Pac-12 championship game: No. 7 Stanford (10-2) vs. No. 11 Arizona State (10-2)
Where: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
When: 4;45 p.m. Pacific time
Although No. 7 Stanford beat No. 11 Arizona State (10-2, 8-1 in the Pac-12) rather decisively when the teams met back on Sept. 21, the Cardinal (10-2, 7-2) may not be the favorites when the teams meet again in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 7 in Tempe, Ariz. And this time a berth in the Rose Bowl is on the line.
Stanford handled the Sun Devils 42-28 earlier this season, a game that was not as close as the score suggests. Stanford held a 39-7 lead entering the fourth quarter, and even took starting quarterback Kevin Hogan out of the game, feeling the lead was safe.
The Sun Devils scored three touchdowns to make it 39-28 with more than six minutes left before Hogan was put back into the game.
That fourth quarter proved that Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly can pick apart the Cardinal secondary, and the Sun Devils figure to rely heavily on their passing game with running back Marion Grice, the Sun Devils' leading rusher, not expected to play because of a leg injury. Without Grice, Arizona State still managed to score 58 points in a 58-21 victory over Arizona last week.
That win over the Wildcats was the Sun Devils' eighth straight victory and gave the Sun Devils the home field for the conference title game based on having a better conference record than the Cardinal. The site constitutes the biggest difference from the first meeting.
Stanford has won 16 consecutive home games, including all seven this season. On the road, the Cardinal are just 3-2, including a loss to Utah.
Arizona State is 7-0 at Sun Devil Stadium this season, and averaged 49.1 points in those games.
For Stanford to win the game and earn a berth in a BCS game for the fourth consecutive season, it must control the game's tempo with its running game and apply pressure on Kelly.
Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney has rushed for more than 140 yards in five of the Cardinal's past six games. He needs to have a similar performance against the Sun Devils, who limited him to 87 rushing yards in the first meeting. Stanford's offensive line must prevent standout ASU defensive tackle Will Sutton from making big plays in the backfield.
The Cardinal held Kelly in check in the first meeting before he took control of matters in the fourth quarter, when he threw three touchdown passes.
Stanford smothered Arizona State's strong running game in the first meeting, but the Cardinal have yielded a lot of passing yards this season. Kelly could have another big day if he has time to throw.
However, Kelly has been sacked 31 times this season, and Stanford has 35 sacks, the ninth most in the country. Stanford sacked Kelly three times in the first meeting, which is how the Cardinal was able to keep him under control for three quarters.
If Stanford wins the game and earns a Rose Bowl berth for the second straight year, its postseason opponent would be Michigan State if the Spartans beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
If the Buckeyes beat Michigan State, the Pac-12 champ will have to wait until the BCS standings come out on Sunday to learn which team it will face in the Rose Bowl.
If the Buckeyes remain unbeaten but fail to finish in the top two in the BCS standings, Ohio State would be the Pac-12 opponent in the Rose Bowl.
If Ohio State goes to the national championship game, the Rose Bowl is likely to select Michigan State if the No. 10 Spartans remain in the top 14 in the BCS standings despite the loss. The Rose Bowl always prefers a Pac 12-Big Ten matchup if possible. If the Spartans slip out of the top 14, the Pac-12 champ could face Alabama or Oklahoma State in the Rose Bowl.
If Stanford loses to Arizona State, the Cardinal probably would play in the Alamo Bowl or Holiday Bowl against a Big 12 team.
STANFORD PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Kevin Hogan - He is 15-2 as a starter, and he threw the ball better the past two games after a midseason slump. However, he threw two interceptions in the 27-20 victory over Notre Dame last week and threw four picks over the past three games. Hogan has run the ball more often and more effectively recently, and his ability to get first downs on third-down runs will be critical against Arizona State. In the first game against the Sun Devils, he was 11-for-17 for 151 yards, two touchdowns and one interception while running for 45 yards.
--WR Ty Montgomery -- Montgomery has emerged as a big-play threat as a receiver and kick-returner, something Stanford has lacked in recent years. He ranks second in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 31.3 yards per attempt. Montgomery's 53 pass receptions are more than twice as many as anyone else on the team, and he leads the team by a wide margin in receiving yards (868) and touchdown catches (nine). He still has a tendency to drop passes occasionally, though. Montgomery had two touchdown catches and a 50-yard kickoff return against Arizona State earlier this season.
--RB Tyler Gaffney - Gaffney had just 87 rushing yards on 18 carries in the first meeting against Arizona State, but that was partly because he did not play in the fourth quarter when the Cardinal thought it had a safe lead. He rushed for more than 140 yards in five of the Cardinal's past six games and his 123.8 yards per game rank eighth in the country. Gaffney needs to churn out consistent yardage to keep Arizona State's high-powered offense off the field.
--OLB Trent Murphy - Murphy had just one tackle and no sacks when the teams met the first time, and he needs to be a bigger factor in the rematch. He leads the nation in sacks with 13 and is sixth in tackles for loss with 19.5. Murphy also has a habit of blocking passes at the line of scrimmage. He is very capable of producing a game-changing play.
SERIES HISTORY: Stanford has a 12-16 record against Arizona State. Stanford has won the last three meetings against the Sun Devils, including a 48-28 victory this season at Stanford back on Sept. 21. The last time the teams met in Tempe, Ariz., Stanford won 17-13 in 2010.
QUOTE: "Not at all. We watched them dominate teams we struggled with. That was a long time ago. We're a different team. They're a different team. It's almost like a different season." - Stanford coach David Shaw, on whether his team would be overconfident against Arizona State after beating the Sun Devils decisively 42-28 back on Sept. 21.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S RUNNING GAME: Stanford relies on a power running game behind its strong offensive line to control the game's tempo. The Cardinal ran the ball effectively the second half of the season, with RB Tyler Gaffney becoming the workhorse. He has rushed for more than 140 yards in five of the past six games, including 189 last week against Notre Dame. QB Kevin Hogan provides a running threat either as a scrambler on pass plays or on the read option. Stanford rushed for 240 yards in the first meeting against Arizona State, and would like to do something similar this time. The Cardinal relies on Hogan or end-arounds by its wide receivers when they want to attack the perimeter with its running game.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S PASSING GAME: Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan is completing 61.0 percent of his passes, which is down considerably from his 71.7 completion rate of last season. Some of that lower percentage is the result of more deep throws this season. Hogan had not been particularly sharp in the six games before the Cal game on Nov. 23, but he was outstanding in that game against the Bears' weak pass defense and performed adequately in the win over Notre Dame as well. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery (53 catches, 868 yards, nine touchdown receptions) is the Cardinal's main receiving threat.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S RUN DEFENSE: Stanford's run defense is its strength, and it ranks third in the country in rushing defense, while yielding just 2.94 yards per attempt. It has been particularly effective the past six games. The Cardinal limited Arizona State to 50 yards rushing and 2.1 yards per attempt in the first meeting. Stanford's front seven is as good as any in the country, despite the loss of DE Ben Gardner, a first-team all-conference selection this season.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S PASS DEFENSE: Stanford's pass defense is based largely on its pass rush, and the Cardinal recorded 20 sacks in its past six games. It has 35 sacks for the season, which is tied for eighth in the country, and OLB Trent Murphy leads the nation in sacks with 13. Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly has been sacked 31 times this season, and the 33 sacks Arizona State has yielded as a team are among the most in the country. However, the Cardinal have yielded a lot of passing yardage this season, ranking 96th nationally in passing yards allowed. Some of that results from the fact that teams seldom try to run against the Cardinal. Stanford is solid at three of the four defensive back positions, with CB Alex Carter and safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds. Stanford is vulnerable at one cornerback spot, but CB Wayne Lyons had two interceptions against Notre Dame.
ASSESSING STANFORD'S SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jordan Williamson is 15-for-19 on field goal attempts. Ty Montgomery has proven to be an outstanding kick returner, averaging 31.3 yards a return, second in the country. Opposing teams seldom kick off deep anymore, which usually provides Stanford with good field position. Ben Rhyne averages 42.2 yards per punt with minimal returns.
--- OG David Yankey, DE Ben Gardner, LB Trent Murphy, LB Shayne Skov, S Ed Reynolds and return-specialist Ty Montgomery all were named to the first-team, all-Pac-12 team.
--- RB Tyler Gaffney, WR Ty Montgomery OT Cameron Fleming, OT Andrus Peat and C Khalil Wilkes were named second-team all-conference players.
--- DE Josh Mauro injured his leg in the game against Notre Dame, but he is likely to play against Arizona State. He has 10.5 tackles for loss this season.
--- TE Davis Dudchock had three receptions against Notre Dame after having only two catches in the previous 11. Stanford tight ends had 10 receptions for 68 yards and no touchdowns this season after having 93 catches for 1,291 yards and 10 touchdowns last year.