The Pac-12 championship between Arizona State and Stanford could go either way. The matchup already happened on Sept. 21 and the Cardinal defeated the Sun Devils 42-28 in convincing fashion.
Arizona State went into the previous encounter as major underdogs, ranked No. 23 compared to the No. 5 Cardinal. Heading into the conference title game, the Sun Devils are actually 3.5 point favorites over Stanford. Over the past three-plus months, Arizona State has established itself as a legitimate BCS contender.
Todd Graham and company are now No. 11 in the country, four sports shy of David Shaw's No. 7 Cardinal. To make matters even more interesting, this go-around will be in Tempe instead of Paolo Alto.
In the course of a long season, plenty of changes are made. The changes Arizona State put into effect are panning out well, especially on defense.
Co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph believes the players' focus and chemistry helped the unit improve.
"I think it's the players, their attention to detail. They are having a purpose about what we're doing," Randolph said. "And everybody gelling together. We had three or four new guys playing in the system. And now it's the end of the season, they've been playing all season. So I think the guys are getting better. More comfortable as an entire unit within our system."
Stopping the run was the downfall of the defense in the opening games. Stanford exposed the weakness with its physical downhill ground game, headlined by Tyler Gaffney. Arizona State continued to harp on limiting teams' yards per carry and it paid off. Washington's Doak Walker award nominee, Bishop Sankey, carried the rock 13 times and netted a mere 22 yards versus the Sun Devils.
Fitting and run stopping are almost always linked together. Randolph credited the better fits and sound tackling for the unit's rise in that area.
There are plenty of lessons Randolph took away from the Stanford loss. It starts and ends with limiting long plays over the top.
"Well, the biggest lesson is: don't give up cheap one-play drives, touchdowns or things of that nature," Randolph said. "I think that's the biggest thing. We've got to eliminate those. They force you to take chances to try and pressure."
On the offensive side of the ball, the results have been either excellent or solid, besides the minor slip up against Utah. Mike Norvell has guided to the group to an average of 43.8 points per game, eighth most in the country and second most in the conference.
Norvell was asked if he felt good about the offense prior to the championship game.
"I do. I think our guys are playing with a lot of confidence." Norvell said. "The last couple games we are hitting more of the vertical shots, the big plays. When that's part of the offense, being able to force the defense to defend you from sideline-to-sideline and we're making good decisions, it's going to be a lot of fun."
Overcoming the Stanford defense isn't an easy task. There are playmakers at every level of the defense, while senior linebacker Shayne Skov directs traffic. The Cardinal only allow 19 points per game. The strength of the Arizona State offense and the strength of the Stanford defense are going to provide an epic clash.
"Obviously we need to be playing at our best. You get to a championship week." Norvell said. "I always tell our guys, 'every week you need to get better.' I feel like we have really continued to do that."
As the old saying goes, you live and you learn. The same applies to Arizona State football.
"We've learned from the mistakes we made early in the year. We know that we've got to continue to grow in practice this week," Norvell said. " But it's going to be a heck of a matchup here Saturday night."