This one is for all the Roses.
Arizona State hosts Stanford in the third Pac-12 Championship Saturday at 7:45 p.m. ET, and a bid in the 100th Rose Bowl is at stake. This year's pairing suggests a tipping of the scales in the conference, as this is the first time the South's champion hosts the title game.
The Sun Devils are also trying to become the South's first Rose Bowl representative since the conference expanded. They're the favorites—Vegas Insider has Arizona State (-3). But the Cardinal won their head-to-head matchup in September, 42-28, and led by as many as 32 points.
Head coach Todd Graham has had 11 weeks to get Arizona State righted, and seven consecutive wins to end the regular season suggest he's done exactly that. But is it enough to unseat the reigning and defending Pac-12 champion?
Record Last Week: 6-0 (2-4 against the spread)
Record This Season: 75-15 (52-38 against the spread)
Earning home-field advantage was huge for Arizona State. Monumental. Even historic. Choose your superlative to describe just how significant it is for Saturday's game to be played in Tempe, Ariz., and it probably fits.
That's because Arizona State is a perfect 7-0 at Sun Devil Stadium. And don't think head coach Todd Graham's bunch has been using its fork to feast on inferior opponents. The Sun Devils beat 7-5 Arizona, 8-4 Washington and 9-3 Wisconsin there. With a raucous 71,000-plus packed into the venue, Sun Devil Stadium will certainly be inhospitable for the visiting Cardinal.
Conversely, Stanford's production takes a significant dip in one key area when it's on the road. David Lombardi of The Bootleg notes the Cardinal, No. 1 in red-zone efficiency at home, is No. 108 on the road.
The Cardinal's road, red-zone woes were particularly evident in each of their two losses. Stanford failed to convert a fourth-down attempt from the Utah 6-yard line on its final possession, and quarterback Kevin Hogan threw an interception at the USC 10-yard line with a chance to go ahead of the Trojans in the fourth quarter.
Senior running Tyler Gaffney is a workhorse for the Stanford offense. He's carried the ball 33 times in three of the Cardinal's final six contests, and he'll see a hefty workload again Saturday.
The risk Stanford runs is becoming too one-dimensional. While Gaffney is and should be the focal point, the Cardinal need a solid performance from quarterback Kevin Hogan. The sophomore played one of his best games of 2013 in Stanford's early-season defeat of the Sun Devils, throwing for a pair of touchdowns.
Hogan's not a running quarterback in the traditional sense, but head coach David Shaw compared Hogan's skill set in the same context as Arizona State's more dual-threat quarterback Taylor Kelly.
"Mobility is a game-changer for your offense," Shaw said. "If your quarterback can scramble for first downs, if you can have a [shotgun] run game where the defense has to account for him as a runner...he becomes a guy that's really, really hard to defend."
Hogan rushed for 45 yards against Arizona State, his second-highest single-game total of the season. His first was a 57-yard outing against Oregon.
Arizona State lost senior running back Marion Grice at an inopportune time. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's scheme is predicated on a diverse look and spreading out the defense from sideline-to-sideline, and Grice's style fits that pursuit perfectly.
Thus far in 2013, no spread offense has been able to crack Stanford's stifling defense. Running against the Cardinal is especially challenging. Opponents average just 87.8 yards per game on the ground against Stanford. Arizona State managed just 50 in September, and that was with a healthy Grice in the lineup.
With Grice scratched from the lineup Saturday, sophomore D.J. Foster is the Sun Devils' feature back. He has 65 carries on the season—24 of which he accrued last week against Arizona.
Arizona State's 21 interceptions are third-most by any defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and a nation-best five have gone back for touchdowns. The Sun Devils' knack for turning defense into instant offense can turn a game in one play—look no further than recent wins over Oregon State and Arizona.
Each had possessions in the second half with the opportunity to cut two-score margins down to single digits, but the Sun Devils forced quarterbacks Sean Mannion and B.J. Denker into errant passes that went for scores.
Stanford takes care of the ball. The Cardinal have 17 turnovers on the year, and Hogan has just two multiple-interception games this season. However, those came in two of Stanford's last three.
Though Stanford comes in with one of the nation's best overall defenses, it ranks 95th in turnover creation. Still, it forced a pair of interceptions from Kelly in September. And in both of Arizona State's losses, Kelly was picked off twice.
The Cardinal are less reliant on takeaways—but it certainly doesn't hurt their effort.
Stanford survived the 2012 Pac-12 Championship with a 10-point fourth quarter, and UCLA kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn's missed, 51-yard field-goal attempt, which would have forced overtime. Another nail-biter awaits the Cardinal this time.
These divisional champions reached the title game with their defensive prowess, overcoming the many potent offenses prevalent in the Pac-12. It's only fitting that their road to the Rose Bowl be decided the same way.
An electric atmosphere in Sun Devil Stadium will have Arizona State, playing for its first Rose Bowl since 1996, riding a wave of emotion. That can go one of two ways: The first is that a Stanford team that has experienced high-pressure situations before capitalizes on the Sun Devils' jitters to build a sizable lead, much like their meeting in September.
The second is Arizona State ambushes Stanford and jumps to a quick lead, which is exactly what Utah and USC did in their defeats of the Sun Devils. Like those teams, Arizona State has the defense to preserve a first-half lead.
Arizona State 21, Stanford 20