Sun Devils fired up for second shot at Stanford

TEMPE, Ariz. — After Arizona State lost at Stanford 42-28 on Sept. 21, receiver Jaelen Strong made a guarantee: The Sun Devils would see Stanford again.

Asked if he was sure, Strong responded confidently.

“Yes, we will see them again,” Strong reiterated.

That pledge comes to fruition this week when No. 11 ASU hosts No. 7 Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game, and the Sun Devils are thrilled to get another shot at the Cardinal.

“It’s a chance for us to redeem ourselves,” said defensive tackle Will Sutton, who on Monday won his second straight Pat Tillman defensive player of the year award. “I’m just so excited we get to host the Pac-12 Championship game and get to see Stanford again.”

Added ASU coach Todd Graham: “To get an opportunity to play the defending Pac-12 champion is something that’s a great honor for us because our goal is to be champion.”

Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) comes to Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday for the first time since 2010. ASU (10-2, 8-1) is 7-0 at home this season and beat opponents there by an average of 28.3 points. The Cardinal’s two losses came on the road this season, against Utah and USC.

While home-field advantage inspires confidence in the Sun Devils, they drew perhaps more from the loss to Stanford.

“The Stanford game showed how we beat ourselves,” Sutton said. “We looked back at the film and we watched how the most important thing on this team is really special teams. Special teams means a lot.”

Graham believes ASU made significant strides in special teams since, but even greater strides in leadership.

“I think the second half in that game showed what kind of heart our guys have,” Graham said. “I think that’s what (Strong) was pointing out (in his guarantee) is that we’re a lot better than the way we played in the first half of that game and that we just had to go back to work and if we did we could end up right back here. That’s what happened.”

Sutton said ASU came out flat in the loss, in which ASU fell behind 29-0 at halftime, in part due to a calmer road atmosphere than anticipated. The Sun Devils play better on the road, Sutton suggested, in an “electrifying” atmosphere.

“It was just flat, guys out there not excited,” Sutton said. “Me and (linebacker) Chris Young tried to get the team excited, but it was kind of too late. The spark didn’t hit us until the fourth quarter.”

ASU rallied that night and outscored Stanford 28-13 in the second half but could not climb out of the hole dug by its own poor kickoff return coverage, an interception, two blocked punts and Stanford’s powerful rushing attack.

Graham on Monday called the loss a “humbling experience.” Another learning moment came two weeks later in Dallas, where ASU lost 37-34 to Notre Dame in a game it felt it should have won. Now, Graham believes his players are more prepared to play an elite team like Stanford.

“I think those close games, those hard-fought games and the level of competition we’ve played has really seasoned our guys,” Graham said. “I’ve really sensed that in the last two or three weeks.”

In addition to the 17 players who earned All-Pac-12 recognition on Monday, two earned weekly conference honors. Sophomore safety Damarious Randall was named Defensive Player of the Week after he had 12 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception return for a touchdown in ASU’s 58-21 win over Arizona. Freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez earned Special Teams Player of the Week honors by going 3 for 3 on field goal attempts and setting a new school record for consecutive field goals made (18). Randall is the sixth ASU player to earn weekly Pac-12 honors this season. Gonzalez was honored for the second time.