Cardinal, Sun Devils face off in Pac-12 title game
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)
Not long after Arizona State's late rally fell short in an early-season loss at Stanford, receiver Jaelen Strong said he hoped the Sun Devils would get another chance at the Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship.
He and the Sun Devils get their wish on Saturday night.
In a rematch of a September game filled with huge momentum swings, No. 7 Stanford will face No. 11 Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship with a spot in the Rose Bowl on the line.
''It's a chance to redeem ourselves,'' Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton said.
Stanford won the initial game 42-28 by racing out to a 29-0 halftime lead and holding on as the hard-charging Sun Devils scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The teams took divergent paths to the conference title game from there.
Arizona State (10-2, 8-1) lost to Notre Dame two weeks later, but has been on a roll the past two months, winning seven straight games, their longest streak since opening the 2007 season with eight straight wins. The Sun Devils have pulled out some big wins along the way, including a victory at UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 South and a home victory over rival Arizona that gave them home-field advantage for Saturday's game.
Stanford (10-2, 7-2) had a disappointing road loss to unranked Utah to lose control of the Pac-12 North, regained with a victory over Oregon, then lost it again with a loss to Southern California. The Cardinal clinched the division for good when they beat rival California and the Ducks lost to Arizona on the same weekend.
The roller coaster over, Stanford has a chance to get back to the Rose Bowl, where it won for the first time in 41 years last season.
''We have to treat it as a new team, a new guy,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ''We're a little different than we were earlier in the season. We've been through a lot more, positive and negative, so this is just a new game and we're excited to be in it.''
Here are five things to look for when the Cardinal meet the Sun Devils in the Pac-12 Championship game:
HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE: The Pac-12 spent the days leading up to the game trying to make Sun Devil Stadium look like a neutral site, changing out the signs around the stadium and painting the field with the conference logo. No matter what the conference does, there will be little doubt where the teams are playing Saturday night. Arizona State fans have sometimes been blase about supporting the Sun Devils, but came out in force for last weekend's rivalry game against Arizona and another big crowd is expected. Arizona State was undefeated at home (7-0) this season for the first time since 2004.
PACE IS THE WORD: Arizona State likes to play fast, often snapping the ball as soon as the officials play it on the turf. Stanford is more of a grinding team, relying on its power running game for ball control. The Cardinal were able to win the tempo game early in the first meeting while building the big lead, but the Sun Devils were able to get game more to their liking while they were racking up points in the fourth quarter. Whichever team gets the pace it wants will likely be headed to the Rose Bowl.
NO GRICE: Arizona State is expected to be without leading rusher and scorer Marion Grice for the second straight game with a leg injury suffered in the victory over UCLA two weeks ago. The Sun Devils managed just fine without him last week against Arizona, running for 204 yards and four touchdowns. D.J. Foster carried the biggest load with Grice on crutches, running for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 23 carries.
BIG-GAME CARDINAL: Before this season, Arizona State often had trouble with the big games, falling short when the spotlight was on. That's been no problem for Stanford. The Cardinal have won their past nine games against Top-25 teams, including the Pac-12 title game and Rose Bowl last season. Stanford is one of three FBS teams - with Alabama and Oregon - to win at least 10 games each of the past four seasons. The Sun Devils have been much better in the big games this season, but the spotlight is nothing new to the Cardinal.
FORCING TURNOVERS: Arizona State has had an opportunistic defense this season, converting 23 of its Pac-12-high 30 turnovers into points, including 17 touchdowns - five on interception returns. The Sun Devils are ninth nationally with a turnover margin of plus-1.1 per game and have outscored opponents 136-52 in points off turnovers. Stanford has 17 turnovers on the season - eight fumbles and nine interceptions.