Stanford wins battle of seniors to clinch second straight Rose Bowl berth

Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov joked postgame that the Cardinal probably had more fifth-year seniors than any team in the nation.

He might be right.

What is for certain is that Skov, the fifth-year seniors and the rest of the seniors dominated the ASU seniors, propelling the Cardinal (11-2, 8-2 Pac-12) to their second-straight Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance with a 38-14 victory.

The domination started on the first drive of the game.

Cardinal fifth-year senior running back Tyler Gaffney ran 69 yards almost untouched into the end zone on the second play from scrimmage to grab an early 7-0 lead.

Allowing explosive plays was a theme all night for the Sun Devils’ defense, which started seven seniors and had an eighth, linebacker Steffon Martin, see significant playing time.

Senior safety Alden Darby was one of the players who missed his assignment on Gaffney’s first touchdown of the night and agreed that big plays killed the Sun Devils (10-3).

“You know, we came out, and I felt like we came out pretty decent,” Darby said. “We let one, we gave up three long passes and set up scores, and we had some miscommunication, and they broke a couple of big runs. “

Gaffney had a career night, rushing for three touchdowns in the first half, including a one-yard scamper on fourth and goal.

Gaffney gave all the credit to the play of his offensive line, which included three second-team All-Pac-12 selections and two-time All-Pac-12 first team selection and All-American senior David Yankey.

“It was the O-line,” Gaffney said. “They opened up the holes, and all they asked from me was speed and to run the ball. Then we opened up the passing game from there on out and that set the tone.”

Sun Devils’ coach Todd Graham admitted the Cardinal offense, which finished with 517 yards of total offense, ruled the line, especially the three senior defensive linemen.

“Will Sutton’s never been physically dominated,” Graham said. “Davon (Coleman) has played unbelievably, and again, (Gannon) Conway’s played unbelievably. But you’ve got to have 11, and their 11 were more physical and better than our 11.”

The Sun Devil seniors on offense didn’t perform any better.

Senior receiver Kevin Ozier caught two passes for 21 yards and senior tight end Chris Coyle was held without a catch.

Coyle admitted he was having a hard time finding space against the Cardinal defense.

“Whether I was running up against a backer, as soon as I’d get past the backer there would be a safety on me,” Coyle said. “When things like that happen, it’s up to the other guys to make some plays. We’ve got to find the openings as well. It’s still our job to get open no matter who is covering us.”

In the end, the Sun Devil seniors didn’t have enough to turn their magical season into a rose-filled one.

“Everybody’s dream is to make it to the Rose Bowl, but you know, we’ve just got to pick up where we left off and get ready for whatever bowl game we get selected for,” Coyle said. “We just didn’t get it tonight. I mean, we couldn’t put it together, and we’ll figure it out and make sure we finish strong with the bowl game.”

Graham said his thoughts were with his seniors but gave credit to the only team to beat the Sun Devils on their home turf all season.

“Just really hurting for (the seniors) right now, but, again, congratulations to Stanford,” Graham said. “A first-class program, tremendous coaching staff. They obviously deserved to win tonight. They were the better team.”

Reach the reporter at dsshapi1@asu.edu and follow him on Twitter @DsShapi