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Pac-12 Championship Game 2013: What to Watch for in Stanford vs. Arizona State

STANFORD, CA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Linebacker Chans Cox #6 of the Arizona State Sun Devils breaks up a pass intended for running back Tyler Gaffney #25 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter of their game at Stanford Stadium on September 21, 2013 in Stanford, California. The Cardinals defeated the Sun Devils 42-28. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
Stephen Lam/Getty Images
Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2013

Stanford and Arizona State will meet again when the two schools converge on Tempe next week for the Pac-12 championship game.

By virtue of their 58-21 win over Arizona, the Sun Devils finished with a 9-1 conference record and will get to host the title game.

That could prove pivotal, as they made the trip to Stanford back in September and were humbled, 42-28, by the Cardinals.

Arizona State is a different team this time around. The Sun Devils are riding a five-game winning streak and a massive wave of momentum from that big victory over the hated Wildcats.

Although this is one of the few conference championships that doesn't have a bearing on the national title game, it should be an enjoyable affair.

Here's a quick guide to the game, with some of the major story lines that should grab your attention.

 

When: Sunday, Dec. 7, at 7:45 p.m. ET

Where: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream: Watch ESPN

 

Can Arizona State Disrupt Offensive Balance of Stanford?

Nov 30, 2013; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) hands off the ball tol running back Tyler Gaffney (25) during the first quarter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TO
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford has one of the most balanced offenses in the country. Kevin Hogan can beat opposing defenses with his efficient passing, while Tyler Gaffney eats up yards on the ground.

Both players complement each other perfectly.

If Hogan is successful with the pass, teams have to drop back so as not to get beat through the air. That, in turn, opens up holes for Gaffney. If he can get positive yards with each carry, that forces the defense to creep in, which leaves it susceptible to the home run ball over the top.

It's all a vicious cycle.

The easiest way to break that cycle from Arizona State's perspective will be forcing turnovers, as Notre Dame was able to do on Saturday. Hogan threw two picks, and the Cardinal had to grind out a tough 27-20 victory.

The Sun Devils as a team have intercepted 21 passes this season, so they've got a good chance of making this happen.

Win the turnover battle and Arizona State could take home the Pac-12 crown.

 

Will Stanford Jump out to Early Lead?

STANFORD, CA - SEPTEMBER 21: Running back Anthony Wilkerson #32 of the Stanford Cardinal scores a touchdown during the second quarter against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Stanford Stadium on September 21, 2013 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Stephen
Stephen Lam/Getty Images

When these teams played during the regular season, Stanford had a 29-0 lead at halftime. Arizona State had a strong second half, scoring 28 points, but it wasn't enough to overcome that massive halftime deficit.

That's been the story for the Cardinals this season.

In their wins over Oregon, Washington, UCLA, Oregon State and Notre Dame, they managed to be on top at halftime. Getting out to an early lead allows Stanford to get into a comfort zone and strike that balance offensively.

It's no coincidence that in the losses to Utah and USC, Stanford was down at halftime and never managed to have a lead in the second half.

If Arizona State gets down early again, it will have little chance of pulling off the upset.

 

Will Arizona State Party Like It's 1997?

1 Jan 1997:  Quarterback Jake Plummer of the Arizona State Sun Devils moves the ball during the Rose Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  Ohio State won the game, 20-17.  Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell  /Allsport
Mike Powell/Getty Images

Not since the days of Jake Plummer have the Sun Devils made the Rose Bowl. Boy were those the days. Life was simpler back then. Danny Wuerffel was the Heisman Trophy winner, and the BCS wasn't around to get fans up in arms.

Arizona State has made it to Pasadena just twice—that heartbreaking loss to Ohio State in '97 and a win in the 1987 edition, against Michigan.

Stanford, on the other hand, has made 13 Rose Bowls and is coming off a victory in the game last year against Wisconsin.

Rose Bowl appearances don't come by often for ASU, so should it come along this year, treat it with the dignity it deserves.

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