TEMPE, Ariz. — The first time around, there was no mistaking who the better team was between the Arizona State Sun Devils and Stanford Cardinal.
In a 42-28 rout of ASU back on Sept. 21, Stanford dominated in every facet of the game.
Offensively, outside of a trio of fourth-quarter touchdown passes, the Sun Devils were dormant. The Cardinal defense forced quarterback Taylor Kelly to force several balls into double coverage, and he tied a season-high with two interceptions. On the ground, Stanford’s third-ranked run defense held ASU to a season-low 50 rushing yards, as senior Marion Grice was virtually a non-factor.
Defensively, Paul Randolph’s unit could do little to stop Kevin Hogan, Tyler Gaffney and the Cardinal. Stanford scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions on the way to building an insurmountable 29-0 halftime lead.
And then there was special teams.
With the Sun Devils trailing 13-0 early in the second quarter, Zane Gonzalez missed a 45-yard field goal on a kick that wouldn’t have been good from any distance — as it zigged and zagged its way through the thick Northern California wind and wide of the mark.
After ASU’s next four offensive drives stalled, punter Matt Haack came on to pin Stanford back in its own end. Except, it didn’t exactly go that way for the freshman.
Three of his kicks failed to clear 40 yards, with only one making its way onto the Cardinal’s half of the field. The other was blocked into the end zone for a safety.
In the second half, the Sun Devils had another kick blocked, as Kelly’s pooch punt was batted down by Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner. One play later, Gaffney put the game away for good with a 16-yard touchdown run.
“At the time, that was a humbling experience,” Todd Graham said of the 14-point loss in Palo Alto. “I think we learned a lot from that game. We’ve learned a lot from every game we’ve been in. To get an opportunity to play the defending Pac-12 Champion is a great honor for us, because our goal is to be champion.”
ASU has certainly come a long way since that September afternoon in Palo Alto — winning its final eight conference games — but has enough changed for the Sun Devils to be able to right a wrong with a win over the Cardinal in Saturday’s Pac-12 Championship Game?
Graham seems to think so.
“I’ve never worried one bit about our guys confidence and their belief in what we’re doing,” said Graham. “I think they’ve learned that talent is not enough and that discipline, fundamentals and how you play together as a unit is how we’ve matured. Our guys have matured every week.”
While there’s little argument that ASU has grown when it comes to the intangibles, when facing a veteran-laden, well-coached team like Stanford, the question still remains as to what advantage Graham’s squad has come Saturday that wasn’t evident two months ago.
His answer: Sun Devil Stadium.
“[Home-field advantage] is the most underrated thing in college football,” said Graham, who was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year Monday. “For the offense to have to operate with it loud like that, it makes it difficult to audible and to operate. It’s a major benefit for the defense. Obviously, the way our defense is designed, it’s a big plus.
“We need this stadium to be packed out, and we need them to be loud and proud. I think it’s the greatest advantage we have. You have two great teams going at it, and the greatest advantage is that we’re playing right here in the Valley at Sun Devil Stadium. The fans need to understand how important they are. They’re a participant in this thing.”
One of the other participants in Saturday’s game, ASU senior defensive tackle Will Sutton, agreed with Graham’s assessment, adding that his unit is the type that needs a big crowd to feed off of.
“It’s a chance for us to redeem ourselves,” said Sutton, who was also named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Monday. “At the beginning of the season when we went to Stanford, we don’t really play well on the road when the atmosphere isn’t electrifying the way most away games are. It was just flat. Guys were not excited. Me and Chris Young tried to get the team excited, but it was too late.
“The spark didn’t hit us until the fourth quarter, and you saw how we tried to fight back and battle back. We felt it was just too late by that time, because we didn’t have enough time. We still gave ourselves a chance and that told us that we’re a really good team when we bring it from the start of the game until the end.”
Sutton and Co. have certainly fed off the home crowd in Tempe this season. ASU is a perfect 7-0 at Sun Devil Stadium in 2013 and has outscored its opponents by an average of 28.2 points per game.
The home team has also won each of the first two Pac-12 title games.