If you picked Stanford against Arizona State for the Pac-12 Championship before the season began, give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.
The Cardinal stunned North Division rival Oregon yet again with a combination of a powerful running game and stifling defense, while the Sun Devils held off South Division challengers UCLA and USC.
That sets up a clash between Stanford and Arizona State with the Rose Bowl at stake. Whether the winner will play a traditional Big Ten opponent or not remains to be seen, but let’s dig into some key storylines for the Pac-12 title game.
Arizona State’s Offense Versus Stanford’s Defense
In a conference that is dominated by offenses, Stanford relies on its shutdown defense to win games. It is a formula that landed it in the Rose Bowl last season and will again if it beats Arizona State.
The Cardinal rank 13th in the nation in opposing scoring per game, while the Sun Devils are eighth in the country in points per contest. Once again Stanford’s defense will be tasked with stopping a powerful Pac-12 offense that has been clicking on all cylinders.
Arizona State has scored at least 30 points in eight of its last nine games, four of which saw the Sun Devils score more than 50. Kevin Hogan and company will have trouble keeping up with that pace if the Cardinal defense struggles.
Marion Grice Injury
Running back Marion Grice is a major reason why the Arizona State offense has been so successful this season, but the Sun Devils will likely be without his services against Stanford.
Grice injured his left leg against UCLA and sat out the victory over Arizona. He will in all likelihood miss out on the Pac-12 title game as well, but hopes to be back in time for the bowl game.
The good news for the Sun Devils is the fact that D.J. Foster rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the rival Wildcats. He seemed more than capable of handling Grice’s role, but the Arizona defense is much less formidable than Stanford’s.
How much the Sun Devils miss Grice will go a long way toward determining who will be holding the Pac-12 championship trophy after the game.
Familiarity and a Quick Start
While teams in baseball, the NFL, college basketball, the NBA and the NHL face each other multiple times every season, the only realistic way to see a rematch in college football is in a conference title game.
It creates an interesting dynamic between squads that are intimately familiar with what the other wants to do. In the first game, Stanford beat Arizona State 42-28, but the Cardinal put it on cruise control in the second half after jumping out to a 29-0 lead by intermission. The Cardinal were also ahead 39-7 after three quarters.
The Sun Devils dominated the fourth quarter though, to the tune of 21-3, and made the final score much closer than the actual game. Arizona State was overwhelmed at the beginning of the contest on the road and can ill afford a similar start this time around.
Otherwise, Stanford will be heading to another Rose Bowl.