2013 Pac-12 Championship: ASU ready to avenge loss to Stanford
Searching for the broad gray area between a humble approach and a taste for revenge, Arizona State coach Todd Graham sees his Sun Devils ready to get the Stanford Cardinal back for handing them a Sept. 21 loss. Rarely do teams get a shot to avenge a game within the same season, but that's the privilege the Sun Devils earned by hosting the Pac-12 Championship game on Saturday in Tempe.
“We found out what a disciplined team looked like,” Graham said of the first meeting with Stanford during a teleconference call Tuesday. “We are the contender. They are the defending champion. You have to take it from them.”
“Our guys know exactly what we're in for.”
Arizona State has lost three straight to Stanford, most recently falling to the Cardinal 42-28 in the Sun Devils' first Pac-12 conference game this season. They fell behind 39-7 through three quarters in that game and outscored Stanford 21-3 in the fourth. Graham credited the loss as a major turning point in his team's season.
“We came roaring back and came back the next week and put 60 on USC,” he said. “That stretch there, I think we had a team mature more than I've seen a team mature.”
Stanford coach David Shaw agrees. He said it's felt like a different season since his Cardinal saw pitchforks. And because of it, he doesn't see his team overlooking the Sun Devils because it beat them months ago.
“You put the film on, you watch these guys run by people. You watch them dominate games,” Shaw said.
It'll be a balance of styles, if anything. Stanford allows 19 points per game while ASU has scored 43.3 an outing in 2013. While coaches will discount those straight statistics because it depends on the snap-counts, the number of plays each team runs will go a long way in telling who plays to their identity.
The Cardinal could worry about the Sun Devils' speed, but Shaw's squad also has a pretty good win against the speedy Oregon Ducks on its resume. In that win, Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney beat down the Ducks' up front to the tune of 157 yards on 45 carries.
“Best offensive line we've played against all year, hands down,” Graham said of the Cardinal. “They don't get enough credit for the innovation they do offensively and what they do in the run game.”
Up front, the Sun Devils boast Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, the defensive lineman who could throw in a 310-pound problem into Stanford's gameplan. And offensively, Graham's team will ride quarterback Taylor Kelly, who has dynamic sidekicks in receiver Jaelen Strong and back D.J. Foster, making up for the loss of injured running back Marion Grice.
“Offensively, they're always in attack mode,” Shaw said. “They're making you defend a lot of different things.”
The Pac-12 title game will feature two different styles by two teams that have evolved since they last met. And it's all for the Rose Bowl.
Three Sun Devil players to watch
QB Taylor Kelly (27 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 62.6 completion percentage)
Fitting to his offseason hobby, Kelly is the motor that makes the diverse Sun Devils offense burn rubber. He's one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation, yet his biggest assets are his legs. In ASU's losses to Stanford and Notre Dame this year, Kelly totaled a single rushing yard. He had -9 yards in a slim 20-19 win against Utah. If he can get his legs churning, it could be trouble for Stanford.
RB/WR D.J. Foster (550 receiving yards, 307 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns)
Though Foster is the Sun Devils' second-most prolific receiver of 2013, he'll see the majority of the time against Stanford at running back with starter Marion Grice likely out with a leg injury. Foster holds a 4.7 yards per rush average this season and as the full-time running back in the Territorial Cup put up 124 yards on 23 rushes. Can he keep it up?
”Devil-backer” Carl Bradford (16 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks)
While there's a lot to be said about All-Pac-12 First Team selections Will Sutton and defensive backs Alden Darby and Robert Nelson Jr., Bradford has been a force playing the hybrid “Devil-backer” position for the Sun Devils. He'll line up as a rushing defensive end or as a linebacker and leads ASU with 16 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks per game.
Three Cardinal players to watch
RB Tyler Gaffney (1,485 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per rush, 18 total touchdowns)
Gaffney was behind the (so-far) season-defining win against Pac-12 North rival Oregon in which Stanford pounded the Ducks with the run game. In his return to the Cardinal after playing minor league baseball, Shaw calls him “the embodiment of our running game.” It'll be a test against the ASU defensive line and Sutton. In September against the Sun Devils, Gaffney recorded one of his four games in which he didn't reach the 100-yard mark.
WR/return specialist Ty Montgomery (53 receptions, 868 yards, 9 touchdowns)
Montgomery finally found confidence in his junior season, and he could make the difference in a close game with one big play. The favorite target of quarterback Kevin Hogan made the conference yearly honors for receiving and his kickoff return duties. He led the NCAA by averaging 31.3 yards per kickoff return and scored two touchdowns this season. That speed also makes him a breakaway threat in the passing game.
LB Trent Murphy (51 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 7 QB hits)
Though he might be overlooked by emotional leader and fellow linebacker Shayne Skov, Murphy is an all-around talent who leads the Cardinal by having 9.5 more tackles for loss than the next guy on the team. He's versatile, too. The Mesa, Ariz., product can drop back in coverage and leads Stanford with seven pass deflections and six breakups, while coming in third with seven quarterback hits. How mean is he? Murphy wrestled calves for fun as a kid. So there's that.
Stats to know
- ASU, which was known as an undisciplined team before Graham arrived, ranks third in the NCAA by averaging just 28.5 penalty yards per game.
- Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy is second in the nation with 1.1 sacks per game.
- Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney is 10th in the nation at 123.8 rush yards per game.
- At 43.3 points per game, the Sun Devils are eighth in the nation in scoring offense.
- Stanford allows just 19.0 points per game, good nough for 13th in the country.
David Shaw on ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly: “I'm still looking for a word to describe him. I want to be complimentary. It's his desire. Whether he's running it or biding time to throw it, the kid plays with such energy and fire and fight.”