Don't expect Stanford head coach David Shaw to dwell on his team's 42-28 victory over Arizona State earlier this season as he prepares the Cardinal for Saturday's Pac-12 Championship tilt.
"That game is a long time ago. It's almost like a different season," Shaw said on Tuesday's teleconference call. "The first four or five games of every year, you're probing. When you get to this point in the season, you know what your strengths and your weaknesses are."
For the second year, Stanford faces an opponent from the Pac-12 South it defeated in the regular season. However, the preparation for meeting Arizona State, which the Cardinal played on Sept. 21, differs vastly from last year's conference title game, Shaw said. Stanford beat UCLA 35-17, just six days before the teams met in a 27-24 barnburner for the Pac-12 title.
"It was tough when you beat a team by two or three scores and played extremely, to come back...[in] six days," Shaw said. "This one's a little bit different...It feels like a new game with two new teams."
Arizona State rallied from the loss at Stanford, the Sun Devils' first game in their Pac-12 Conference slate, to win the next eight. Their season-long maturation earned the Sun Devils hosting duties Saturday.
"Last year we were fortunate enough to have it at home...and it's going to be loud. [Stanford players] know it's a completely different world from last year," Shaw said.
Fans packed into Sun Devil Stadium for Arizona State's season finale against Arizona for the 12th-most well-attended game in program history. Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham has made a concerted effort since his team sewed up hosting duties for its devotees to arrive in full force.
If Stanford wins at Sun Devil Stadium, it will be the first visitor to do so this season.
"You watch them dominate teams we struggled with," Shaw said, alluding to the Cardinal's three-point win over Washington and loss at USC. Arizona State beat the Huskies and Trojans by 29 and 21 points, and both games were in Tempe, Ariz.
Todd Graham Credits His Teaching Background for Arizona State Success
Graham has come a long way from his humble beginnings as a high school assistant and coaching middle-school-aged children in Texas. Now he faces one game with a shot at the Rose Bowl. He's been a Div. I coach now for 13 seasons, and a head coach for eight of them, but he still credits his roots for his success.
"Our model is the teaching model," Graham said of his coaching staff. "That's how we were able to go from one of the most penalized teams to least penalized, because we actually educated our players on the rules."
Graham inherited a team that was penalized 104 times for 1,037 yards in 2011. In 2012, that dropped to 55 flags for 454 yards, and this season Arizona State has been penalized 44 times for just 342 yards.
Graham said his past teaching world history has also helped his mission at Arizona State. He started researching the program's history immediately, he said, and one name repeatedly jumped out at him: Pat Tillman.
Tillman was the defensive star of Arizona State's last Rose Bowl team in 1996, an academic All-American who is recognized today for his service to his country. He famously left the National Football League in 2002 to enlist in the United States Army.
"This is the kind of heart, the kind of character that we want to bring here," Graham said.
The message has resonated. Himself a former conference Defensive Player of the Year, Tillman's name now graces the award. Fittingly, Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton has won the honor each of the last two seasons.
On Steve Sarkisian Leaving Washington for USC
Neither Graham nor Shaw were particularly interested in offering up opinions on former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian moving within the conference to take the vacancy at USC. Shaw did however dive into the difficult decision-making process a coach faces when changing jobs.
"When things like this happen, it's usually never just one thing. It's never just, 'Hey, they're going to pay me $10 more, I'm going to go down there,'" Shaw said. "There's always 10 to 20 different things why coaches do what they do."
Stanford is Shaw's ninth stop, though his alma mater is also his first head coaching opportunity. He followed predecessor Jim Harbaugh from the University of San Diego in 2006 and has remained with the Cardinal in some capacity ever since.
Shaw did have one opinion pertaining specifically to this situation, however.
"This move probably puts a little hot sauce on the rivalry between USC and Washington," he said.
In a subtle nod to the war of words between Shaw and Sarkisian in October, after Sarkisian accused Stanford players of faking injury to slow down the game's tempo in a 31-28 Cardinal win, Shaw added: "Maybe that'll get the Washington fans for being so mad at me about last year."
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.