The Pac-12 North was supposed to be one of, if not the, best division in college football this fall. Certainly, it was supposed to be better than the Pac-12 South. If a team from this league was supposed to earn a berth in the BCS National Championship game it was supposed to be from the North.
As it turns out, Arizona State boasted the best record in the Pac-12 (8-1) and earned the right to host tonight's Pac-12 Championship Game. And because the Sun Devils are at home in Sun Devils Stadium, Arizona State is favored over a Stanford team that abused the Sun Devils back on Sept. 21 in Palo Alto.
In the first meeting, the defending Pac-12 champs posted a 29-0 halftime lead and a 39-7 margin after three quarters. Arizona State made a late charge with three fourth-quarter touchdowns but the 42-28 final score made the lopsided game look a lot closer than reality. Fans of both teams should expect a much closer affair this time around.
Arizona State went on to win its last eight Pac-12 games since the loss to Stanford and has been virtually unstoppable at home all season. The Sun Devils averaged 49.1 points at home in Tempe this season and scored at least 53 points in six of eight home contests. The last time Stanford allowed more than 30 points in a game — much less 50 — was the 48 it allowed to Arizona in early October of last year.
While ASU has surged on offense over the final two months, it's the Sun Devils' defense that may be the deciding factor this weekend. Since losing to Notre Dame on Oct. 5, Arizona State has allowed more than 24 points just once (33, UCLA) and has given up just 85.6 yards rushing per game — which includes 249 in the blowout finale against Arizona. Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Chris Young have developed into one of the league’s top defensive fronts (more on that soon).
On the flip side, the Cardinal are a different team since boat-racing Arizona State back in September as well. Stanford lost two of its last seven overall — both of which came on the road against teams Arizona State defeated (Utah, USC) — and the offense has topped 400 yards just three times since September (8 games). The 387.6 yards per game during that span would be ranked 82nd nationally.
Stanford has won the last three meetings in fairly convincing fashion, but, needless to say, these are two very different teams today than in any of those Cardinal victories.
Arizona State leads the all-time series 16-11.
Stanford at Arizona State
Kickoff: 7:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arizona State -3
Three Things to Watch
Arizona State's backfield without Marion Grice
Not having injured starting running back Marion Grice will hurt Todd Graham’s offense in a big way. Grice had 1,434 yards from scrimmage and wasn’t just a running threat as his 50 receptions will attest. But can Graham replace the points? Grice led the Pac-12 and is fifth nationally with 20 total touchdowns despite missing the regular-season finale. Do-everything dynamo D.J. Foster, who spent most of the season playing wide receiver, stepped in last week in a big way. He rushed 23 times for 124 yards and two scores against Arizona and has played running back for most of his career until 2013. Foster is an excellent player but losing Grice is a big blow to Graham’s offense. Can the diminutive Foster carry a full workload against a physical and punishing defense?
Which pass rush is more effective?
Stanford’s experience, versatility, physicality and suffocating front seven is no secret. It posted three sacks, 10.0 tackles for a loss and blocked a punt against Arizona State in the first meeting. The Cardinal finished as the Pac-12's No. 1 scoring defense at just 19.0 points per game allowed. But Arizona States’s front seven is no joke either. The Sun Devils have averaged more than four sacks per game (4.1 pg) in Pac-12 play since losing to Stanford and used nine sacks against UCLA two weeks ago to clinch the South Division. Both quarterbacks are athletic but these are two of the top 10 teams in the nation in creating pressure on the quarterback, so offensive line play will be paramount this weekend.
Stanford's balance on offense
The best way for David Shaw to keep his quarterback upright is to create balance on offense. His offense struggled at times over the final two months — namely against Washington, Utah, Oregon Sate and USC. It couldn’t complete passes against USC or Washington and struggled to run the ball against Utah and Oregon State. Both Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson split carries against Arizona State in September but Gaffney has established himself as the lead back with 29.3 carries per game over his last six. Quarterback Kevin Hogan has shown flashes of being able to create balance but has been below 158 yards passing in four of the last five games. He and big-play wide receiver Ty Montgomery — who scored twice against Arizona State in the first meeting — must be able to create balance to slow down the ASU pass rush.
Key Player: Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
Hogan has had his moments of brilliance this season but has been inconsistent at times this fall. He can go from an 82.67 passer rating one week (USC) to 235.14 the next (Cal). Stanford is unbeaten this year when he completes more than 56 percent of his passes and he will likely have to be much better than that to outscore Arizona State. Hogan needs to get wide receiver Ty Montgomery involved in the game plan right away as one or two big passes down the field to the speedster could really open things up for Tyler Gaffney and the power running attack. Stanford will go as far as Hogan takes them — which could be the Granddaddy of Them All… or the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30.
Stanford was the significantly better team when these two met this year as the Cardinal totally baffled Graham with bizarre formations on offense and disguised blitzes on defense. However, Arizona State is a much better team today than back in September and are also playing in a stadium they haven’t lost in this year (7-0). This should gives fans a back-and-forth chess match in the desert. That said, the Cardinal have played in championship games before and are loaded on defense with senior superstars at every level. How does the old adage go: Offense wins games and defense wins championships? The physicality at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball for Stanford is the difference in what should be an extremely entertaining and well-played Pac-12 title tilt.
Pac-12 Championship Predictions:
Pac-12 Season Record
Arizona St, 35-28