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Special teams key for ASU against Stanford in Pac-12 Championship Game

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State coach Todd Graham has stressed two things leading up to each game this season: special teams and ball security.

The first has been hit or miss with more hits than misses, while the Sun Devils have won the turnover battle six times and finished even on three other occasions.

In ASU’s first meeting against Stanford, a 42-28 loss, it not only committed more turnovers than it forced but had perhaps its worst performance on special teams.

“They had a blocked punt against our offensive unit. They had a blocked punt against our punting team. They took a kick return back to the 50; took another one back to the 40, but luckily for us there was a penalty,” special teams coordinator Joe Lorig said of the initial matchup against the defending Pac-12 champions.

The two blocked punts led directly to nine Stanford points, while the return game allowed the Cardinal offense to start from an average field position of its own 44-yard line.

“I thought they dominated us in special teams,” Lorig continued. “They completely dominated us in that area and dominated field position because of it.”

Of great concern for ASU in Saturday’s rematch is return specialist Ty Montgomery, who ranks second in the nation with 31.3 yards per kickoff return and two touchdowns. He burned the Sun Devils for 81 yards on three returns back in September.

“Great player,” Long said. “Great kick returner. Really, really dynamic.”

Said Graham: “Probably one of the best kickoff returners in the country. We’ve got to do a great job of covering and getting down (field) and pinning him in (deep).”

ASU’s loss to Stanford also saw kicker Zane Gonzalez miss a 45-yard field goal early in the second quarter. He hasn’t missed since, setting a school-record with 18 consecutive makes.

“He’s done a good job,” Lorig said of the reigning Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week. “He’s stepped up and hit field goals when we’ve needed him to. Like I’ve told him, nothing is accomplished yet. We’ve got more goals to set, but as far as what he’s done to this point I’m pleased. He’s done what we’ve asked him to do. Now he needs to make sure that he maintains his focus and isn’t satisfied.”

Focus will be the key for all players on special teams according to Lorig.

Again, it’s the number-one priority each week, but perhaps never more important than this week.

“I think we’ve come a long ways,” Lorig said. “We’ve still had times when we’ve slipped up a little bit (i.e. UCLA), but I think our kids are going to be prepared and ready. We’re ready for the challenge.”