Throughout the 2013 season, the Arizona State Sun Devils had no problems running away from their opponents and leaving them in the dust. The Sun Devils enjoyed a 10-win season, and earned the opportunity to host the Pac-12 Championship game on Saturday night.
But for the second time this year, the Sun Devils stared a stronger, more physical opponent directly in the face, and that team forced Arizona State to back down. The Stanford Cardinal are Arizona State's tougher, more battle-tested older brother, and they aren't ready to hand over the keys to the Pac-12's family car just yet.
In September, Arizona State traveled to Palo Alto for an early-season test of its new sense of self. In many ways, the Sun Devils' battle with the Cardinal represented a chance for Arizona State to show just how far it had come under the guidance and leadership of Todd Graham.
In the week leading up to the September matchup, Graham talked about how in many ways, Stanford is the program he wants Arizona State to resemble most. Graham displayed tremendous respect for David Shaw, and characterized the Cardinal as a team he would like the Sun Devils to model themselves after.
When the final horn sounded up in the Bay Area, the Sun Devils learned just how far they would have to go. Stanford manhandled Arizona State in every way imaginable, and the Cardinal's 42-28 victory wasn't as close as the final score. The loss served as a wake-up call, and when the Sun Devils climbed out of bed the next morning, they answered the phone.
After being humiliated in the third week of September, the Sun Devils proceeded to run roughshod through the Pac-12 and finished the season on an eight-game conference winning streak. Along the way, Arizona State throttled the USC Trojans, embarrassed the Washington Huskies, and out-classed rival Arizona in the Territorial Cup.
The Sun Devils remembered the lessons they learned against the Cardinal, and by the end of the regular season, they were the ones teaching their competition about physicality and endurance.
Arizona State transformed itself into a Pac-12 juggernaut, and granted itself a second chance to demonstrate the massive impact Graham has had on the Sun Devil program on a grand stage.
So on Saturday night, the Sun Devils and Cardinal took to the field at Sun Devil Stadium for round two. Leading into the matchup, Arizona State was a trendy pick to upend the Cardinal and punch a ticket to Pasadena. The resounding victories the Sun Devils enjoyed throughout the season made an impression on experts, analysts, oddsmakers, and causal fans alike.
Then, just seconds after the opening whistle, all of Arizona State's hopes came crashing down.
On Stanford's second play from scrimmage, Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney carried around the left edge of his offensive line and sprinted 69 yards for a touchdown. The Cardinal out-manned the Sun Devils up front, executed blocks to perfection, and let their workhorse running back skate off down the sidelines.
It was classic Stanford.
Gaffney was barely impeded on his journey to pay dirt, and the Sun Devils were once again staring their big brother directly in the face.
"What killed us the very first drive, we have a critical error--a coaching critical error, and we gave up a 70-yard touchdown on misalignment," Graham said. "So we spot them seven points there and we didn't have anybody out there. So that kind of stuff can't happen."
Against Stanford, that does happen. Big brother does what big brother wants.
The reigning conference champion is on its way to its fourth straight BCS bowl game, and the Cardinal's systematic rise to the top of the conference finds them without a rival. Even the Oregon Ducks, a team that mesmerizes the country with its blinding speed and world-class athletes, can't hang with the mighty Cardinal. And on Saturday, the Sun Devils found out that they too were living in Stanford's world.
The Cardinal scored on their first four drives of the game, mixing their trademark power run scheme with a calculated assault of play-action passes. Stanford stuff Arizona State for most of the first half, save for two explosive plays from running back D.J. Foster.
The Sun Devils entered the half trailing by 14 points, and Todd Graham thought the Sun Devils would rally to win.
"It was 28-14 at halftime. Two-score game," Graham said. "I thought we'd get the ball and go score and come back and win the game, but you can tell that they're the defending champion, and they defended it well."
For a team that has scored 50 points at will this season, a 14-point deficit is nothing. But against the Stanford Cardinal, a 14-point deficit is the end of the world.
Arizona State did regroup, and the Sun Devils showed they could hang with the Cardinal at times during the second half. In fact, Arizona State had a fighter's chance to make it a game, as the Sun Devils drove deep into the Cardinal red zone in the third quarter.
Facing third and goal with the ball on the 1-yard line, the Sun Devils inserted backup quarterback Michael Eubank into the game. Everyone in the stadium knew that Eubank was going to keep the ball on a quarterback sneak. Everyone always knows that. The difference this time? The Cardinal stopped it.
Stanford safety Zach Hoffpauir timed up a blitz, leaped over the line of scrimmage, and helped stop Eubank's progress before the Sun Devil ball-handler could even begin to lunge his body forward.
On fourth and goal, the Cardinal faced a similar situation and proved they were up to the challenge. De'Marieya Nelson's rushing attempt was snuffed out in the backfield, and the Sun Devils lost possession of the ball, and hope of a victory.
"We had a quarterback sneak and we should have gotten in there, and we didn't," Graham said. "You've got to give them a lot of credit. That's all about will when you're down there. Goal line defense is all it's about."
Gaffney's long touchdown run and the Sun Devils' failed red zone opportunities were just two of the pivotal moments from Saturday night's affair. There were countless occasions in which the Cardinal players imposed their will on their Sun Devil counterparts.
Stanford amassed 240 rushing yards on an average of 5.5 yards per carry. The Cardinal's five starting offensive linemen are each All-Pac-12 players this season, and they had no problem dismantling the vaunted Sun Devil defensive line. Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, and others were no match for Stanford's tunnel workers. The Cardinal paved running lane after running lane en route to a dominating effort.
"Those guys set the tempo," Stanford coach David Shaw said of his offensive line. "In a lot of games we have a size advantage, and we're going to lean on it. Our guys love that. They love to be physical. We love to run the ball between the tackles."
Tonight, that love and passion for working in the trenches was on display nearly every play. The Cardinal embraced the line of scrimmage, and the Sun Devils were forced away. And that's the defining difference between these teams.
"Obviously that's something that they were better tonight, they were more physical," Graham said. "I think they really dominated their defensive line really dominated the run game, and hurt us."
Make no mistake. This year's Sun Devil team is far superior to teams of the recent past. Todd Graham had his team in a position to compete for a conference championship, and his players bought into their game plan.
The Sun Devils believed they could beat the Cardinal. That was evident from the dejection on the faces of the Sun Devils as they walked off the field. That was apparent from the tears lining the eyelids of Sun Devil seniors Alden Darby and Chris Coyle as they addressed the media in the postgame press conference. Belief was never the issue.
"I feel like we're in a good spot now, and we've shown signs of greatness, and that we can play with the top dogs," Darby said after the game. "We've just got to figure out a way to get it done and finish."
Saturday, the Sun Devils learned they're another year away from competing with the top dogs. One more year of growth, one more year of maturity, and one more year of integrating Graham's principles into the program and they'll be ready for another showdown with big brother.
Arizona State stared greatness in the face twice this season, and twice it came up short. The Sun Devils know what bigger, faster, and stronger looks like, and they know they're not far off. The loss stings, but it stings worst of all for a head coach who thought his team could stack up with the conference's best team.
"I'm just a really bad loser, so I don't like losing," Graham said. "I don't think you learn a lot from losing. You don't want to do it anymore."
Now, the Sun Devils know. Arizona State has faced big brother twice, and they've sized the Cardinal up. There's no telling how the Sun Devils will fare the next time they get the chance to meet their match, but we do know one thing. A culture now exists at Arizona State, and it's a culture of winning.
A 10-win season is something the program can hang its hat on, and though it was on the wrong end of a title bout tonight, it's not too long before Arizona State is the team inflicting the pain as the big brother it knows it can be.