You'd be hard-pressed to name another Arizona State home game in Sun Devil Stadium history more important than this Saturday's Pac-12 Championship matchup against the Stanford Cardinal. Here's our in-depth look:
No. 7 Stanford (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12) at No. 11 Arizona State (10-2, 8-1 in Pac-12)
Kickoff: 5:45 P.M. MST/7:45 EST
Location: Sun Devil Stadium
Point Spread: Arizona State (-3)
TV: ESPN (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe)
Radio: 620 KTAR AM (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Weather Forecast: 60 degrees
Series History: The Sun Devils actually own the all-time series edge against the Cardinal with an overall record of 16-12. Arizona State is 10-4 inside the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium against Stanford, but the Sun Devils lost their last home match up with the Cardinal in a 17-13 nail-biter. Stanford defeated Arizona State 42-28 on Sept. 21 of this year up in Palo Alto. The Cardinal owned a 29-0 halftime edge before the Sun Devils came roaring back to threaten Stanford's victory chances.
Stanford's Season to Date (As adapted from The First Look at Stanford)
Stanford: (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12)
Stanford opened the season as a national title contender, and if not for a few tough breaks, the Cardinal might still be in the championship game mix this week.
The Cardinal have one of the most physical defenses in the country, but it's been the Stanford offense that has let down coach David Shaw's squad this season. In Stanford's two losses, the Cardinal have mustered a combined 38 points.
Scoring wasn't an issue for the Cardinal in its first five games of the season, as Stanford jumped out to a quick 5-0 start. After pummeling San Jose State and Army, the Cardinal hosted Arizona State and thrashed the Sun Devils in a 29-0 beat down in the first half. When the teams returned from the locker rooms, the Sun Devils regrouped and made the game competitive again before falling 42-28.
Two victories later, the Cardinal traveled to Utah for what should have amounted to Stanford's sixth win of the season. But the Utes flipped the script and played inspired defense in a shocking 27-21 win that sent Stanford tumbling out of the national championship picture.
The Cardinal responded with two straight wins, including a 24-10 victory against a tough UCLA Bruins squad just a week after collapsing in Salt Lake City. At 7-1, the Cardinal prepared to host the Oregon Ducks for Pac-12 North bragging rights.
Though Oregon came into the matchup undefeated, the Cardinal handed the Ducks a 26-20 loss that was a complete exercise in frustration for Mark Helfrich's team.
Stanford looked invincible once again after toppling Oregon, but nine days later the USC Trojans sent shockwaves through the Pac-12 with a 20-17 upset of the Cardinal. The loss marked Stanford's second conference defeat, and meant the Oregon Ducks were back in the North division driver's seat.
Amazingly, the Cardinal found themselves back in control of the division after a listless effort from Oregon against Arizona the following week. Stanford rounded out the regular season with victories over California and Notre Dame, and now, the Cardinal will compete for the Pac-12 Championship in Tempe on Saturday.
Arizona State on Offense
Since losing to Stanford back in September, the Sun Devils have won eight of their past nine games including seven in a row. The Sun Devil offense has been a significant factor in Arizona State's success as its averaging more than 40 points per game this season.
With such gaudy numbers, it's hard to imagine the Taylor Kelly and Co. playing poorly. But that's exactly what happened when the Sun Devils trekked up to Palo Alto. The Arizona State offense was listless in the first half against the Cardinal, and helped the team fall behind 29 points after a scoreless first half.
Now, the Sun Devils have a shot at redemption. After taking care of business in conference play, the Sun Devils have earned the opportunity to host the Cardinal for the Pac-12 Championship game and are 60 minutes away from playing in the Rose Bowl.
Kelly says that this is a game he's envisioned playing since the first day of offseason preparation after last season. The redshirt junior talked about Todd Graham's message to the team, and how his coach has never wavered from the goal of hosting and winning the Pac-12 Championship.
"Our goal is coming true. We're starting to picture it," Kelly said. "Coach Graham said in the first meeting we had this summer to close our eyes and picture yourself walking out of the Tillman Tunnel for the Pac-12 Championship game."
For the Sun Devils' goal to come true, they're going to have to do a number of things differently this time around against Stanford. Kelly was under relentless pressure throughout the first three quarters of the September contest, and the offensive line must give him better protection. Even though he was sacked just three times, he was hurried into throwing two interceptions as well.
"They have a great front seven. They're explosive," Kelly said. "They do a great job with their run-stopping but our offensive line does a great job coming off of the football."
In fact, Kelly credits his offensive line's improvement as the reason behind his success as a passer this year. He believes the offensive line is the most changed unit on the team, even though the starting five has remained the same for all 12 games.
"We're a lot different. Our offensive line is blocking so much better in pass protection and running the football and it starts with them," Kelly said. "Those guys are playing as one unit up front and making great communication calls and being on the same page.''
The Stanford game wasn't as much of a turning point for Arizona State's front five as it was a wake-up call. Stanford was the first Pac-12 opponent the Sun Devils faced, and the offensive line learned what it was like to go up against the caliber of competition that exists in the Pac-12.
A week after paving the way for just 50 rushing yards against the Cardinal, Arizona State gained 261 yards on an average of 7.5 yards per carry against a tough USC Trojans front. While 261 yards is a lot to ask for against a Cardinal defense that features a handful of All-American candidates, Arizona State has to run the football to control the clock and tempo in this game. That starts with the push up front, and Kelly says his teammates have the confidence to get the job done.
"They're (the offensive linemen) playing the best football I've seen them play so for them to come off the football and have D.J. (Foster) and De'Marieya (Nelson) running the football is going to be great," Kelly said.
Arizona State racked up 28 second half points against the Cardinal in the last outing and the Sun Devils will look to target some of the same play calls that worked in that second half in this week's game. Jaelen Strong was a force in amassing 12 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown, and the 1,000-yard receiver will stay close to the sidelines this week to give Kelly a chance to find him.
Stanford has one of the best safety-combos in the country in Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, and Kelly and Strong found most of their connections on back-shoulder fades and quick throws that matched Strong up on cornerbacks. If Strong can command attention and double teams on one side of the field, Kelly says that will allow the offense to open up and explore better matchups on the other side.
"We're just going to take what the defense gives us," Kelly said. "If they want to bracket him (Jaelen Strong) or play one-on-one I'm just going to take what the defense gives me and we have a lot of great options. Kevin Ozier, Chris Coyle, Rick Smith, those type of guys."
Kelly reiterated the importance of establishing offensive balance and an intermediate passing attack this week. Still, the signal-caller said the Sun Devils wouldn't shy away from their zone-read scheme. Kelly will be forced to read the likes of Josh Mauro and Trent Murphy on the edge, but he says offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will stay true to the game plans that have pushed the Sun Devils this far.
"We want to attack that. We want to still do our zone-reads," Kelly said. "Our offensive line is going to do a great job of coming off the football and we just have to manage the perimeter."
Managing the perimeter is much easier said than done against a team like Stanford. Murphy has 13.0 sacks and will be playing in front of some hometown fans in his return to the Valley, so finding a way to stop him could be the key to unlocking Stanford's defense.
The Sun Devils know they have a tough task ahead, but they can smell the roses already and they aren't going to let the Cardinal dictate the tempo of this game.
Arizona State on Defense
When Arizona State and Stanford met in September, the Sun Devil defense was over-matched, out-manned, and unprepared for the wrinkles the Cardinal threw at it. On top of the initial struggles, the Sun Devils lost defensive tackle Jaxon Hood to an injury early on in the game.
When Hood went down, Arizona State did not have an experienced replacement to plug his gap. Jake Sheffield and Marcus Hardison gave it the ol' college try, but both players were exposed by an offensive front that features five All Pac-12 players.
Since Hood's injury, Arizona State has made drastic changes to its defense. After toying with the three-man front, Todd Graham settled on playing Davon Coleman at defensive tackle and Gannon Conway at defensive end. Partnered with Will Sutton at nose tackle, the Sun Devils have become a formidable front that shut down high-powered rushing attacks throughout the second half of the season.
Now, Arizona State is playing with restored energy and renewed confidence and the defense appears ready for another shot at the vaunted Stanford rushing attack. The Cardinal gained 240 yards on the ground back in September, and that's a total that needs to plummet for the Sun Devils to have a chance in this go-around.
Linebacker Carl Bradford says that the Cardinal look like a different team on film at this point in the season. The Sun Devils have been trending up, but he thinks the wear and tear of the season and the physical style of play might be taking its toll on Stanford's offense.
"They're still physical and stuff like that but you can see that just from the season they're kind of worn down and whatnot, but that's everybody," Bradford said. "It's not a big deal, we're just going to come out and attack."
Bradford acknowledged that he and his Sun Devil teammates are battered and bruised as well, but he thinks the defense is more capable of limiting running lanes in this week's matchup. With fresh faces on the defensive side of the ball and a better understanding of Todd Graham's complex defensive schemes, Bradford thinks the defense is hitting its stride.
"We had a lot of mistakes and critical errors last game and that's something we're not going to miss this time around," Bradford said. "We got a good scheme and we're real prepared for them."
In the last matchup, Stanford was effective in pushing the line of scrimmage forward and taking advantage of cutback plays. Wide receiver Kelsey Young gained 32 yards on an end-around and the Sun Devils are more aware of the Cardinal's game plan this week. Bradford said it's up to weak-side players like Chris Young and himself to maintain gap integrity and recognize potential cutbacks.
"We have to stay on our gaps and do our assignments and not try to go outside our defense and try to make plays," Bradford said. "Just do your job."
Bradford said the Sun Devil defense's No. 1 priority is stopping Tyler Gaffney. Gaffney only carried 18 times for 87 yards against Arizona State earlier this year, but Stanford's game plan will call for those numbers to rise this week.
"He's a good back, I have to give him his credit," Bradford said. "He runs hard, he's a downhill runner. He's not very mobile and jukey, but he'll get downhill and earn those yards."
Another player the Sun Devils have circled in their game plan is wide receiver Ty Montgomery. Arizona State actually defended Montgomery well in the last outing, but the slippery wide receiver still managed to find the end zone on two separate occasions. Bradford said the defense is aware of Stanford's penchant for using Montgomery in the running game and they're prepared to shut him down from all angles.
"He's a very key player for their offense and their success and we are definitely not going to look past him because he's an impact player," Bradford said.
The final point of shutting down the Cardinal is putting the full-court press on quarterback Kevin Hogan. The junior quarterback takes a lot of flak for the perception that he holds Stanford back, but he rates among the most efficient quarterbacks in the country.
Hogan isn't going to beat teams deep on a regular basis, but he isn't known for turning the ball over with regularity either. Four of Hogan's nine interceptions have come in Stanford's last three games, and that's a dangerous trend. Hogan threw one interception against Arizona State in the last meeting, and the Sun Devils will hope to force at least two Cardinal turnovers to turn the momentum of this game.
The Sun Devils will use their second half success against Stanford as motivation in this matchup. Bradford says something clicked on both sides of the ball, and he believes that success will carry over to Saturday.
"I think what we took from that game is how we rallied back in the second back and how our team came as one, not just individuals," Bradford said.
The Final Breakdown
When the Stanford and Arizona State matchup was finalized for the Pac-12 championship game, sports books began putting lines on the game and to the surprise of many, the Sun Devils were favored.
Arizona State has progressed in a myriad of ways this season, but one thing has remained constant throughout the year. The Sun Devils have always played well at home.
In seven home games, Arizona State is a perfect 7-0 and has scored at least 50 points in five of those seven games. It's impossible to deny the success that Todd Graham's team has enjoyed at Sun Devil Stadium, but is that enough to make up the 14-point deficit by which the Sun Devils lost back in September?
The short answer is no. In principle, switching stadiums can't make up a 14-point differential, especially for a game that was never truly competitive. But in college football, there is no such thing as a short answer.
The long answer is yes and that's because the Sun Devils have undergone such drastic changes this season. Aside from Davon Coleman, redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso and redshirt junior Damarious Randall have also joined the starting lineup on defense. The Sun Devils' starting eleven is much stronger on the defensive side of the ball, and the Cardinal will be hard-pressed to put up 42 points again.
On the offensive side of the ball, it might be even harder for the Sun Devils to put up 28 points in this matchup. Stanford has not surrendered 28 points since Oct. 5 when Washington put up 28 on the Cardinal. Stanford's defense was not as sharp in the second half against Arizona State, and that's probably because the Cardinal didn't feel the pressure.
I fully expect the Pac-12 Championship game to be a lower-scoring affair than the last time these teams met. At this point in the season, the defenses both appear to be in strong form and I think points will be hard to come by.
In many ways, I think this game is too close to call. It's always fascinating to see early-season rematches play out later in the year, and so often these types of games are impossible to predict. Still, I don't see Arizona State overcoming all of the issues it had when it matched up against Stanford in September, so I'll take the Cardinal on Saturday night.
Score Prediction: Stanford 30, Arizona State 24