Pac-12 title game: 5 questions

Arizona State and Stanford meet again Saturday, only this time the stakes are higher and the game will be played on the Sun Devils’ field.

The 11th-ranked Sun Devils and seventh-ranked Cardinal square off at Sun Devil Stadium for the Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl berth, and this one is widely expected to be a tight game.

ASU, which has won seven straight games and owns a perfect home record, is a slight favorite in this one and appears much sounder than when it traveled to Palo Alto in September. The Sun Devils are looking for their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1996 season.

Stanford had its national championship hopes derailed by a road loss to Utah and appeared to have lost its hold on the Pac-12 North with a road loss to USC, but Oregon’s loss to Arizona handed the Cardinal a second straight division title. They’ll have to become the first team to beat ASU at home this year to return to the Rose Bowl.

FOXSportsArizona.com’s ASU writer Tyler Lockman and Stanford football insider for TheBootleg.com David Lombardi have covered these teams all season. Here, they break down Saturday’s Pac-12 championship game via five key questions. Both can be followed on Twitter @TylerLockman and @DavidMLombardi.

1. We have to start with location. ASU lost in Palo Alto pretty badly in September, but this one is in Tempe, where ASU is 7-0 this year and has beaten opponents by an average of 28.3 points. How much does home-field advantage impact this game?

Lockman: I think it has a huge impact. Todd Graham called it ASU’s “greatest advantage” in this game. Whether or not you can pinpoint why ASU plays so much better at home — crowd, comfort, routine, etc. — it doesn’t matter. Beating opponents by an average of four touchdowns is simply astonishing, and that has not been against a soft schedule. Five of ASU’s home wins came against bowl-eligible teams, including Wisconsin (9-3), USC (9-4), Washington (8-4) and Arizona (7-5). Broken down, the numbers almost all support ASU as a better home team. And the road is the only place Stanford has struggled.

Because the Pac-12 is managing this game, ASU won’t have a few of its usual home-field advantages this week, including fireworks and pregame rituals. However, the conference can’t take away 60,000-plus screaming voices, and that noise advantage will be significant. Last week, a sellout crowd gave Arizona fits on offense, as the Wildcats opened the night with a delay of game penalty and struggled to audible all night. It also energizes the ASU defense, and that was very noticeable last week.

Lombardi: On paper, home-field advantage affects this game a lot. As you mentioned, ASU has been significantly better at Sun Devil Stadium. Offensively, the Devils have averaged 14 more points per game in Tempe than they have on the road. Defensively, they’ve given up about 10 fewer points per game than they have on the road.

Stanford’s defense has maintained consistent play regardless of location, but its offense has taken severe hits in production on the road. The Cardinal’s third-down conversion percentage away from home (42 percent) is 16 points lower than their mark at Stanford Stadium (58). David Shaw’s club leads the nation in red-zone scoring efficiency (100 percent) at home but ranks a shocking 109th (68 percent) on the road. Simply put, the Cardinal’s offensive play-calling and execution have been markedly better at home than on the road. Combine that with Arizona State’s success at Sun Devil Stadium this year and the trends point significantly in ASU’s favor.

That being said, Stanford has the opportunity to neutralize ASU’s home-field advantage with its smothering defense and better play-calling on the offensive end in the red zone. The Cardinal will have to reverse the aforementioned trends to win this game.

2. Taylor Kelly and Kevin Hogan both came into the season with high expectations as two of the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks. Who has had the bigger year, and whose performance impacts this game more?

Lockman: I believe this depends on the context. From a statistical standpoint, Kelly has been better, passing for 3,337 yards and 27 touchdowns to Hogan’s 2,210 and 19. Hogan, meanwhile, has been slightly more efficient. Additionally, Hogan plays a different role in Stanford’s offense than Kelly does in ASU’s. Kelly is a more active, involved part of the offense, while Hogan is more of a facilitator to the run game and play-action pass. Hogan may be a better operator.

All that said, I’d look most at the impact each has had on his team, and by that measure, Kelly has been more key to ASU’s success this year than Hogan has to Stanford’s. Kelly’s decision-making powers this offense, and he has been one of the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks this season. Given that, I think Kelly’s performance matters more in this game. When he’s on, ASU is generally on, too. Hogan had some average performances this season in games Stanford has still won, as the Cardinal offense depends first and foremost on the run game.

Lombardi: I think Kelly has certainly had the bigger year, simply because Arizona State is a team much more fueled by its offense. At the end of the day, Stanford is a club built around a spectacular defense and a rugged running game. The Cardinal’s offensive line is probably the best in the country (all five starters were honored by the Pac-12 on Monday), so Hogan’s primary job is to keep the defense honest through the play-action pass and with his impressive athleticism.

Kelly, on the other hand, runs more frequently and is the centerpiece of a faster-paced Arizona State attack that produces more points than Stanford’s offense, so I’d have to say that he’s had the bigger year of the two quarterbacks. But again, they have significantly different roles, so perhaps it’s not fair to make a direct comparison.

3. These teams were in very different places when they met in September. What do you see as the biggest difference in the team you cover since Stanford’s win early in the season?

Lockman: There are a handful of things — special teams, rushing, takeaways — and Todd Graham would say the biggest difference is player leadership, which is significant. This team just had not put all the pieces together yet when it played Stanford and didn’t do so until after its loss to Notre Dame. The biggest difference, though, and the one that will matter most this week, is run defense.

ASU allowed 240 rushing yards to Stanford’s power-based ground game in September and gave up an average of 182.8 through its first five games, holding only two of those opponents under 200 rushing yards. Since, the Sun Devils have held opponents to 98.8 rushing yards per game, including minus-5 yards against Washington, which at the time featured the nation’s leading rusher in Bishop Sankey, who had just 22 yards in the game. To be fair, some of ASU’s toughest rushing tests (Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame) came in that five-game stretch. However, ASU has since played three of the Pac-12’s top five rushing offenses (Washington, UCLA and Arizona) and only allowed more than 200 yards to Arizona, and keep in mind that no one stopped Ka’Deem Carey this year. Even in that game, the Sun Devils overcame their so-so run defense with offense and takeaways in a relatively easy win.

This will be ASU’s toughest running test since the last time the teams played, but the defense certainly appears better equipped for the test.

Lombardi: I actually think that Stanford is in a very similar place to when the two teams met in September. There are a few exceptions, of course, but the Cardinal have continued winning since then with their no-nonsense formula: excellent defense, a powerful running game, success off play-action and effectiveness on special teams.

On the defensive side, Stanford has lost Ben Gardner, but he’s been replaced on the line by monstrous defensive end Henry Anderson, who was actually hurt the first time the Cardinal played the Sun Devils. Offensively, Stanford has discovered more weapons since the first meeting, particularly in the intermediate passing game. Michael Rector, Kodi Whitfield, Jordan Pratt, and Davis Dudchock are now making contributions in addition to Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste. That has made the play-action passing game, which feeds off Tyler Gaffney’s bruising running, all the more effective.

At its core, though, Stanford is still the same team that beat ASU in September. The Cardinals almost always dominate both trenches and beat the opponent into submission. They even controlled the tempo down the stretch of both of their losses this year, but gaffes in the red zone cost them both games. They key for Arizona State is the same as it was last time: The Sun Devils are going to have to successfully challenge the Cardinal’s brawn at the point of attack or it will be a long night for the home team.

4. That difference accounted for, what’s the biggest thing, on either side of the ball, the team you cover does that could create problems for the other in this game? What could be its advantage?

Lockman: As hard as it might be to believe, I think it will be pressure from the defensive front. Yes, Stanford dominated both trenches last time around, but the Sun Devils’ defensive front has come alive during their seven-game winning streak.

Changes have been made to stunts and blitz packages, and ASU wasn’t as aggressive early in the season as it had been the year before. Will Sutton has put his game into another gear, one apparently good enough for Pac-12 coaches to notice and again vote him the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year. Carl Bradford is playing on another level as well after slumping early. Davon Coleman has moved into the starting lineup since the first game against Stanford, as has sam linebacker Salamo Fiso. And Chris Young has settled in impressively at will linebacker. All that has added up to a much better defensive front than ASU showed in its first five games.

The Sun Devils also grew and learned from that stretch against some outstanding offensive lines. If ASU can put pressure on Stanford like it didn’t last time, creating some negative-yardage plays and forcing Kevin Hogan into passing situations, he could make some mistakes. ASU has 18 interceptions since playing Stanford in September.

Lombardi: Again, Stanford harbors few secrets. It succeeds by bruising the opposition on both lines of scrimmage. Offensively, the Cardinal run well to control the clock, inflict physical pain, and set up explosive strikes downfield. Defensively, they flex their muscles to stop the run, thus forcing opposing quarterbacks to throw against a ferocious pass rush to beat them.

When Stanford and Arizona State first played this year, the Cardinal jumped out to a 39-7 lead because they dominated both lines of scrimmage. The Sun Devils were unable to stop the ground-and-pound, nor were they able to keep a consistent pass rush out of Taylor Kelly’s face. Players like Trent Murphy wreaked havoc in that game.

That’s the strength advantage Stanford can again have in this one. The Sun Devils’ chances at success are likely contingent upon neutralizing this advantage so they can play their own style of game.

5. Who will win this game, by what score, and why?

Lockman: A month ago, I would have said ASU would lose to Stanford in any title-game scenario, even if the game were in Tempe. But now, it’s hard to pick against a team that’s won seven straight and is undefeated at home, so I’m going with ASU in a close one.

Home-field advantage is a big part of that prediction, but it’s more about how well the Sun Devils’ defense is playing right now. The unit has been simply dominant during the aforementioned winning streak and has seemingly gotten better every week, playing together in a way it wasn’t early in the season. But this one will probably come down to the trenches. I believe ASU has caught up a bit on the defensive side, though I’m less certain how the offensive line will hold up. ASU’s offense losing running back Marion Grice to an injury is also reason to be concerned, but D.J. Foster is a very capable back who has been overshadowed at times by Grice.

Ultimately, I think this one ends like ASU’s game against UCLA: with the Sun Devils making a crucial late-game stand on defense to preserve a win.

ASU 38, Stanford 31.

Lombardi: This is a tough one. I was confident Stanford would win by a considerable margin back in September, and I ended up being right about that pick. This rematch is a whole new animal, though, especially because the Sun Devils get the Cardinal at home. I do think Stanford irons out some of its road red-zone woes, but I also think ASU will make its share of big plays in front of a charged-up crowd. But the Stanford defense, which has gone 21 straight games without giving up 30 points, will dig in to keep this close the entire way. I see this contest being decided in the final minutes, and I think that Stanford — the more battled-tested team full of fifth-year seniors and one that would like to defend its Rose Bowl championship — will grind it out at the end.

Stanford 27, Arizona State 24.