The 2013 edition of the Pac-12 Championship pits the conference's reigning titleholder against its hottest team in a fitting prelude to the 100th Rose Bowl.
Pac-12 North champion Stanford and the South's representative, Arizona State, are made up of two of the most talented rosters in the conference. Head coaches David Shaw and Todd Graham have their work cut out for them as they game-plan for their opponent's strengths.
Five matchups in particular, pitting game-changing playmakers and future professional stars against one another could shape Saturday's Pac-12 Championship.
Junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery played a key role to Stanford's first half deluge of Arizona State on Sept. 21, catching two touchdown-passes. Montgomery's production slowed midway through the season after starting like a house of fire, but the return of Devon Cajuste should afford Montgomery more opportunities in single coverage.
Stanford head coach David Shaw said on Tuesday's Pac-12 teleconference call Montgomery "established himself as an elite wide receiver," and that's evident in his ability to exploit man coverage for huge gains along the sidelines.
Bottling up Montgomery is a responsibility that falls primarily on Arizona State cornerback Osahon Irabor. Irabor is the Sun Devils' top defensive back in one-on-one coverage, thus typically draws the most difficult assignments.
Irabor's strength is his physicality off the line, where he establishes an inside position to prevent receivers from leaking out deep.
If the Stanford defense is a "party in the backfield," the onus is on Arizona State All-Conference left tackle Evan Finkenberg to be a party-crasher Saturday. The Cardinal rank No. 10 nationally in sacks this season with 35, of which linebacker/defensive end hybrid Trent Murphy is responsible for more than one-third with 13.
At 6'6", 261 pounds, Murphy is particularly skilled at using his size and strength to shake off blocks. He's also quick off the edge. Those qualities, combined with the added motivation of his Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year snub, make Murphy the Cardinal defender to watch Saturday.
His outlook for getting into the backfield is good, too. Arizona State allowed 32 sacks in the regular season, 25th-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Still, Murphy hasn't contributed to that total. The Arizona native went without a sack in the Cardinal's win over the Sun Devils in September.
Should Finkenberg keep Murphy from breaking to quarterback Taylor Kelly's blind side, Arizona State can get its offensive rhythm established.
The progression of Arizona State junior quarterback Taylor Kelly powered the Sun Devils to an average of 43.3 points per game. His dual-threat ability fuels offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's version of the spread, as David Shaw outlined.
"Whether he's running it, or he's biding time in the pocket to throw it, the kid plays with such energy and fire and fight," Shaw said. "When you're trying to defend him, you have to try to keep him in the pocket. But everyone tries to keep him in the pocket, but he won't stay in the pocket. He'll make people miss."
Stanford's containment of spread offenses is among the Pac-12's more wondrous developments of recent years. Putting coordinator Derek Mason's scheme into practice are disciplined athletes who adhere to their assignments, but have the ability to react on the fly.
No one Cardinal defender is any more indicative of this style than linebacker Shayne Skov. The team's leading tackler does a little of everything: stop the run, blitz, drop back into pass coverage. Of Skov's many talents, none may be more vital to Stanford's success than his ability to snuff out dual-threat and zone-read quarterbacks.
Against UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon's Marcus Mariota as well as against Kelly, Skov's ability to read and react limited their playmaking ability.
Arizona State's dominant defense starts with tackle Will Sutton plugging up the interior. The two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year has a knack for shutting down ball-carriers at the line, and he's also crucial to the Sun Devils' prolific blitzes, whether breaking through in one-on-one coverage, or commanding double-teams to free teammates.
Sutton is destined for a first-round NFL draft selection, but one of the roadblocks before him Saturday is a future first rounder in his own right.
Stanford senior guard David Yankey already contained Sutton once this season, keeping the Sun Devils' All-American tackle out of the backfield by maintaining his blocks and matching the foot speed that has been Sutton's hallmark throughout his career.
The Cardinal offense flows through running back Tyler Gaffney. Containing the senior up front is paramount to Arizona State's defensive effort, and that starts with Sutton evading Yankey.
"Best offensive line we played against all year, hands down," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "The key is winning the line of scrimmage, which is a big challenge."
With scoring machine running back Marion Grice sidelined for Arizona State, the bulk of the rushing responsibility falls on sophomore D.J. Foster. Norvell used Foster's speed primarily on the perimeter with Grice in the lineup, but his absence means Foster must also work between the tackles.
He took on his heaviest load of the season against Arizona, carrying 23 times for 124 yards.
"D.J. Foster's a big-time back," Shaw said. "That's why you recruit great players, so one guy gets hurt, you put another guy on the field, and he showed that last week."
Inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley, the Cardinal's second-leading tackler, is key to containing the run. He's excelled against the spread and hurry-up offenses Stanford's faced, and was central to containing Washington star Bishop Sankey to 4.6 yards per carry.
Foster's a much different style of back than Sankey. Keeping him contained to the second level greatly limits what Norvell can do with his diverse playbook.