It was less than a calendar year ago that Stanford celebrated a Pac-12 Championship on Arizona State's turf, blowing out the Sun Devils and emptying the student section by the end of the third quarter. But on Saturday night the tides turned in Tempe, and Arizona State put together its first complete performance of the year against a quality opponent, dominating the Cardinal in a 26-10 victory.
The Sun Devils controlled the game in ways they haven't been able to this season, as a disciplined defense and mistake-free special teams neutralized the Stanford attack.
"It's just taking the time to perfect our craft in every phase of the game," cornerback Lloyd Carrington said. "We came out here and were playing with a chip on our shoulder. Our motto this year is unfinished business, and we came out and did just that."
The victory over the Cardinal is Arizona State's first since 2008, when Jim Harbaugh was coach of Stanford and Dennis Erickson led the Sun Devils.
"The phrase that we have used is 'taking that crown from them'," quarterback Mike Bercovici said. "We respect them as an opponent. They are once of the most disciplined, smartest, toughest opponents in the conference; they proved this over the last two years. We had a salty taste in our mouth when we walked down the tunnel; it had been lingered since last September. The crown is ours now. We need to move forward from here. Hats off to Stanford they are a quality opponent."
There were many questions surrounding the No. 17 Sun Devils headed into Saturday's game, with most centering around who would be under center for Arizona State. Taylor Kelly was in uniform and warmed up with the team, but coach Graham wasn't comfortable putting his captain out there and opted to stick with Bercovici. Facing a Cardinal defense that had allowed only 9.5 points per game headed into the contest, the redshirt junior performed admirably.
Arizona State didn't have trouble moving the ball early against the Cardinal, securing at least one first down on all three of their first quarter drives. But all three drives stalled, and Zane Gonzalez's missed 48-yard field goal was the closest either team came to scoring in the period, as the two squads entered the second quarter scoreless.
While Arizona State's defense continued to stymy the Cardinal offense, it was the Sun Devil attack that broke through in the second quarter. Bercovici orchestrated a 13-play, 81-yard drive that ended with a D.J. Foster short plunge into the end zone. Bercovici completed passes to three different receivers and Deantre Lewis had a pair of solid rushes as Arizona State's multi-faceted offense took a 7-0 lead.
Looking to respond, Stanford used a 30-yard catch by Greg Taboada to set itself up at the Sun Devil 35-yard line, but a Lloyd Carrington sack of Kevin Hogan pushed the Cardinal back ten yards and forced a Stanford punt.
Arizona State went 3-and-out on its next drive, but the special teams unit that has struggled all season made its first big play of the night. Matt Haack sent a booming punt 54 yards that sent Ty Montegomery into a backpeddle, and the Stanford star wasn't able to corral it correctly, allowing Arizona State's Damarious Randall to fall on the ball at the Stanford 12-yard line.
An 11-yard catch-and-run by Foster moved the Sun Devils closer to paydirt, and a 3-yard pass to Jaelen Strong in the back of the end zone upped Arizona State's lead to 14-0. The Arizona State defense forced another Stanford punt, and for the first time since 2011, Stanford trailed by two touchdowns at halftime.
"I actually released off the gunner. I saw him going back," Randall said of the game-changing fumble recovery. "I saw that it was a deep, deep punt. Normally, whenever it's a left-footed punter, and I actually have trouble feeling Matt Haack in practice, but I was going to make the tackle. I saw that he had muffed it, so I ended up pushing him out of the way and ended up getting the turnover."
Stanford received the ball to start the second half, and sustained a drive deep into Arizona State territory. The Cardinal ran 12 plays and worked their way to the Arizona State 22-yard line, but a crucial third-down stop from the Sun Devils forced a Stanford field goal. Arizona State answered with a field goal of its own, and held a 17-3 advantage after three quarters
Continuing a drive from the third quarter, Arizona State's Gonzalez tacked on another Sun Devil field goal, which extended the home team's lead back to two touchdowns.
Before they could close the book on its most impressive win this season, Arizona State needed to endure some sort of adversity. That adversity came in the fourth quarter, as Stanford took its first drive of the period 63 yards down the field, scoring its first touchdown on a one-yard Patrick Skov run that cut Arizona State's lead to 20-10.
Arizona State earned a pair of first downs on its ensuing drive, but the drive sputtered and Graham had Bercovici pooch punt it back to the Cardinal. Bercovici, whose pooch punt early in the game bounced into the end zone for a touchback, but his second attempt at the pooch was jumped on by a slew of Sun Devils at the Stanford 1-yard line to pin the Cardinal's backs against the wall.
With a ten-point lead, 8:45 left to play and 99 yards of field between them and their end zone, the Sun Devil defense came out for its next series looking to close out the No. 23 Cardinal. That's exactly what they did, forcing yet another Stanford 3-and-out. The Cardinal totaled four such drives on the night, and the Sun Devils allowed only six 3rd down conversions out of Stanford's 16 attempts. Adding nothing but extra cushioning for Sun Devil fans to feel comfortable with, Gonzalez booted two more field goals and Arizona State completed its best victory of the 2014 campaign.
Against the consesus best defensive unit in the nation, Bercovici passed for 245 yards and the one touchdown to Strong, who had 8 grabs for 75 yards and the score. Arizona State made a concerted effort to get Foster carries, as the tailback had only 19 carries for 43 yards on the ground in the USC/UCLA games.
Foster got the ball 24 times, but only ran for 30 yards. He did score his first rushing touchdown since the Colorado game, and hauled in six catches for 63 yards. Even though they settled for five field goal attempts, Bercovici and the Sun Devils were happy with how they performed against an elite Stanford defense.
"The bye-week helped form an idea of how we wanted to attack this game," Bercovici said. "We were very simple with what we decided to do as far as attacking Stanford's defense. We knew what we had to do. We trusted the schemes and executed. Once that run game is going we are very effective."
With losses on Saturday by No. 15 Oklahoma State, No. 11 Oklahoma and a pair of top-5 teams, Arizona State is primed to jump up in the AP top 25 in the next rankings.. With UCLA boasting two conference losses, the Sun Devils will have the opportunity to repeat as Pac-12 South champions. Tonight was a big step, but there are more to be taken.
"(Stanford is) a quality team to play, but like I said earlier, our motto this year is unfinished business," redshirt junior Carrington said. "We came out tonight with a chip on our shoulder and got the job done. Now, it's time to just move forward and accomplish our goal of winning a Pac-12 Championship."