When Arizona State played Stanford in Palo Alto back in late September, it was clear that the Sun Devils were not in the same class as the Cardinal.
Then-No. 5 Stanford jumped out to a 29-0 halftime lead and a 39-7 lead after three quarters and cruised to an easy 42-28 victory over No. 23 ASU.
But, since then, the Sun Devils have roared back to win their last eight conference games, setting up a rematch with the Cardinal — only this time in Tempe. On Saturday it will be No. 7 Stanford (10-2) taking on No. 11 ASU (10-2) with the Rose Bowl on the line.
Stanford is mostly what we thought it would be this year — a smothering defensive team with an efficient, ball-control offense. But the Cardinal have struggled scoring at times this season. Outside of a 63-point outburst against hapless California a couple weeks ago, Stanford’s offense hasn’t produced more than four touchdowns in its past seven outings. Not that it’s mattered too much since the Cardinal defense is one of the finest in the country, but Stanford will need to dial up its best offensive performance if it is going to beat the Sun Devils.
The weapons are certainly there to do that. Running back Tyler Gaffney has 1,493 yards and 17 touchdowns while receiver Ty Montgomery has 53 catches for 868 yards and nine scores. Quarterback Kevin Hogan has 19 touchdown passes.
But one gets the feeling that ASU might be peaking at the right time.
The Sun Devils offense averages 43 points and 473 yards per game and has scored 50 or more points five times in Pac-12 play. While ASU will be without versatile running back Marion Grice against Stanford, it has able backfield weapons in D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis. Quarterback Taylor Kelly has 3,337 yards with 27 touchdown passes and his favorite target, Jaelen Strong, is one of the Pac-12′s best with 69 catches for 1,067 yards and nine scores.
And for all the ballyhoo about Stanford’s defense, the Sun Devils are close statistically. ASU has a superior pass defense and leads the conference with 21 interceptions. The Sun Devils give up just 10 yards more per game in total defense than Stanford and has All-conference talents in Will Sutton (the league’s Defensive Player of the Year) and defensive backs Alden Darby and Robert Nelson.
Stanford is looking for its second-straight Pac-12 title, which would be its first back-to-back conference crowns since 1970-1971. ASU hasn’t won an outright conference title since the 1996 season, when Jake Plummer led the Sun Devils to a magical 11-0 regular season.
Whoever wins on Saturday, it’s been a long time coming.