards fewer than its average. The Hawkeyes had a chance to neutralize McCaffrey only by controlling the clock with their ground game, and that wasn’t a far-fetched plan. Iowa got to 12-0 behind its deep stable of backs, none of whom gained traction Friday. LeShun Daniels’ 14-yard run in the second quarter marked the only carry of more than 9 yards by an Iowa running back. Against a Stanford defense that allowed 4.6 yards per rush through 13 games, Iowa had to do much more.