GAME NOTES: The 11th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils get a shot at revenge on Saturday as they host the seventh-ranked Stanford Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship game at Sun Devil Stadium.
At the end of September the Sun Devils visited the Cardinal as each team kicked off their league schedule. Although the Sun Devils rallied in the second half, Stanford was the victorious team on the day, taking a 42-28 decision. The win was the third straight for the Cardinal against the Sun Devils. However, Arizona State leads the all-time series by a count of 16-12.
On Saturday, the Cardinal will be defending their Pac-12 title after they took home the league's championship trophy last season. The Cardinal let games against Utah and USC slip away this season to have their BCS Title hopes dashed, but they still have a chance at a BCS bowl with a win on Saturday. Overall, the Cardinal are 10-2 this season, putting them in a class with Alabama and Oregon as the only FBS squads with 10 wins in the last four seasons. Stanford has also gone 9-0 during its last nine tries against ranked opponents.
"We talked in the beginning of the year about being in the Pac-12 championship game. That's all we talked about. We made it there. We had ups and downs, we had bumps and bruises. We lost some guys, had some guys step up. We lost a couple games," Stanford head coach David Shaw said. "But when you look up, we're where we wanted to be, a 10-win team in the Pac-12 championship game."
The Sun Devils are riding a ton of momentum into this league title bout as they have won each of their last seven games. The winning streak lifted Arizona State from a middling 3-2 mark early in the campaign to a 10-2 overall record. The rise has come as a bit of a shock to some but not head coach Todd Graham, who was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year earlier this week.
"I'm not surprised because I knew we had the potential talent and to do it," Graham said. "But the players deserve the credit because they're the ones that did it. I'm not surprised about what they've been able to do. Their a talented group of guys."
The 10 wins are the most for the Sun Devils since 2007 and make for just the 12th 10-win campaign in program history. In 2007 the Sun Devils shared the Pac-10 championship for its 17th conference title, though just the third in the Pac-10.
In a league filled with offensive juggernauts the Cardinal have made due with an offensive style that doesn't put up gaudy numbers but controls tempo, relying heavily on the run. The Cardinal are just ninth in the league in total offense (404.8 ypg) but the only team to have more rushing yards than passing.
Having a workhorse running back like Tyler Gaffney has made the gameplan successful for Shaw's squad. Gaffney has totaled 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns this season on 284 carries. Gaffney never goes down easily as he has only lost 21 yards all season. Gaffney has eighth 100-yard efforts on the campaign. That total is the second most in program history. Gaffney earned second-team All- Conference honors for his efforts.
Also getting an all-league nod for the offense is Ty Montgomery, who lines up as the team's top option at receiver. Montgomery has hauled in 53 passes for 868 yards and nine scores this season, and also earned All-Pac 12 First-Team honors for his work in the return game. Devon Cajuste (25 receptions, 471 yards, five TDs) is the next best option.
Getting the ball to Montgomery and Cajuste is Kevin Hogan, who is not one of the most productive quarterbacks in the conference, but he is a steady force under center. On the season, Hogan has completed 61 percent of his pass attempts for 2,210 yards and 19 scores.
The offense does not need to be a juggernaut, thanks to the pay of the defense. Led by linebacker Trent Murphy, the Cardinal placed four players on the All-Pac-12 Defensive team. Murphy (51 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 13.0 sacks) is an absolute force on the pass rush, leading the nation in sacks. With the help of fellow first-teamers Shayne Skov (91 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and Ben Gardner (7.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks), Murphy has helped the Cardinal rank 16th nationally in total defense (341.8 ypg).
Murphy and company will have their hands full on Saturday as they are facing an Arizona State squad that is third in the Pac-12 in total offense (473.3 ypg).
Graham is not just being proud of his team when he speaks about the talent on the roster. The offensive unit features five players on the first or second all-conference team.
However, the Sun Devils are likely going to have to soldier on without second- team running back Marion Grice, who missed last week's win over Arizona and is expected to be out this weekend. Replicating his versatility as a rusher and receiver out of the backfield will be difficult.
Difficult yes, but not impossible. D.J. Foster stepped into the starting running back role last weekend and excelled to the tune of 124 yards and two scores on 23 carries. Foster was already making plays as a receiver before getting the starting gig at running back, as he is second on the team in receiving yards (550) and receptions (54).
The list of talented skill position players doesn't stop there as Jaelen Strong (69 receptions, 1,069 yards, seven TDS) has turned in one of the best seasons from an Arizona State receiver in recent memory. Strong had 142 yards and a touchdown on four catches against Arizona for his seventh 100-yard showing of the year. Tight end Chris Coyle (28 receptions, 413 yards, four TDs) is another reliable target.
Under center, Taylor Kelly's ability to make plays through the air and on the ground make him one of the toughest signal callers in the league to defend. Kelly has amassed 3,337 yards and 27 touchdowns when throwing the ball, all while completing 62.6 percent of his pass attempts; Kelly has been a bit to careless at times, with 11 interceptions, but the successes have far outweighed the mistakes. That is especially true considering Kelly has rushed for 437 yards and eight additional scores.
Arizona State won't be intimidated by Stanford's defensive dominance since the Sun Devils are just as strong. Led by Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, the Sun Devils rank second in the Pac-12 in total defense (351.8 ypg). What make's Graham's unit so imposing is its ability to cash in on opponents mistakes. Arizona State leads the Pac-12 in forced turnovers (30), including five interceptions returned for touchdowns, while having the fewest penalties in the league (44) for the second straight season.
There are not a whole lot of weak spots for either of these teams. Arizona State will certainly miss Grice, even with Foster in the lineup. However, the Sun Devils rarely make mistakes and play extremely well at home (7-0). Stanford's defensive pressure may be able to force some errant throws from Kelly, but the same could be said about how the Sun Devils will handle Hogan. Expect a tighter clash than the one in September and one that ends with a different result.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arizona State 30, Stanford 28