Despite the fact that Stanford is ranked No. 7 in the nation and defeated Arizona State earlier in the season, the Cardinal are three-point underdogs in Saturday's Pac-12 Championship Game against the Sun Devils. Stanford can do several things to improve its chances of winning, however.
There is no question that Arizona State has looked like the better team recently, and home-field advantage in the desert will certainly help, but Stanford won't go quietly. A Rose Bowl berth is needed in order for the Cardinal to salvage the season, and David Shaw's squad will be motivated to earn it.
Here are the three biggest keys that Stanford must follow in order to upset Arizona State in what is sure to be an exciting Pac-12 Championship Game.
Provide Heavy Dose of Tyler Gaffney
The Cardinal have largely been about playing great defense and establishing the run on offense over the past several years, although that fact was somewhat clouded by the spectacular play of quarterback Andrew Luck. Now that Luck is in the NFL, though, there is no doubt that Stanford's running attack rules the day.
The Cardinal have boasted some impressive running backs in recent seasons, but it can be argued that Tyler Gaffney tops them all.
He left Stanford to play minor league baseball last season, but he has returned with a vengeance as a senior. He has ideal size at 6'1" and 221 lbs., which has translated into the best season of his collegiate career. Gaffney has racked up 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he has an outside chance at breaking Toby Gerhart's single-season rushing mark, according to Pac-12 insider David Lombardi:
Gaffney would need to put up some insane numbers in order to do that, but he'll likely be given every opportunity against Arizona State. As good as the Sun Devils offense is, the defense is equally suspect. Gaffney's usage has increased noticeably down the stretch, as he had at least 24 carries in three of the past four games. He'll need to exceed that number significantly in order for Stanford to go to the Rose Bowl.
Pressure Taylor Kelly
Perhaps the biggest driving force behind Arizona State's surprising campaign has been the play of junior quarterback Taylor Kelly. The second-year starter has carried on the long tradition of excellent Sun Devils quarterbacks, and he will need to be great for ASU on Saturday.
That is especially true since running back Marion Grice is not expected to play, according to Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com.
Not only is Grice Arizona State's leading rusher, but he is also among the team's top pass-catchers with 50 receptions for 438 yards and six touchdowns. His absence will put a great deal of emphasis on Kelly since he may not have a consistent running game to lean on, and he won't have his primary safety valve in the passing game as well.
Even so, Kelly will be dangerous due to the incredible progress he has made over the course of his time at Arizona State, as evidenced by this tweet courtesy of AZCentral.com's Doug Haller:
Kelly is among the premier quarterbacks in the Pac-12 due to his passing acumen as well as his ability to do damage with his legs. Stanford has an elite defense, though, which is tied for 10th in the nation with 35 sacks.
If the Cardinal can get in Kelly's face early and often, they will disrupt Arizona State's potent offense. That would do wonders in terms of helping Stanford pull off the upset.
Let Kevin Hogan Manage the Game
Kevin Hogan is no Andrew Luck. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or even a football expert to see that. Truth be told, he may not be anything more than an average college quarterback, but that hasn't stopped the Cardinal from winning with him.
In many cases, though, Stanford has won despite him. He hasn't built upon his strong 2012 season, but he can be effective as a caretaker for Stanford's run-heavy offense.
Hogan completed nearly 72 percent of his passes last season, which would be a great performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Even if he doesn't make big plays down the field, he can be a game manager who cedes the spotlight to Gaffney. Hogan did that quite well in Stanford's win over Notre Dame, according to Lombardi:
He did end up throwing a second interception in that game, which ultimately didn't come back to haunt the Cardinal, but he can't afford to turn the ball over against Arizona State. His nine interceptions are a bit too much for a game manager, so he'll need to rein that in. As long as he makes high-percentage throws and does enough to keep the threat of the pass alive, Gaffney will be able to do the heavy lifting.
If Hogan is forced into winning the game on his own, however, the Cardinal may be in trouble.
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