PHOENIX - In order to reach its first Rose Bowl in 17 years, the No. 11 Arizona State Sun Devils will fittingly have to go through the only team to defeat them in conference play this season.
On Sept. 21, the Stanford Cardinal took a 29-0 lead into halftime and went on to beat visiting ASU 42-28 in a game that was never really that close.
But the Sun Devils are a markedly improved team since their first meeting with the Cardinal – and they will have the home-field advantage in their rematch with the defending conference champions in Saturday night's Pac-12 Championship game at Sun Devil Stadium. Here's what to expect:
ASU offense vs. Stanford defense:
It's a classic irresistible force vs. immovable object scenario: ASU is 7th among FBS teams in points per game at home (48.2), while Stanford is 10th in the FBS in points per game allowed on the road (19.2).
Stanford is especially stingy against the run. They allow just 87.8 rushing yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry, the third- and fourth-best marks in the FBS, respectively. Stanford held star Sun Devil tailback Marion Grice to just 50 yards on 17 carries in their September meeting. Grice is out for this game with a leg injury, meaning a combination of sophomore D.J. Foster, along with juniors Deantre Lewis and De'Marieya Nelson, will be expected to pick up the slack.
Stanford, however, can be beaten through the air, as they're in the bottom-third among FBS teams in passing yards allowed. Junior ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly threw for over 300 yards at Stanford in September, though most of those yards came in the second half with the game out of reach. Since that meeting, Kelly has averaged 258 passing yards and three touchdowns (combined passing and rushing) per game, thanks largely to junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong, whose 1,067 receiving yards are good for third in the Pac-12.
Nonetheless, the Cardinal haven't allowed more than 28 points in any game this season – and senior linebacker Trent Murphy, who leads the Pac-12 with 13 sacks, may have Kelly on the run for much of the night, especially if Stanford forces the Devils to abandon their running game.
Stanford offense vs. ASU defense:
The Cardinal's game plan is simple: pound the ball up the middle until the opposing defense can stop it.
Senior tailback Tyler Gaffney is third in the Pac-12 with nearly 1,500 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns this season. ASU did hold Gaffney to under 100 yards in their first matchup, and the Sun Devil rushing defense has improved dramatically since then, moving into the top-third in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game.
In the passing game, junior Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has the fourth-highest quarterback rating in the Pac-12, has only been sacked 10 times this season, and has the luxury of throwing to one of the conference's best receivers, junior Ty Montgomery, who is sixth in the Pac-12 in receiving yards (868) and third in receiving touchdowns (nine).
But Hogan may not have much time to throw against an ASU defense – led by defensive tackle and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, defensive end Davon Coleman, and linebackers Chris Young and Carl Bradford – that is third in the FBS with 3.2 sacks per game.
Bottom line: ASU has averaged fewer than 19 points allowed in its last four home contests, while Stanford hasn't scored more than 21 points in its last three road games.
ASU has a remarkable seven wins against bowl-eligible teams. The only team with more? Stanford, which has eight. The Cardinal are also 6-0 against Top-25 teams; ASU is 3-1.
The Cardinal have had their letdowns this season, with road losses to unranked Utah and USC. But they have stepped up in big games, including a 26-20 home win against No. 3 Oregon. ASU has done the same recently with an impressive 38-33 road victory over No. 14 UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 South.
But as the defending conference champions, Stanford has more experience in big-game atmospheres, won't be intimidated by the Sun Devil Stadium noise, and has enough weapons on both sides of the ball to win a close game against one of the country's hottest teams.
The Sun Devils didn't miss Grice last week, as they ran the ball effectively behind Foster and Nelson in their 58-21 blowout win over rival UA. But ASU often relies on a successful run game to help establish the pass – and in a matchup against a team that is among the nation's best in rushing yards allowed, Grice may be greatly missed on Saturday night.
Stanford 27, ASU 24.