Pac-12 championship matchup set
Oregon was in control of the Pac-12 North until it lost to Stanford. The Cardinal put the Ducks in charge by losing to Southern California, only to get it right back when Oregon lost to Arizona.
Yep, it's been a wild ride in the Pac-12 this season and, finally, we have some clarity.
With its rout over California and Oregon's letdown against the Wildcats, No. 8 Stanford secured a spot in the Dec. 7 Pac-12 Championship game. The Cardinal will face No. 13 Arizona State, which clinched the South with its hang-on-til-the-end win over UCLA on Saturday.
The site will be determined on the outcome of next weekend's game between Arizona and Arizona State; the Sun Devils will host with a win, Stanford gets the game if the Wildcats win.
''We're back in the Pac-12 championship game,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ''Now the fact is what are we going to do with this opportunity? That's the question.''
It has been an interesting ride for the Cardinal.
The defending Rose Bowl champions dominated early in the season, rolling through its first five games to climb into the top five in The Associated Press poll. The Cardinal had a slipup against Utah, but bounced back by holding off Oregon on Nov. 7.
Stanford's reign atop the Pac-12 North last one week, thanks to a loss at USC last week.
The flip-flopping continued on Saturday, when Oregon couldn't stop Ka'Deem Carey or get out of its own way in a stunning 42-16 loss at Arizona.
Stanford played later in the day and, with his game pretty much out of reach, Shaw allowed himself to think about what was going on down in the desert, checking the score on the phone of former Cardinal cornerback Richard Sherman while on the sideline.
''He just tapped me on the shoulder and didn't say anything, showed me his phone, which had the score on it,'' Shaw said. ''Of course, I was a little bit shocked, thought I was seeing it the wrong way.''
Word spread around Stanford's sideline and the crowd erupted when the score was announced in the stadium. The Cardinal were already well ahead and the news energized them even more, helping them continue their 63-13 blowout over Cal in the Big Game.
At the other end of the state, Arizona State was facing its biggest game in years against No. 14 UCLA.
The Sun Devils had made huge strides in two seasons under Todd Graham and a win over the Bruins would give them the South and a chance to win the Pac-12 championship, one of their top priorities.
Arizona State dominated the first half to lead 35-13, and then had to hold on as the Bruins rallied in the second. Thanks to two big defensive stands, the Sun Devils pulled out the 38-33 victory, earning a chance to play for their first Rose Bowl appearance since Jake Plummer took them there in 1997.
When it was finally over, Graham raced out onto the field to celebrate with his team, tears of joy streaming down his face.
''To watch these kids on that field lay it on the field with that kind of heart was just overwhelming to me,'' Graham said.
It has been a quick climb for the Sun Devils.
Graham laid the foundation last season, instilling a level of discipline that had been missing under previous coach Dennis Erickson. Arizona State's players bought into it from the start and overcame a four-game losing streak last season to win eight games, including their first bowl victory since 2005.
The Sun Devils faced some adversity this season, losing to Stanford and Notre Dame, but bounced back to play its best down the stretch.
In the past, Arizona State had been a team that couldn't pull out close games, couldn't win on the road in big games and always seemed to fade late in the season.
The Sun Devils beat a ranked team (Washington), pulled out two road victories over Washington State and Utah, which was a close game to boot, and finished off their impressive run by winning in the Rose Bowl, earning a chance for a rematch against Stanford and a possible return trip to the venerable stadium.
''It's been a quick journey the last year and a half, two years,'' Graham said. ''I'm really really proud of them for buying into what we're doing. These guys are winners.''
So are the Cardinal, setting up what should be an exciting championship game.