When the Arizona State Sun Devils and Stanford Cardinal first matched up on Sept. 21, it hardly seemed like a rematch would be on the horizon.
That’s because Stanford crushed Arizona State, jumping out to a 39-7 lead after three quarters before holding on for the win, 42-28.
But don’t be fooled by the score. It was exactly the type of match it was pegged out to be: The defending Pac-12 champions knocking around a conference foe that was still a couple years away from competing.
“They’re a championship caliber team, and we weren’t ready,” Arizona State’s second-year head coach Todd Graham said following the game, via The Associated Press. “I apologized to the players for not having them ready. Stanford was better prepared."
Fast-forward two months and seven wins, and Graham is preparing his team for a rematch with those same Cardinal, this time with a newfound swagger. And if the Sun Devils can maintain their high-level of play, it should be a lot closer this time around.
But more importantly, this time, the Pac-12 title will be on the line.
Arizona State holds on! Despite furious UCLA rally, Sun Devils win the game and the Pac-12 South. Will play Stanford for a #RoseBowl berth.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 24, 2013
The Sun Devils clinched the South with an impressive win over No. 14 UCLA, 38-33, on Saturday. The team racked up 457 yards of total offense, and the defense recorded a season-high nine sacks to keep the Bruins’ comeback efforts at bay.
It increased Arizona State’s win streak to six games and gave the team its most wins since 2007.
Meanwhile, Stanford throttled rival Cal, 63-13, to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss, 20-17, to USC last weekend. A defeat the team figured all but dashed its hopes for a return trip to the conference title game.
However, Oregon laid an egg against Arizona, 42-16, on Saturday, practically handing the North over to the Cardinal.
Now, the Pac-12 will get ready to host a title tilt that nobody saw coming.
But don’t expect the Sun Devils to play anything like they did the first time around.
In fact, following the loss to Notre Dame, 37-34, on Oct. 5, Arizona State has been a completely different team.
For starters, quarterback Taylor Kelly has taken his play to another level. The junior has been outstanding in the six games since, throwing for 1,331 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions on 63.1 percent passing while adding another 282 yards and eight touchdowns on 75 carries.
The Sun Devils have benefited from better play from their defense as well.
In that same six-game span, the unit has recorded 27 sacks, forced 14 turnovers and conceded just 303.8 yards per game. That includes limiting Washington, Washington State and Utah to a combined 67 rushing yards.
On the other hand, Stanford has been known to play down, or up, to the level of its opposition.
The team boasts convincing victories over five ranked teams in 2013, including No. 23 Arizona State, No. 15 Washington, No. 9 UCLA, No. 25 Oregon State and No. 3 Oregon. But at the same time, the Cardinal also have recorded two disappointing losses to a pair of unranked teams in Utah and USC.
Other than the defense—the unit has forced a turnover in 36 straight games—running back Tyler Gaffney has been as consistent as it gets for Stanford this season.
Through 10 contests, the senior has dominated, racking up 1,296 yards and 16 touchdowns on 251 carries. Furthermore, he has found the end zone in all but one game.
Conversely, the biggest question mark has been the play of quarterback Kevin Hogan.
On Saturday, the junior put together a stellar stat line, throwing for career highs in passing yards (329) and touchdowns (five) on 17-of-26 passing. That follows up a three-game stretch in which he only managed 318 yards, threw two interceptions and was held without a touchdown while completing just 51.2 percent passing.
Which Hogan will the Cardinal get against the Sun Devils?
What will be the result of this game?
With both teams specializing in stopping the run, this game will likely be decided through the air. Arizona State and Stanford rank No. 41 and 102 against the pass, respectively.
But while the Sun Devils may hold the upper-hand in that facet of the matchup, the Cardinal should win the battle on the frontlines. The team ranks No. 8 in the nation in sacks allowed, while Arizona State comes in at No. 99.
That could be a problem with the nation’s leader in sacks, Trent Murphy (13.0), residing on the Stanford sidelines.
All in all, this will likely be a closer matchup than a lot of people expect. In fact, neither team may even crack 30 points.
Instead, the two defenses will be the stars of the show.
And in a Pac-12 title match full of surprises, that could easily be the biggest of them all.
All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of NCAA.com.