Stanford Cardinal vs. Arizona State Sun Devils: Complete Game Preview
The Arizona State Sun Devils got ran out of Palo Alto earlier this year, but Saturday's Pac-12 Championship Game against the Stanford Cardinal will be far from a blowout.
When the Sun Devils took on Stanford earlier this year, ASU wasn't ready.
The Cardinal dominated the whole game and won handily 42-28.
That was a different Arizona State team, though, and Stanford, too, for that matter. Since losing to Stanford, ASU has gone 8-1 and has improved each week.
Stanford was a national title contender earlier this year, but losses to Utah and USC derailed those dreams.
Saturday's Pac-12 Championship Game will be a battle of two different playing styles. ASU brings a high-octane offense, while Stanford counters with an NFL-style power game.
The game will be decided in the trenches and will come down to the wire. A trip to the Rose Bowl is on the line, and Sun Devil Stadium will be packed.
Here is all the information for the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Time: 7:45 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
Radio: Sun Devil IMG Sports Network, Stanford Cardinal Sports Network
Spread: ASU -3, according to Vegas.com
Stanford Keys to Victory
Establish the Run
The last time these two teams met, Stanford rushed for 240 yards. If ASU wants to win Saturday, it can't let that happen. Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney has been a force all year, rushing for 17 touchdowns and 1,485 yards.
If Stanford can establish the run and control the line of scrimmage, it will be able to keep ASU's high-scoring offense off of the field. In their first meeting, that's exactly what the Cardinal did.
Don't Make the Big Mistake
Sun Devil Stadium will be packed on Saturday night. If Stanford wants to win the Pac-12 Championship for the second year in a row, it has to minimize its mistakes and keep the Sun Devils faithful quiet.
On the road this year, quarterback Kevin Hogan has only thrown seven touchdowns and has been intercepted four times. In November, Hogan had six touchdowns and threw four interceptions. He can't make a key mistake and turn the ball over in this game. The Stanford Cardinal need to stay true to their coaching and be a smart, disciplined team.
Convert on Third Downs
Stanford has converted on 52.3 percent of its third downs so far this year, best in the Pac-12. ASU ranks near the top of the Pac-12, only allowing opponents to convert 34.5 percent of the time. Last week, ASU did a great job stopping Arizona's star running back, Ka'Deem Carey, in third-down situations, but Stanford will pose a much tougher task.
The Cardinal need to sustain drives on Saturday night, and converting on third down will help them to break the will of the Sun Devils defense.
Arizona State Keys to Victory
ASU's fanbase could be the difference Saturday night. The Sun Devils faithful started buying in and jumping on the bandwagon after the team secured the Pac-12 South title a few weeks ago, and they now have worked themselves into a frenzy. They swarmed Wells Fargo arena following the team's victory over U of A trying to buy tickets to this weekend's championship game.
Sun Devil stadium can be a loud, harsh environment when it's full, and it'll be full this Saturday. The Sun Devils need to use that crowd to their advantage and feed off of its energy.
Win the Battle in the Trenches
ASU needs to control the line of scrimmage. The last time these two teams met, Stanford controlled the line of scrimmage and ran all over ASU. That can't happen Saturday if the Sun Devils want to win. Since the last meeting, ASU's defense has become one of the best in the Pac-12 and now ranks fourth in the conference in rushing defense.
It'll be crucial that defensive tackle Will Sutton, linebacker Carl Bradford and the rest of the Sun Devils can push the Cardinal around in the trenches. It's also imperative that ASU's offensive line protects quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Open Up the Playbook
Arizona State showed some new looks on offense last week against Arizona. The Sun Devils used some three-tight end sets and also ran the Wildcat. To beat Stanford, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will need to dig into his bag of tricks and will need to be a step ahead of the Cardinal. Look for ASU to use some new formations and different variations of plays to keep the Cardinal on their heels.
Stanford Players to Watch
Last time Gaffney faced ASU, he ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns. On the road this year, Gaffney has rushed for almost two more yards per carry than at home, and he'll have to shoulder the load this Saturday. Sun Devil stadium will be a loud environment, and Stanford will need to control the clock and tempo if it wants to win.
That's where Gaffney comes into play. Gaffney will need have a game similar to what he did earlier this year if Stanford wants to win another Pac-12 title.
Essentially, all of Stanford's linebackers are players to watch, but Murphy's ability to get into the opponent's backfield makes him the one to watch Saturday night. Murphy has accounted for 19.5 tackles for a loss this year and 13 sacks. The next-highest sack total for the Cardinal is 4.5. Murphy will be tasked with not only stopping ASU's rushing attack but also pressuring a mobile quarterback in Taylor Kelly this Saturday.
Arizona State Players to Watch
Sutton was recently was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. His stats aren't as flashy as they were last year, but his ability to free up his teammates and impact the game has made him even more important to ASU's success defensively this year.
On Saturday night, Sutton will need to beat his blockers and wreak havoc in Stanford's backfield. If he can do this, Stanford will be forced to use another blocker on him, thus freeing up another ASU rusher from the second level. Sutton's ability to impact this game will be the difference Saturday.
When ASU took on Stanford earlier this year, Strong had 12 catches for 168 yards, both season highs. Strong has improved throughout the year and is peaking along with his teammates right now. It'll be hard for Stanford to control his unique combination of size and speed in this game, and quarterback Taylor Kelly should be able to execute their signature back-shoulder fade route with ease.
With running back Marion Grice's status still uncertain, Strong's part in ASU's game plan will become that much more crucial.
What They're Saying
As CBS Sports' Jerry Hinnen reports, ASU's star running back, Marion Grice, will likely miss Saturday's Pac-12 Championship Game:
Todd Graham confirmed after the game that all-purpose running back Marion Grice is still struggling with the leg injury he suffered Nov. 23 against UCLA, and is not likely to be available for the championship game.
Arizona State students have been navigating long lines waiting for a ticket to Saturday's huge game, per ABC15:
While ASU has had one of the nation's toughest schedules, Stanford wants to remind people its schedule this year hasn't been easy either:
Stanford Football (@StanfordFball) December 3, 2013
College GameDay would argue history is on Arizona State's side this weekend:
Stanford hasn't won consecutive outright conference titles since 1970-71. #STANvsASU— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) December 3, 2013
Arizona State's Will Sutton was caught off guard when he heard he won the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award:
Will Sutton on winning Pac-12 DPOY: "Coach Graham called me last night and I thought I was in trouble."— Tyler Lockman (@TylerLockman) December 2, 2013
Stanford 28, Arizona State 38
Saturday night, redemption will be spelled A-S-U.
The Sun Devils are a totally different team than the one that Stanford rolled earlier this year. They've bought into the system and are peaking at the right time.
Stanford is also a different team.
The Cardinal have floundered on the road at times and will have a tough time putting up as many points as they did last time these two teams met.
ASU will open up both its offensive and defensive playbooks to keep the Cardinal on their heels, and the Sun Devils' home-field advantage will help them earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Not many people outside of ASU's locker room thought the Sun Devils had a chance at winning the Pac-12 title this year, but it appears all the stars are aligning in Tempe and Arizona State will play in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997.