ASU vs. Stanford: Pac-12 Championship Preview

Dec 6, 2013, 10:14 PM | Updated: Dec 7, 2013, 5:20 am

2013 Pac-12 Championship Game

Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

#7 Stanford Cardinal (10-2) vs. #11 Arizona State Sun Devils (10-2)

The Résumés

#7 BCS Ranking #11
#7 AP Poll #11
#10 USA Today Coaches Poll #13
#7 Harris Poll #13
#8 Sagarin Ratings #3
404.4 ypg
Total Offense 21st
473.3 ypg
32.8 ppg
Scoring Offense 8th
43.3 ppg
341.3 ypg
Total Defense 24th
351.0 ypg
19.0 ppg
Scoring Defense T49th
24.8 ppg

When Stanford has the ball:

It’s no secret what Stanford wants to do offensively — they want the run the football. The Cardinal rank 26th in the nation, averaging 208.5 yards rushing per contest. Senior Tyler Gaffney ranks 8th in the nation with 1,485 yards on the ground and has found the end zone 17 times.

Gaffney will run behind an offensive line that isn’t huge, but is incredibly experienced. Four of the starters, left guard David Yankey, center Khalil Wilkes, right guard Kevin Danser and right tackle Cameron Fleming are seniors. And Arizona State is very familiar with sophomore left tackle Andrus Peat, who attended Corona del Sol High in Tempe before picking Stanford over the Sun Devils and others. Stanford will often use extra offensive lineman in their power running game as well, a look that creates a tough matchup for any opposing front seven.

At quarterback is steady junior Kevin Hogan, who is 15-2 as Stanford’s starter since taking over midway through the 2012 season. More impressively, he’s 9-0 against ranked teams, including Stanford’s 42-28 win over ASU in September.

Hogan doesn’t put up huge numbers — in fact he’s thrown for more than 300 yards in a game only once — November 23 against Cal.

Hogan’s receiving corps features junior Ty Montgomery, who is quite simply one of the most dangerous players in the country. Montgomery led the Cardinal with 53 catches for 868 yards and nine touchdowns. Devon Cajuste, a 6-foot-4 junior, is the only other Stanford receiver with more than 20 catches on the year. Cajuste nabbed 25 passes for 471 yards and five scores, and showed the flair for catching the deep ball, averaging 18.8 yards per catch. Sophomore Michael Rector has also been a big-play target, averaging 32.1 yards per catch on the season.

Unlike years past, the Cardinal don’t throw the ball to tight ends often, which is puzzling since there are currently six Stanford tight ends on NFL rosters. In fact, only ten completions have gone to tight ends this season.

Opposing the Cardinal offense is an Arizona State defense that has shown vast improvement as the season has worn on, especially against the run. In their first five contests, the Sun Devils yielded an average of 182.8 yards on the ground. But in their last seven games, that number has shrunk to 98.9 yards. Anchored by two-time Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, the ASU front line will have their hands full against the jumbo looks the Cardinal will present.

ASU does feature playmakers all along the front seven. Defensive end Gannon Conway has developed into a very steady performer, while defensive tackle Davon Coleman has been the unsung hero of the ASU defense. The senior from Cleveland has a team-leading 7.5 sacks and has chipped in with 14 tackles for loss, which ranks second on the team. Senior Chris Young and junior Carl Bradford have also wreaked havoc on opposing offenses this season, combining for 28.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

And in the secondary, senior corner Osahon Irabor has developed into a physical force while fellow senior Robert Nelson has picked off six passes, many coming at crucial times. Nelson had a huge interception in the fourth quarter of ASU’s win over Utah and he sealed the Oregon State win with a pick-six late in the fourth. Safeties Alden Darby and Demarious Randall have combined for seven interceptions, and have each taken one to the house.

When ASU has the ball:

Obviously, when you lose a player who is responsible for 44 percent of your rushing yardage and 34 percent of your offensive touchdowns, it’s a big void to fill.

That’s the boat Arizona State finds itself in as senior Marion Grice will miss his second straight game after suffering a leg injury against UCLA. But the Sun Devils are still confident because of the development of sophomore do-everything back D.J. Foster. The Scottsdale Saguaro High product has been used mostly as a slot receiver this season, but ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s Territorial Cup win over Arizona.

ASU unveiled another wrinkle in Grice’s absence — utilizing junior De’Marieya Nelson, a tight end, in the backfield against Arizona. Nelson ran eight times for 35 yards and two scores in the win. And there’s Deantre Lewis, who tweaked his ankle against UA, but is expected to play, according to head coach Todd Graham.

In their ten wins, ASU has averaged 213.9 yards rushing, but Stanford was able to contain the Sun Devils’ ground game in their September meeting. Yes, ASU fell behind by 29 points at halftime, and they were forced to throw the ball almost exclusively from that point, but the devils had only 50 net yards rushing in the game.

Like Stanford, the Sun Devils have utilized the same offensive line all season long. Evan Finkenberg, Jamil Douglas, Kody Koebensky, Vi Teofilo and Tyler Sulka have started every game for Arizona State and have shown steady improvement.

Junior college transfer Jaelen Strong has emerged as one of the top targets in the Pac-12, catching 69 passes for 1,067 yards and seven touchdowns. Strong had the biggest game of the season — 12 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown — against Stanford in September. He proved to be a matchup problem in the second half when ASU was able to make the score somewhat respectable.

Outside Strong, there hasn’t been too much production from the other wideout spots. In fact, ASU has had only 12 completions for 86 yards to other receivers (not including Foster) in the last three games.

That could mean more balls coming the way of tight end Chris Coyle. The All-Pac-12 First Teamer has seen a dip in his production from a year ago (57 catches in 2012, 28 this year), but he’s averaging 14.8 yards per reception. He caught only one pass against Stanford in September, but it went for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly is simply one of the most underrated players in the nation. He’s 18-7 as starter and is in the top-15 nationally in points responsible for and passing yardage.

The physicality that Stanford shows on offense is matched on defense. The Cardinal had nine players receive All-Pac-12 honors earlier this week, led by first-teamers Ben Gardner, Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ed Reynolds. The Sun Devils do get a break as Gardner is out with a pectoral injury suffered in October. However, his replacement, Henry Anderson has performed well enough to receive all-conference honorable mention.

Murphy has been a force — he’s second in FBS with 13 sacks and sixth with 19.5 tackles for loss. Skov is the emotional leader of the Stanford defense and leads the Cardinal with 91 total tackles. The secondary is led by Reynolds, a Lott IMPACT Award quarter-finalist and two-time All-Pac-12 First Team honoree.

If there is a weakness for Stanford on defense, it’s the fact that they don’t force a lot of turnovers. The Cardinal came up with 20 takeaways on the season, which ranks 95th in the nation and 10th in the conference.

Stanford’s Advantage:

The most glaring advantage the Cardinal own in this game is on special teams. Montgomery is one of the most dangerous return men in the nation. Montgomery had touchdown returns of 99 yards or more in consecutive weeks against Washington and Utah, making him one of only five players in FBS to take more than one kickoff to the house.

In the first meeting between ASU and Stanford, Montgomery averaged 27 yards per return and had a 50-yarder to open the game — the third-longest return allowed by Arizona State all year.

Incidentally, the glaring difference on special teams was illustrated in full detail in Stanford’s win over ASU. Not only did Montgomery gash the Devils in the return game, but ASU struggled in the punt game, having two blocked, one of which resulted in a safety and the other leading to a Cardinal field goal.

Senior punter Ben Rhyne has been solid, averaging 42.2 yards per attempt, while ASU is last in the conference in punting and 122nd in the nation (out of 123 teams) in net punting.

ASU’s advantage:

Plain and simple, it’s Sun Devil Stadium. Arizona State is undefeated on their home turf this season, going 7-0 and outscoring their opponents by an average of nearly 27 points per contest.

On the flip side, Stanford has been vulnerable on the road, going just 3-2 away from Palo Alto. One of their wins was an uneven 20-12 victory over Oregon State in which Stanford gained a season-low 273 yards and lost the turnover battle.

The place should be packed, with about 90 percent of the crowd comprised of a hungry Sun Devil fan base that hasn’t seen their team play in the Rose Bowl in 17 years.

The Verdict:

It’s very strange that a team that was absolutely humbled by another team in a regular season game would be favored in a rematch of the two squads. But that’s the situation ASU finds themselves in this weekend.

The Sun Devils trailed Stanford 39-7 entering the fourth quarter in September before rallying for three late scores to change the cosmetic look of the game. The first thirty minutes were, by far, the worst played by Arizona State in all facets of the game. The beauty is, they’ve got a chance to fix it.

Special teams will be huge for Arizona State, but by Todd Graham’s own admission, just playing even in that area is a big victory for the Sun Devils — they just can’t afford to kill themselves with shoddy teams play like they have in the past.

ASU’s defense will be tested by Stanford’s power running game, but they’ve shown great improvement in that area, and I believe the Sun Devils will put pressure on Hogan to make plays, which isn’t his strong suit.

I think the electricity of the crowd, coupled with ASU’s excellence at home this season, will be deciding factor in the football game.

Punch, your ticket to Pasadena, ASU.

Final Score: Arizona State 27, Stanford 23

Stanford coach David Shaw’s Friday press conference

ASU coach Todd Graham’s Friday press conference

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